September 21, 2012*
Two laboratory manager job applications, identical in all but the applicants’ gender, will likely be judged more favorably for the male applicant in a typical hiring process at a university science department. The male candidate will probably also be viewed as more competent and offered a higher starting salary. These findings, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are a stark challenge to attempts to reverse the dearth of female scientists and engineers in the US.
The study, which was carried out by a team of psychologists at Yale University, is the first to look at how gender discrimination influences hiring for post-graduate positions in an academic setting. Lead author, Corinne Moss-Racusin, said that, “The findings from the study are a reminder of how deep-seated cultural biases still affect equal opportunities for men and women. As members of contemporary American society in which fairness and meritocracy are highly valued, it is tempting to believe that gender discrimination is becoming a thing of the past. Unfortunately, this evidence demonstrates that even scientists, whose training emphasizes objectivity, perceive men and women’s abilities in science unequally.”
Moss-Racusin and her colleagues are keen to emphasize in the paper that this kind of bias was not used deliberately by the professors who assessed the applications. Rather, humans are conditioned throughout their lives to automatically subscribe to pervasive gender stereotypes. The study tested whether there was any discernible difference between the hiring preferences of male and female professors, and found that there was none. Female professors showed the same levels of bias against the female student as the male professors did.
“Widespread cultural stereotypes concerning gender are a powerful factor in shaping how we all think about other people. The fact that they influenced the decisions of both men and women shows just how pervasive they are,” said Moss-Racusin. “Though likely unintentional, the consequences of this bias are nevertheless harmful to women scientists’ career prospects, and potentially undermine hopes of boosting the participation of talented young scientists of both genders in science and engineering careers.”
Policy-makers in research and higher education institutions have made positive strides forward in increasing the representation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and there are broad efforts to achieve better results. However, research continues to show that gender bias is a persistent and difficult obstacle to overcome. It’s unlikely that we will get where we want to be without directly addressing the problem of our underlying cultural stereotypes.
SPSSI Policy Coordinator
*Press release sent on 9/20/2012