The gender bias of science faculty

3 January 2013

If you were a science professor, and you received two equally strong applications for the position of  laboratory manager, one from a female, one from a male, which one would you pick? The answer might surprise you.

It is well known that women are underrepresented in many fields of science. Whether or not this disparity is a result of gender bias by science faculty has not been investigated. To answer this question, a randomized, double-blind study was conducted in which science faculty from research universities were asked to rate the application of a male or female student for a laboratory manager position. Identical applications were sent to all participants in the study, except that half (n=63) received materials from a male student, John, and the others (n=64) received materials from a female student, Jennifer. The faculty were then asked to rate the student’s competence and hireability, and the amount of salary and mentoring that they would offer.

The results clearly show that the faculty felt that the female applicant was less competent than the male student, and offered Jennifer less career mentoring and less starting salary than John. Faculty gender, scientific field, age, and tenure status did not affect this bias. The data indicate that the female applicant was less likely to be hired because she was considered less competent than the male applicant.

What might be the reason for the subtle gender bias observed in this study? The authors suggest that it is due to a belief that women are less competent in science than men:

The fact that faculty members’ bias was independent of their gender, scientific discipline, age, and tenure status suggests that it is likely unintentional, generated from widespread cultural stereotypes rather than a conscious intention to harm women.

I found the difference in mentoring offered the male versus female applicants most disturbing. An understanding and supportive mentor is an important component required for a successful career in science. Lack of encouragment and positive judgements may cause women to leave academic science before they reach university positions.

How can this subtle bias be eliminated? The authors suggest educating faculty and students about the existence and impact of bias within academia, an approach that has reduced racial bias among students.

We need more scientists in the US – one million over the next ten years, according to a 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Achieving this important goal is jeopardized by faculty gender bias.

We discussed this work with Jo Handelsman, senior author on this gender bias paper, on episode #48 of the science show This Week in Microbiology. You can find TWiM #48 at microbeworld.org/twim.

  • Search Chair

    I am the search chair of a Microbiology and Immunology Department for a top 20 Medical School. We have had 3 rounds of searches over the last 3 years specifically for a Virologist. Out of the 250-300 applications we have received, there are maybe 15 from female postdocs or faculty applying to the position. I think a potentially additional problem after bias is women not trying for faculty positions.

  • Hildegard

    As a woman in the sciences guess who I receive the most discrimination from? Women.

    Some hate me the second they see me. They scowl at me and look down on me as if I am the scum of the earth. If one can say no to me for something, they do regardless of the request (if I would say no to the same request I don’t ask.) One told me I’m “taking advantage” of my brain injury for requesting a week exam deferral. Another made me complete a physics lab that involved running up and down a metal staircase multiple times even though I fell off my motorbike a week before and was recovering from a concussion and had two hugely swollen knees, a very bad limp and could barely walk and was only at college as to not fail. Failure to complete lab = course failure. I fell on the stairs and injured my knee even worse.

    ~25% of women faculty are brilliant and secure and don’t direct the animosity they faced towards me but the other 75% is actually deterring me from a career in sciences to the point where I only take a course with a woman if I absolutely have to. The worst is when the woman is the department chair. I didn’t experience this sort of thing with women in Business or Arts, only in science. Very peculiar.

    (I’m not whining, I accept that women are like this and it will never end but lack of women in science may also be due to the women who are already there…)

  • Hildegard

    My dream position! Just need that PhD!

  • Biology graduate student

    I would argue that the lack of female applicants is a symptom of the deep problem mentioned in this article – not an additional problem. Nobody in their right mind would pursue a PhD and then seek a job that undervalues him/her because of something that he/she cannot change.

  • Chris

    One reason I switched from oceanography to engineering! I only needed a BS to get a well paying job.

  • Chris

    Even for a woman! Oh, and yeah, I did work hard to be in my program, and I found it frustrating trying to explain simple concepts to certain male engineers. Who knew that not every engineer did not understand the basics of nonlinear multi-variable second order differential equations? Very few understood what eigenvalues and eigenvectors in structural models actually mean (hint: fundamental frequency and shape at that frequency).

