Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

Outdated cultural stereotypes can prevent women from securing jobs in the life sciences.

The Old Boys’ club appears a long way from extinction in academic science. That’s the disturbing finding of five Yale University researchers who, a few days back, 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.

Women in Academia

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 faculty 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).

Impeding Advancement

“This gap suggests that the problem will not resolve itself solely by more generations of women moving through the academic pipeline but that instead, women’s advancement within academic science may be actively impeded,” the co-authors wrote.

Joan C. Williams, distinguished professor of law and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at University of California, Hastings College of the Law, told GEN years of studies have shown women often have to provide more evidence of competence than men do in order to be seen as equally go-getter scientists.

“This is typically a pattern I call Prove-It Again,” Williams said. “It stems from descriptive stereotypes. When most people think of the hard-driving scientist, they automatically think of a white man.”

She said Prove-It Again bias has been shown in studies finding men landed jobs whether their strength was more education or more experience, and in studies where employers applied objective requirements vigorously to women but leniently to men.

Williams’ center has launched the New Girls’ Network (, a project that develops individualized strategies for training women to spot, then overcome, gender bias.

Earlier this year, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) observed that women and members of minority groups constitute approximately 70% of college students but only 45% of students receiving undergraduate STEM degrees.

That and other observations underpinned PCAST’s report Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Its recommendations have not been implemented widely enough or long enough for the report’s impact to be known, Dr. Handelsman said.

Even if all PCAST’s recommendations were adopted, eliminating gender bias will still require cultural change within academia.

“The university is a very tough organization to change because decision-making power is so diffused,” Williams said. “Whereas in other organizations HR handles a lot of these decisions, organizational change has proven very slow and cumbersome in academics, because the HR is done by department chairs.”

Even if a department chair does something illegal, she adds, “if you are vulnerable graduate student or young professor, are you going to sue your department chair? That’s not very plausible.”

Neither is the idea that the gender gap in life science hiring must always be. Yale can learn from both MIT, where a 2011 report showed the number of women science and engineering professors nearly doubled in a decade; and Boston University, whose current president Robert A. Brown stepped up hiring and promoting women after circulating salary data among faculty.

“An important issue in so-called ‘diversity programs’ is that they be stimulating and provocative and not prescriptive,” Dr. Handelsman said. “The point is not to tell people what to do and not to do, but to expose them to new information or ideas, to broaden their experience, and then let them make informed choices about how they wish to behave.”

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