In the second presidential debate, Mitt Romney lamented the fact that all the applicants he received for his gubernatorial cabinet were men. “Gosh, can’t we find some women that are also qualified?” he asked, requesting what he described as “binders full of women.” This remark generated significant controversy during the campaign, but also brought the “gender gap” back into the national conversation. The term “gender gap” refers to the disproportionate difference in the number of men and women at top level positions of many professions, including government. If this were 1952, we could easily point to overt sexism as the sinister force behind the gap, but in 2012, sexism and gender-based discrimination in the workplace are, supposedly, a thing of the past. Unfortunately, data show that the proverbial glass ceiling is still firmly in place, with men outnumbering women in high level positions in government, business, science, technology, and many other career paths (6, 7). So despite decades of activism, anti-discrimination lawsuits, and legislation to prevent biased hiring practices, why can’t we close the gender gap?

“Binders full of women,” but the gender gap persists

That’s what a group of researchers at Yale, led by Dr. Jo Handelsman, set out to investigate in a recent article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (1). They noted that, despite the increased prevalence of female science majors and PhDs, there remains a stark discrepancy in the number of male and female faculty members. Some explanations for this discrepancy have been soundly refuted, such as the notion that males are inherently better at math and science than females (8). Other explanations have gained traction within the scientific community, including the hypothesis that women are simply less interested in the sciences than men (though this would seem at odds with the growing numbers of women pursuing degrees in science). Some researchers contend that women elect to downshift their scientific careers in favor of a more family-centric lifestyle. While the Yale researchers acknowledged that some of these alternative explanations may contribute to the poor retention of female scientists in academia, they still weren’t convinced that discrimination has stopped rearing its ugly head.

Would you hire Jennifer or John?

To test whether gender bias plays a role in hiring decisions among science professors, the authors designed a resumé for a graduating college student applying for a lab manager position. The resumé portrayed a promising student with aspirations to pursue a career in scientific research. That identical resumé was assigned either a male or female name (John or Jennifer), and was sent to 127 faculty in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics departments at research-intensive universities. The faculty members, who did not know the true purpose of the study, evaluated the fictional applicant as if they were hiring a manager for their own laboratory. They were asked to rate the applicant’s competence and “hireability,” to rate their willingness to mentor the applicant, and to select a starting salary. Handelsman and her team then analyzed the professors’ responses to see if there were significant differences in their ratings based on the gender of the applicant. What they found was striking: on average, the faculty deemed the female applicant less competent and less hireable than the male (Fig.1). They also offered her less mentorship than the male applicant, and a lower starting salary (Fig.1). This was true for both male and female professors, regardless of department, age, or tenure status.

Figure 1 shows a statistically significant difference between the ratings given to the female and male applicants. Statistical significance is based on a statistic called a P-value, which (in this study) represents the probability that the consistent differences in ratings of the male and female applicants would be observed if there was no gender bias involved. Put another way, if the faculty in the study were not exhibiting any gender bias, with a p<0.001, there is a less than 0.1% chance that the authors could have obtained the same results. The authors concluded that gender bias was likely at work, and resulted in preferential treatment of the male applicant. They also used statistical analyses to demonstrate that the applicant’s perceived level of competence was the driving force behind this bias. In other words, the faculty were biased against hiring and mentoring the female student (and offered her less money) because they perceived her to be less competent than her male counterpart.

Modern Sexism: Sneaky and Subconscious

It is important to note that the authors do not contend that any of the faculty members surveyed were consciously trying to hold women back from success in the sciences. Rather than secretly harboring the opinion that women are less competent than men, it is much more likely that the faculty members have an unintentional, subconscious bias against women. Their lower ratings of the female applicant reflect, as the authors put it, “repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes that portray women as less competent than men” (1). The researchers moreover demonstrated that this subconscious sexism, rather than the more blatant sexism of decades past, is the kind that persists today. Using the Modern Sexism Scale – a survey aimed specifically at detecting and measuring this type of subtle gender bias – they found that each professor’s preexisting level of bias predicted the ratings that s/he would assign the applicant. The more unintentional bias a professor had, the more likely s/he was to give lower ratings to the female applicant. In contrast, the level of pre-existing bias of the faculty member had no bearing on the ratings assigned to the male applicant.

Implications of the Study

The study’s alarming results have appeared in the New York Times (2), and in numerous blogs. A blogger for Scientific American emphasized a key implication of this study: rather than equality of outcomes, this study shows that “bias thwarts equality of opportunity” as well (3). Much of the existing literature has focused on outcomes (such as, there are disproportionately few female science professors) and the variables that correlate with those outcomes (such as, women tend to pursue non-academic career paths after their PhD). These correlational studies do not illuminate the underlying cause of the gender gap, sending researchers in search of the alternative explanations described above. Handelsman’s study demonstrates that bias against women exists (even among scientists who are trained to observe the world objectively), and that it has tangible consequences for the progress of women in science. Specifically, bias limits the hiring opportunities available to women, which likely contributes to the unequal outcomes observed in correlational studies.

Like most good scientists, Handelsman and her team answer some questions and raise others. Is subconscious gender bias impeding the advancement of women in other male-dominated fields, like government and big business? Similar studies have been conducted in other professions, including one in which budding musicians auditioned for a spot in an orchestra behind a gender-obscuring screen (4, 5). These “blind” auditions led to a significant increase in the number of women hired, suggesting that bias played a role there as well. But what can be done to counteract these biases? For now, simply being aware that biases exist is an important first step toward closing the gender gap for good.

Alison Hill is a fourth year graduate student in the Virology Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

References

1. Moss-Racusin, C.A., et al., Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2012. 109(41): p. 16474-9. <http://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.full?sid=416101b3-eaa8-4e02-a9fa-4f28f8282fc7#content-block>

2. Chang, Kenneth. 24 September 2012. “Bias Persists for Women of Science, a Study Finds” New York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/25/science/bias-persists-against-women-of-science-a-study-says.html>

3. Yurkiewicz, Ilana. “Study shows gender bias in science is real. Here’s why it matters.” Unofficial Prognosis. Scientific American, 23 September 2012. Web, accessed 15 November 2012. <http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/unofficial-prognosis/2012/09/23/study-shows-gender-bias-in-science-is-real-heres-why-it-matters/>

4. Goldin, Claudia and Cecilia Rouse. “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians.” The American Economic Review, Vol. 90, No. 4 (Sep., 2000), pp. 715-74. <http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/117305?uid=3739256&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21101379773861>

5. Gladwell, Malcolm. “Listening with Your Eyes: The Lessons of Blink.” Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company, Time Warner Book Group, 2005. 245-254.

6. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Editor’s Desk, Women as a percent of total employed in selected occupations, 2011 on the Internet at <http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2012/ted_20120501.htm> (visited November 15, 2012).

7. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2012). Engage to excel: Producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Web, accessed 15 November 2012. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-engage-to-excel-final_feb.pdf>

8. Azar, Beth. “Math + culture = gender gap?” Monitor on Psychology, July/August 2010. Web, accessed 15 November 2012. <http://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/07-08/gender-gap.aspx>

Other links of interest

Ted Talk by Sheryl Sandberg: “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders”

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