The Old Boys’ club appears a long way from extinction in academic science. That’s the disturbing finding of five Yale University researchers who published a study spotlighting the university world’s stubborn gender gap on hiring.
The study’s most embarrassing finding showed that a group of biology, chemistry, and physics professors favored a male job candidate “John” over a female “Jennifer” with identical qualifications for a fictitious science lab manager position. The professors’ bias cut across both gender lines and field of study, with women just as likely as men, and biology professors as likely as their physics or chemistry counterparts to favor the male.
“We are not suggesting that these biases are intentional or stem from a conscious desire to impede the progress of women in science,” the study’s co-authors concluded in “Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students,” published online September 24 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Past research indicates that the behavior reflects repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes that cause subtle gender biases to linger in even the most egalitarian individuals despite decreases in overt sexism over the past few decades, especially among those with the highest education levels.
The cultural stereotypes are probably propagated by images that have been around for decades, if not centuries, the study’s corresponding author told GEN.
“Scientists are still presented most often as white men in the press and media, and science is a stereotypically male field, which probably affects the way we talk about it and represent it in other ways,” said Jo Handelsman, Ph.D., a Yale professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, and president of the Rosalind Franklin Society, whose founder and executive vice president is GEN Publisher & CEO Mary Ann Liebert.
Dr. Handelsman added that awareness of who works in today’s labs goes a long way toward reversing that stereotype: “Margaret Mead published a paper in the 1950s with childrens’ drawings of scientists, which were all white and male. The result comes out the same today, but one of my colleagues showed that if the children participate in research in a lab, the representation of scientists changes radically—the scientists start looking like the children!”
The Yale study did not examine if female professors felt more threatened by a younger female lab manager than a male. “The fact that age and gender did not affect the faculty’s evaluations, I would guess that ‘threat’ hypothesis is not supported, but a separate study might be needed to address this,” Dr. Handelsman said.
A critic of the idea that bias largely explains gender disparities in academia is not disputing the new study’s troubling results.
“The PNAS paper shows quite convincingly that sexism or discrimination most certainly plays a role. That’s too bad,” Alex B. Berezow, Ph.D., editor of Real Clear Science, told GEN. “As for explanations about why this is occurring (stereotypes, etc.), I would just be speculating. I don’t know.”
Dr. Berezow theorized about the disparity in National Review, where in a January 12, 2011, article titled, “Gender Discrimination in Science is a Myth,” he wrote: “The more likely explanation is simply one of preference: Women, for personal reasons, prefer not to enter the hard sciences.”
He cited a 2010 Cornell University study that reached that conclusion for women in five “math-intensive” fields. Only one biological field, endocrinology, was represented in the study by Stephen J. Ceci, Ph.D., and Wendy M. Williams, Ph.D. (the others were psychology, sociology, economics, and education).
Drs. Ceci and Williams said the disparity reflected two factors: Preferences by women for other fields of study, and the need to balance career with caring for children or elderly parents. They rejected the view that the disparity reflected innate gender abilities or sexism, while acknowledging that gender bias was historically a factor in underrepresentation of women in math and science.
“While sexism in academia likely existed decades ago, today it is largely a myth,” Dr. Berezow concluded, adding: “Gender disparity, not gender discrimination, exists in academia, but it is a self-correcting phenomenon.” Self-correction will occur, he said, as women now receiving degrees move into faulty positions.
Speaking with GEN last week, Dr. Berezow stood by his conclusion: “The point of my piece in National Review (which I wrote long before this PNAS paper came out) was that there are other explanations for the gender disparity in academia than just sexism. That’s still true.”
Sexism or not, the disparity still exists. In their study, the Yale researchers cited the Council of Graduate Schools’ 2010 version of its annual Graduate Enrollment and Degrees report, noting the percentage of women awarded biology doctorates nationally rose 7.7% between 1999 and 2009. An updated version of the study released September 28 showed an 8.2% increase between 2001 and 2011. [The increases for men were 1.2% from 1999−2009 and 2.5% from 2001−11]. According to NSF, the percentage of women awarded biological science degrees soared from 42.9% in 1999 to 52.4% in 2009, the latest available year.
Some progress has occurred in hiring at the junior level, though not in tenured positions. According to Yale’s Women’s Faculty Forum (WFF), the percentage of women in nontenure biological sciences faculty positions more than doubled, to 37% (7 of 19) from 15% (3 of 20). However, just 19% of biology professors awarded tenure in 2011−12 (9 of 48) were women, barely budging from 18% (7 of 40) in 2001−02.
At Yale School of Medicine, WFF found, the percentage awarded tenure inched up to 22% (97 of 434) from 16% (59 of 360) in 2001−02. More women were hired in non-tenured faculty positions, up to 43% (376 of 865) in 2011−12 compared with 2001−02 (183 of 504).