It is no secret that women are vastly underrepresented in many scientific fields, particularly the further you look up the career ladder. The explanations for this disparity vary, but perhaps one of the most common arguments is that women feel forced to choose between a family and their career, and leave science early whilst men continue to progress.
But a new piece of research suggests this reasoning may only be part of the story, instead pointing the finger at a subtle yet pervasive gender bias in the scientific community which is working against women – making them miss out not only on jobs, but also on financial and professional support when they are hired.
Corinne Moss-Racusin, a psychology postdoc at Yale University, and her colleagues, devised a simple test to work out whether there is any bias against women applying for a job in science.
The team got 127 university professors working across biology, chemistry and physics, to give feedback on what they believed were the application materials from a real student applying for a job as a laboratory manager.
Each professor received exactly the same application materials, except for the name of the applicant. Half of the professors were told they were reviewing an application from somebody called John, whilst the other half were told the applicant’s name was Jennifer. Apart from the name, all the other information was identical.
The professors were asked to rate how likely they would be to hire the applicant, as well as how competent they thought the applicant was. They were also asked to suggest a starting salary and say how much mentoring they would offer the applicant in their new role.
Despite the fact that the application materials were identical apart from the applicant’s name, the professors – regardless of whether they were men or women – were significantly more likely to hire the applicant when they thought he was called John. Although they said they liked the female applicant, the scores suggest she was rated as less competent than the man, even though they had identical skills.
What’s more, the mean starting salary suggested for the female applicant was just over $26,000, compared to $30,200 for the male.
“Our results revealed 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,” write the authors in the paper that was published last week in the journal PNAS.
Despite the fact they were less likely to hire the female candidate, the professors tended to rate her as likeable, suggesting that the reason they were reluctant to hire her had more to do with their bias towards thinking that she was less competent than the man. The authors suggests that their bias is unintentional, and comes from “widespread cultural stereotypes, rather than a conscious intention to harm women.”
Even a subtle, unintentional gender bias, then, could translate into large real life disadvantages for women in science – not just in decreasing their likelihood of being hired, but also in the salary and mentoring support they can expect to receive. At a time when students seek feedback such as job applications as a means to guage their own worth, the effects would also likely knock their confidence towards their own career goals.
What is to be done? If such a gender bias is pervasive not just amongst both male and female professors, it might be time to take a new approach to tackling the dearth of women in science and directly tackle gender bias, as well as helping scientists to have both a family and career progression, for instance. Or perhaps there are ways to make the application process more transparent to filter out this bias?
What do you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.