  • Search Chair

    Of course the reason there are less women applicants is because there are less women who are making that jump from grad school to postdoc, postdoc to faculty etc. There are fewer women Professors so fewer good role models for female students that show how to balance science/life/family etc. As a male Professor, I have a hard time balancing family/lab/etc as well, and it is 10 times harder for my wife who is in academic science as well.

    There are a whole host of reasons why there are fewer women in science than there should be. However, my search committee is split 50/50 men and women faculty reviewing applications. We have a fairly high barrier to getting an interview but it doesnt matter what gender, color or background you have. A good applicant is going to get an interview with us.

    I feel bad for those departments that have a bias against women scientists, either directly or indirectly. It benefits all of the students, not just female, to have everyone represented in your department. It shows you can do this thing and still do all that you want and need to do outside of lab.

    For a profession that is getting harder and harder to survive in, where funding is getting harder and harder, where tenure doesn’t really mean anything anymore if you lose your grants, where inter and intra departmental politics can make a Professor’s life increasingly difficult and where success in Science is less what you figure out and more who you know to get the big papers and grants, we need the best of everyone involved in this enterprise.

    *And a note to all the postdocs who want jobs in academic science. 2 or 3 good postdoc papers, a good model that you can take with you, a new angle to your work and 2 good stories in your research proposal is all you need. A K award helps immensely (we cant hire anyone without atleast a K). Get your foot in the door, make contacts, network. Get someone at the schools you are applying for to send an email to the search chair. Get your name at the top of the pile or atleast make them give you a second look if you think you are competitive for the position. Sell why you fit well with the department. Dont use the same cover letter for everyone. Tell them why you would collaborate with Dr X, Y and Z and how your work meshes with the rest of their department, why you would make a good colleague.

    Then when you get an interview, read up on what the people in the department do. Know who they are and how your work would really go well with them. Read a paper or 2 about the faculty you are going to talk to during the interview. AND NAIL THE TALK! I have been to many faculty job talks over the past 2 years where we liked their interviews but the talk was boring as hell, or they were arrogant when asked questions, or they were only doing what their postdoc lab did and just wanted to continue that with no new direction. Make it exciting. BE EXCITED ABOUT YOUR RESEARCH! I know you have given that talk 100 times but make it seem like you just got all the data last week and you are so excited to tell everyone about it. Make that passion of why you want to be a Professor and have your own lab shine through the talk. Make everyone in that room want to work in your lab on your projects with you. Don’t go over every gel you ever ran during your postdoc. Tell the story. Pick 2 stories and tell them through some data, not ALL the data, some of the data. WHY ARE YOU DOING THESE EXPERIMENTS? WHY ARE YOU WORKING IN THIS MODEL TO ANSWER YOUR QUESTION? WHAT IS THE ULTIMATE QUESTION?

    Think back to how awesome it was when you ran your first gel in DNA lab in college. The first time you saw the loading dye go into the well from the pipette you were holding the wrong way. The first time you saw GFP positive cells under the microscope. The first time you submitted a paper and then after a revision, the first time you got an acceptance letter from the publisher saying it was published.

    Wrap all of that into your talk. Beam pure love of science our of your eyeballs and into everyone in the room. Make sure everyone in the room knows you love what you do. They dont have to care about the system you work on at all, but when they leave the room make sure you gave them reasons to want you as their colleague. Someone they can see in the coffee line and talk science with. Thats how you get the job. Thats who I want next to my lab. Thats who I want to sit next to in seminars. Thats what will get you a job. Not dependent on gender, race or where you went to college.

    PS, sorry for the rant :)

  • Sean

    We need more scientists? There aren’t enough jobs now for scientists, academic or otherwise. Hence, PhDs are spending 5-10 years as a postdoc. First, improve the job outlook, then fix the academic pyramid scheme (see Science website for great discussions) and also stop devaluing PhD biomedical scientists (the NIH has introduced higher pay for postdocs, but it’s only a guideline that PIs don’t have to follow). Only then can we encourage more people to go into science.

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    Please read the President’s report or listen to Jo on the podcast – we are not talking about PI – level scientists, but mainly technicians, staff scientists, and such who do the brunt of the work. There is a real need for these individuals who do the brunt of the actual scientific work.

  • Jeff

    Ok. Don’t want to be too cynical here, but in future campaigns to get kids to go into science, be sure disclose to them to make sure they don’t shoot too high. We need worker bees, not scientists. Got it.