Empirical evidence of gender bias in higher education – and the sciences in particular – continues to stack up. For scientists, that data cannot be ignored. One might like to think that more educated people are somehow above discrimination, but the evidence suggests the contrary. That poses a challenge to America’s universities and colleges that must be faced head-on, and the challenge is not simply an academic problem. It’s crucial to America’s future leadership in science and technology, and to generating the jobs that they have historically produced.

A peer-reviewed report, published in September by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that science professors at American research universities demonstrated bias against women in hiring. As the abstract explains: “In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant... The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.”

A peer-reviewed study of top U.S. graduate programs in the sciences – titled “Gender Segregation in Elite Academic Science” – was funded by the National Academy of Sciences and published in the October issue of Gender and Society. Rice University, where the study’s lead author and principal investigator, Elaine Howard Ecklund, is Associate Professor of Sociology, explained the research as follows: “The study surveyed 2,500 biologists and physicists at elite institutions of higher education in the United States… The study’s key finding is that both male and female scientists view gender discrimination as a factor in women’s decision not to choose a science career at all or to choose biology over physics. However, the two sexes still have differences in opinion about when discrimination occurs.”

As Professor Ecklund elaborates, “During interviews, men almost never mentioned present-day discrimination, believing that any discrimination in physical science classes likely took place early in the educational history (primary school), which they believe explains women’s predisposition to biological sciences. However, female scientists believe that discrimination is still occurring in present-day universities and departments.”

The study in Proceedings clearly supports that latter perspective, as does a look at faculty salaries by gender. According to a report by the American Association of University Professors – titled “Persistent Inequity: Gender and Academic Employment”– “recent reports from the Modern Language Association (2009) and University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers (Misra, et al., 2011) confirm that women are less likely to be promoted than men, and when they are promoted, the process takes longer… Women earn less than men, on average, at each faculty rank and at all types of institutions… Because women are overrepresented at the lowest ranks and at the lowest-paying institutions, women’s overall average salary has remained at around 80 percent of the average for men since the mid-1970s.”

It’s easy for science faculty members, convinced of their own high ethical standards, to assume that gender discrimination lies outside of their actions: earlier in the pipeline; in other fields; at other types of institutions. I found myself, as a former dean of natural sciences at a liberal arts college, reacting to these studies in just that way. My initial reaction was: that may be true of universities, but it wasn’t my experience at a liberal arts college.

I asked some colleagues to analyze the percentage of women with professorships (assistant, associate, visiting, or full professors) at the 30 highest-ranked liberal arts colleges, according to U.S. News & World Report. The analysis reveals great disparity in the percentage of women professors (of all ranks) among fields – with biology at 45%, chemistry at 35%, astronomy at 33%, and physics at 25%.

The total for physics is interestingly below the national average (28%, according to the U.S. Department of Education) for full professors at all U.S. postsecondary institutions across all fields – not just the sciences. And the physics percentage reflects all ranks – not just full professors.

Gender bias must be ended, and the disparities across fields offer a clue to how to do it. Those disparities are quite pronounced in some cases and more subtle in others. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, “Engineering and teaching are among the most lopsided disciplines in academe’s gender split. In 2010, women received 80 percent of the undergraduate degrees awarded in education, the U.S. Education Department reports. And they earned 77 percent of the master’s and 67 percent of the doctoral degrees in that field. In engineering, by contrast, women earned just 18 percent of undergraduate, 22 percent of master’s, and 23 percent of doctoral degrees… Perhaps nowhere has the gender gap been more pronounced … than in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM fields. Women are still a minority in those fields… Not surprisingly, the gender distribution of professors in the STEM disciplines is similarly skewed.”

Gender bias should be tackled not only by institutions of higher education but by fields, and within those fields by individual departments. Every department chair should assess the department’s role in gender bias and how it can be changed – in hiring, salary, and promotion decisions for the faculty but also in numbers of students, summer job opportunities, and scholarships. Department chairs are key to solving the problem, and they should lead the effort within their own departments, while also working with deans and provosts to ensure that this persistent problem is discussed on campuses with faculty and students.

In the 21st century, America will not compete successfully with the rest of the world in the STEM fields if we do not take full advantage of the intellectual powers of more than half of our population.