Followup chat on gender bias against women scientists

September 27, 2012 • 6:59 am

A few days ago I posted on a new paper by Corinne Moss-Racusin et al. in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. showing gender bias against female undergraduates. The authors submitted fabricated applications for a lab-manager position to both male and female faculty at American universities, with the applications differing only in whether the name of the applicant was Jennifer or John.

Not surprisingly, the applicants with female names were rated less hireable, less competent, and the raters inclined to offer them less salary and mentoring than the “John” applicants. But it was a surprise that the amount of discrimination did not differ between male and female raters. In other words, female professors showed just as much gender bias as males.

Some of the readers had questions about this study (I recall that the issue of how the names would resonate arose, as well as whether raters compare applicants only with others of the same gender), and now you get a chance to ask them.

At 3 p.m. eastern US time (8 pm UK time) today, Science Live is hosting a live chat with one of the paper’s authors, Jo Handelsman, as well as Shirley Tilghman, who was the handling editor for the paper. The chat is here (a transcript will appear subsequently on the same page), and you can submit questions in advance at the link for Handelsman (or, I guess, Tilghman). The questions should be posted as a “comment” at the bottom of the page. The chat is called “Do female scientists get a raw deal?”

As a side note, Tilghman, the first woman president of Princeton (a position she held for 11 years) and only the second woman to head an Ivy League institution (the first was Judith Rodin of the University of Pennsylvania), put out a surprise announcement Saturday that she would be retiring in June.  She had been a molecular biologist, and I met her during a sabbatical at Princeton, where I was impressed by her accomplishments and  her kindness. She did a great job as president, and announced that she’s retiring because she accomplished everything she wanted. If you must leave, I guess it’s good to do so when you’re on top.

If you have questions about the study, post them at the Science site now.

29 thoughts on “Followup chat on gender bias against women scientists

  1. I wonder if gender bias of this type has a genetic or instinctive component, as opposed to being a purely cultural issue.

    That would make a difference in the formulation of strategies to combat the problem.

    1. I’m curious what you think those different strategies ought to be.

      Seems to me that regardless of whether the root causes are instinctive or cultural, the solution is to establish a culture in which such discrimination is widely considered unacceptable.

    1. It also tries to replace that stereotype with one of all scientists being extreme hikers/mountain bikers/mountain climbers/etc.

      I mean, sure, some of us are (myself sort-of included, if you drop the qualifier “extreme”), but not all of us!

      1. I see very few of the people on that blog as extreme. They just seem like ordinary people who like to have fun in a variety of ways.

        1. Eh, it depends on which page you happen to view. Some are full of people climbing/running/biking or otherwise in full outdoor sports getup.

          I admire what the website is trying to do, but some of us really do look like a stereotypical scientist, and some scientists really are introverted homebodies, whose idea of a great time is a tabletop game on a weekend or a quiet place with a book in the evening. You don’t get that from that website. I don’t blame them for that (it would make the website boring), but I will poke fun of them for it. 🙂

          1. I happen to be one of those introverted, non-extreme scientists. It would be a mistake to assume that people such as me want other scientists to conform to our personal (and perhaps stereotypical) style of doing science. However, I am wary about a future in which the public (and especially aspiring scientists) believe that science is just a rarefied skill-set that you apply in the lab and then forget when you leave. Religious scientists like Francis Collins are an extreme example of this phenomenon, and worth criticizing for the same reason. As someone who thinks science is a wonderful, immensely practical framework around which to organize your life, I would recommend that IN ADDITION to emphasizing mountain-biking scientists, you also emphasize scientists who fruitfully apply the principles of scientific rationality to their lives outside the lab.

            That’s my two cents. If anyone thinks I’m way off, or just being curmudgeonly, speak up.

            1. But I’d add that especially if you are a biologist, getting out into nature and looking closely at it is exactly the kind of extension of science into daily life that you advocate. Some of those bikers, mountain-climbers, etc are driven to extremes not because they particularly enjoy discomfort or cold or exhaustion or risk, but because that’s sometimes what it takes to go someplace interesting.

  2. I wonder if the names chosen had any effect. How did they come to choose these names and did they consider the effect of the names when they did so?

    Naming advocates frequently state that names evoke certain thoughts and feelings about the person’s characteristics. John is wholesome, mature, sensible, strong, and traditional. Jennifer is youthful, boring, common, and dated to a fad period. Choosing names that evoked the same feelings might have provided more of a control for gender.

    1. Definitely a confounding factor that arguably puts the main result in doubt; though the main result would be unsurprising if true, this means the authors should have been more careful to avoid confirmation bias.
      Any follow-up should either avoid use of names altogether (and include controls where sex is not stated either, and can be shown to be ambiguous, eg a sample of referees guess M or F at 50% each) or use various names with connotations that are demonstrably neutral, or matched (by a sample of referees) between ‘Ms’ and ‘Fs’.
      Of course, it may now be impossible to repeat the experiment with a set of subjects who haven’t heard of this study.

  3. I hope she won’t mind, but since I was too busy at the time to comment on the previous thread, I’ll reproduce here Grania Spingies’ comment along with my additional thoughts:

    “This is depressing. Unlike the recent ban in Iran on women entering certain university courses, this form of bias is so subtle that even the perpetrators are most likely unaware of it.”

    Yes, certainly most of (all?) those evaluating the applications would not have been consciously exercising gender discrimination. It is possible to be a bigot without realizing it. In fact, this is how it usually works. No one would self-identify as a bigot. It’s just that prejudice and unfair discrimination can so easily result from deep-seated cultural influences.

