Saturday, September 29, 2012

"Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students": My synopsis of a study in PNAS

I came across a scATX blog post about an article in Inside Higher Ed discussing a new PNAS study that empirically demonstrates a bias against women among science faculty. The IHE article was a decent overview of the study. A blog post in Scientific American was actually a much better summary, and it addressed in clear terms what makes the study unique and why it is important.

Here is my summary of the PNAS paper "Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students."

The PNAS paper begins by noting the U.S. will be faced with a deficit of scientists and engineers in the next decade. The number of women pursuing higher science education has certainly increased over the years, but "there is a persistent disparity between the number of women receiving PhDs and those hired as junior faculty." Translation: women are getting their PhDs and jumping the academic ship. Why?

Biological differences in ability between the sexes have been disproven. So, study has focused on lifestyle choices and preference. Perhaps women have other things they'd prefer to focus on than pursuing an extremely demanding position. Perhaps they are more interested in non-science disciplines. Perhaps they take on more caregiving responsibilities than their male counterparts. How do you prove any of this? You can't prove it, you can only demonstrate a correlation. The fact that you can't prove or disprove what made a woman choose a particular career path has led some to conclude that there is no bias in science, the gender gap exists as a result of choice or preference. (snort)
"Past studies indicate that people's behavior is shaped by implicit or unintended biases, stemming from repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes that portray women as less competent but simultaneously emphasize their warmth and likeability compared with men."
Are academic researchers objective individuals that are above bias? Or are they, as some research demonstrates, "people who value their objectivity and fairness [who] are particularly likely to fall prey to biases, in part because they are not on guard against subtle bias?" The authors provide a long list of evidence favoring the argument for sexism in science, including "science is robustly male-stereotyped," inequitable resource distribution among sexes, perception of unequal treatment, and bias presence in other fields. They also point to studies demonstrating women are perceived as more likeable but less competent, but note that these studies utilized undergraduate students and not faculty members.

In this study, the subjects were faculty members chosen to lend "a high degree of ecological validity and generalizability" to the results, meaning they were chosen in a manner to make them representative of research academia at large. The subjects were each provided with an undergraduate student's application for a lab manager position and asked to evaluate the student. The "student" in fact did not exist, and faculty members each evaluated identical applications, with the exception that half had a male name and half had a female name. Let me clarify: research science faculty evaluated job candidates with identical GPAs, research experience, student statements, and faculty recommendations... the applications were COMPLETELY IDENTICAL in every way EXCEPT the sex of the applicant.

The authors sought not only to demonstrate the existence of sexual bias, but also to define its "mechanisms and consequences within academic science." They chose the lab manager position because it is typically the route by which undergraduates move into graduate studies. Faculty test subjects evaluated the applicant's perceived competence, their hireability (in terms of salary offerred), and whether they were deserving of faculty mentoring.

The rating for these three measures (competence, hireability, and mentoring) was scaled from 1 to 7. The authors also administered the Modern Sexism Scale, which "measures unintentional negativity towards women, as contrasted with the more blatant form of conscious hostility toward women." The authors did all kinds of statistical analyses on the responses.

The results?
"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."
All of the author's hypotheses proved true. Women are viewed as less competent, but more likeable than men. They are also afforded less mentorship and offered less money. These results are true regardless of the gender of the faculty member. This tells us that female faculty members are biased and don't even know it. There is a distinct and measurable difference in opportunities awarded to aspiring scientists based solely on their sex, and those faculty providing those opportunities are not even aware of it.
"The fact that faculty members' bias was independent of their gender, scientific discipline, age, and tenure status suggests that it is unlikely intentional, generated from widespread cultural stereotypes rather than a conscious intention to harm women."
So, if a group of people who pride themselves on their objective thinking can be influenced by negative gender stereotypes, is there any doubt that folks who are decidedly NOT objective thinkers exhibit, at minimum, a subtle sexism? (I'm talking to you, politicians. yes, even the lady-politicians.)

So what's the good news? The good news is that we now have empirical evidence demonstrating a clear effect that gender bias has in the world of science. Many folks who poo-poo'd the anecdotal and correlational evidence in the past may realize hey, wow, this really is an issue. Many faculty members might be encouraged to re-evaluate how they perceive potential students and employees. From Ilana Yurkiewicz in Scientific American:
"Certainly, some gender bias in the workplace still takes the form of blatant misogyny. But a large portion of it does not. It’s subtle. It’s subconscious. And many people who perpetrate it, if only made aware of what they are doing, would want to change."
Awareness is the first step if we are to change the culture. This study is the first big step in the right direction. The authors note that the next logical step is to evaluate the effectiveness of education about gender bias in science, noting that similar educational programs have been effective in combating subtle, underlying racial biases.

All quotes are from the original paper cited below, except for the quote attributed to Yurkiewicz. Citation below copied from PubMed.

Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students.
Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J.
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Sep 17. [Epub ahead of print]

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