Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students

In a recently published article in PNAS (Proceedings of  the National  Academy of Science of the United States), researchers Corinne A. Moss-Recusin, John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham and Jo Handelsman show that despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science.

Abundant research has demonstrated gender bias in many demographic groups, but has yet to experimentally investigate whether science faculty exhibit a bias against female students that could contribute to the gender disparity in academic science. 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. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male 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. Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent.  The authors also assessed faculty participants’ preexisting subtle bias against women using a standard instrument and found that preexisting subtle bias against women played a moderating role, such that subtle bias against women was associated with less support for the female student, but was unrelated to reactions to the male student. These results suggest that interventions addressing faculty gender bias might advance the goal of increasing the participation of women in science.

Click here to see the full article

The present study is unique in investigating subtle gender bias on the part of faculty in the biological and physical sciences. It therefore informs the debate on possible causes of the gender disparity in academic science by providing unique experimental evidence that science faculty of both genders exhibit bias against female undergraduates. As a controlled experiment, it fills a critical gap in the existing literature, which consisted only of experiments in other domains (with undergraduate students as participants) and correlational data that could not conclusively rule out the influence of other variables.

The results reveal that both male and female faculty judged a female student to be less competent and less worthy of being hired than an identical male student, and also offered her a smaller starting salary and less career mentoring. It is noteworthy that female faculty members were just as likely as their male colleagues to favor the male student. The fact that faculty members’ bias was independent of their gender, scientificdiscipline, age, and tenure status suggests that it is likely unintentional,generated from widespread cultural stereotypesrather than a conscious intention to harm women.

The research article raises the possibility that women may opt out of academic science careers in part because of diminished competence judgments, rewards, and mentoring received in the early years of the careers. The authors conclude that the dearth of women within academic science reflects a significant wasted opportunity to benefit from the capabilities of a country’s best potential scientists, whether male or female. The authors suggest that academic policies and mentoring interventions targeting undergraduate advisors could contribute to reducing the gender disparity.

The research article received great feedback, in the USA but also on an international basis. For example, Germanys’ daily newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, discussed the research results on September 24th, 2012:

Gehalt von Männern und Frauen:  John verdient mehr als Jennifer! SZ, 24/09/2012

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One Response to Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students

  1. Pingback: What to do against gender discrimination in science? « Gender-debate

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