    Which is why I think it’s important to call out bigoted behavior loudly and often, a la PZ. Not creating a ruckus and hoping good people will police themselves won’t change the culture. Even good people sometimes engage, unwittingly, in bigotry.

  4. I would be surprised that the bias occurs among females too, except that my PhD advisor was female, and chaired some university committee on gender equality to boot. She interviewed a potential female grad student, ca. 1977, and told her that she “didn’t like to hire girls because girls get pregnant”. That student went to another lab, naturally, but is now on the faculty at U WI Madison.

    1. Oh, I’m curious who that is! If you don’t think this person would mind, could you tell me who? I’m a grad student at UW Madison. We’ve got some kick-ass women faculty!

      1. Not sure if she would or not, but since she told me the story back then I’ll risk it. Initials DMP, in Pathology, and back then we were @ Rutgers.

        BTW, my uncle, mentioned the other day, got his PhD in Chemistry from Madison in 1929.

        1. Ah, I have not met her, but I did nearly join the pathology graduate program. It looks like she works in the building right next to mine.

  5. It is an obvious bias. It should be corrected.

    BUT, perhaps a bias like this can be based on reality? Young women do get pregnant and it is a problem for a small lab or business.

    Perhaps we could somehow credit an employer to make it less of a burden?

    Not sure how to handle it.

    Are you?

    1. Right, if you’re basing it on that you must then discriminate against anyone with a medical condition, kids at home (moms or dads unless you’re stereotyping that only moms stay home for sick kids) or anyone that might take extra vacation days.

      Pretty stupid assumptions.

      By the way I interned at a zoo where the pregnant mom worked all days right until her delivery date, and did not take anymore leave than her average worker.

      So quit assuming.

      1. amelie,

        Not certain what I was assuming. I am just looking for ideas, I am not trying to be the most correct.

        You make a good point that it would be logical to discriminate against people who have medical conditions.

        My sister was in both situations as a woman who was pregnant and as a boss trying to accomplish the tasks of her group. She struggled with this issue too.

        I had three kids and often stayed home with them during holidays and illness.

        We need solutions.


        1. @Mike – very much agree we need solutions. I think people have every right to have as many kids as they want, but yes it certainly affects work.

          I have had to deal with coworkers (both genders) who left early or called in because of their kids. Luckily it rarely meant I had more work; I doubt I would tolerate that without a raise.

          Which is perhaps one of the solutions; it’s not always simple to figure out but workers who clearly spend more time at the office and who can document sometimes doing the work of 2 people should clearly be up for raises.

          I think sometimes those folks are single too so they sure could use the extra income. 😉

  6. A woman small business owner & good friend of mine employs 10 people in skilled manual work. They are a mixture of full time & part time workers with a little bit of slack built in to the hours to allow for illness, holidays etc. It takes around 3 months before a new employee starts to become effective [doesn’t need to be supervised all the time].

    She will no longer employ a woman under 40 because of the disruption in staff schedules caused by maternity leave & the 100’s of hours of training time required to bring a temp up to speed. Her margins are too small to add a permanent extra member of staff to cover such situations.

    This is in the UK where Statutary Maternity Pay applies. Thus an employer pays the employee during the entire period of their 39-week maternity leave, but most of it is recoverable from central funds. The main problem for small businesses is a new female employee qualifies for SMP very quickly ~ she must have been employed by the same employer continuously for at least 26 weeks into the 15th week before the week the baby is due.

    The effect of this legislation is harshest on small businesses employing staff who require training.

    1. It’s nice the employer allows for flexible schedule; but I sure hope she doesn’t tell people she won’t hire based on age. Don’t know about the U.K. But here that would get an employer in some hot water.

  7. I hope this isn’t out-of-date information…

    Another factor to consider is the huge growth in part-time work. Businesses love to employ part-time** workers in the UK because the employer doesn’t have to pay any National Insurance Contributions & [I suppose] the worker doesn’t get SMP either.

    An unskilled young woman in the UK will find that most available jobs are strictly part-time

    ** I think this is defined as around 19 to 22 maximum hours/week I can’t remember exactly

  8. Hi Bruce, Thanks for series of topics in recent emails. I”m studying them all now. It’s a great stuff. But I cannot follow the arguments and their meaning of the guy who criticises the Natural Selection. Thanks again, Ted. _____

  9. My question is, would a policy of making all the employers blind to the gender of the applicants during the application-evaluation process be feasible? The applications could be divided into two sections: one contains only the information relevant to the job, the second has the name and gender of the applicant. The second section would remain hidden from the employer (in a passworded spreadsheet or even a sealed envelope) until the employer has evaluated all the first sections.

    If applied rigorously, this system would eliminate the problem of female applicants being discriminated against in this first round of the hiring process that Moss-Racusin’s study investigated. Sure, there would still be opportunity to discriminate during the job interview, but eliminating this first barrier would probably mitigate some of the pervasive bias she reported.

    Please comment!

    1. Problem with doing that in academia is people can (and do) check/read your past publications online. Enough journals include full first names in the authors list that it wouldn’t realistically be possible.

      Even in fields where your full name isn’t publically available, any reference letter would give it away (alright, unless they only ever referred to you as “Dr. So-and-so” and used gender-neutral pronouns throughout).

      Sounds great in theory, but kind of falls apart in practice.

  10. Considering the female to male ratio among biology graduates is now well over 50% (grad students in my department were 2/3 female), I really have to question blanket claims that the sciences on the whole are in some way anti-woman. In biology, anyway, the actual numbers just do not reflect the claims of the above-mentioned study.

    Now with some fields, notably engineering, you can definitely point to the overwhelmingly male makeup of the field down to the level of its undergraduates, and gender bias probably plays a role in maintaining that status quo. But don’t generalize that to all of science.

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