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Stereotypes happen all the time if you are neither pale nor male

Friday, April 12, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

ILLUSTRATION: Ethnic studiesThe title of this blog post comes from a post by Ainissa Ramirez on gender and racial bias in the workplace. It’s a lovely turn of phrase even for such an ugly thing. We might think of the science fields as being more neutral and unbiased. I mean, it is science, right? Not so much.

Researchers in Connecticut looked at gender bias in university science departments. And they did it very simply. They submitted application materials of a student for a lab manager position to 127 Biology, Chemistry and Physics faculty from 6 different (anonymous) universities (3 public and 3 private). The researchers were careful to make sure the faculty participating in the study matched the demographics of their overall academic departments. The samples also (impressively) matched national demographics in hard sciences departments. Here’s how the authors describe their sample of 127 science faculty:

74% male, 26% female.

81% White; 6% East Asian; 4% South Asian; 2% Hispanic; 2% African American; 2% multiracial; and 1% each for Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern and other.

Average age was 50.34 years with a range from 29 to 78 years of age.

18% were Assistant Professors; 22% were Associate Professors; and 60% were Full Professors.

40% were Biologists; 32% were Physicists; and 28% were Chemists.

In short, this was a sample of science faculty with diverse backgrounds, a range of experience in academia and they were representative of the country’s Science faculty demographically.

The only difference between the application materials faculty were given for the lab manager position was that one applicant was female (Jennifer) and the other was male (John). The application materials gave the same information on Jennifer/John’s credentials. The only difference between Jennifer and John’s applications were the changing of the name and gender related pronouns.  Here’s what faculty participant’s saw in Jennifer’s application for example:

blog insert

You probably know what’s going to happen but we’ll say it anyway and point out that this has not yet been published officially so it’s very, very recent research and not something that’s been out there for decades. There were no differences in how male and female faculty responded to any given application in terms of rating the applicant’s competence, suitability for hire, offers of mentoring, or the initial salary offer. There were also no differences related to the faculty member’s field of specialization (Biology, Chemistry or Physics). However, every issue was significantly different (“with effect sizes ranging from moderate to large”) depending on whether the applicant was male or female.

Faculty participants (both male and female) viewed the female applicant as less competent and less hireable than the male applicant.

They offered less mentoring to the female applicant than to the male applicant.

They offered the female applicant an average annual salary of $26,507.94 and the male applicant was offered an average salary of $30,238.10.

The researchers had also had faculty members complete the Modern Sexism Scale. As they examined the faculty scores on that scale (comprised of questions so objectionable they could make you ill) they found that “the more preexisting subtle bias the participants exhibited against women, the less competence and hireability they perceived in the female applicant and the less willing they were to offer her mentoring”. In other words, the scale was validated against the observable behavior of these faculty members. The researchers believe that subtle biases against women made the faculty more likely to hire and mentor the male student applicant. Oddly, the faculty reported they liked the female applicant more. (They just didn’t want to hire or mentor her as much as the male.) I guess the women were lovely. Just not worthy.

It’s another affirmation of Sheryl Sandberg’s book. And it’s a current story about gender bias in the ivory tower for those of us who may believe this sexism stuff is a thing of the past. Whether you are a science major, a plaintiff or defendant in a lawsuit, or an attorney–gender matters. We have to work to find ways to have it not factor into our decisions so insidiously. In the classroom, in the conference room, in the courtroom, and, in the deliberation room.

Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, & Handelsman J (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (41), 16474-9 PMID: 22988126


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