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Where are the women professors? Unconscious gender biases

I started out this series with a simple axiom: men and women are equally capable of succeeding as professional astronomers. I then made the observation that women are underrepresented in faculty positions compared to the percentage of women graduating with PhDs. What could cause such a deficit? One possibility is unconscious bias in the minds of those hiring professors. Let's check out the evidence.

One of the great triumphs of the progressive movements of the 50's and 60's was the removal of discrimination from the realm of acceptable societal behavior, at least for women and racial minorities. (Today we are witnessing a similar struggle against discrimination of the LGBTI community. More on this after I attend my Caltech Safe Zone training next week.) The end result of these progressive victories is the end of overt sexism and racism (mostly).

The bad side effect is that sexism and racism still exist, it just moved underground. Further, discussion of these topics has become more difficult because it is very hard for people to separate the recognition of sexist/racist actions from the notion of being a sexist/racist person. You can be an equity warrior and make a sexist joke. But this point is subtle, and the point is usually lost since sexists are evil super-villains the exist only in our collective imagination, no one wants to be accused of being one. The problem of course is that sexist behavior still exists and it has a profound impact on science, as noted in my first post in this series.

This is unfortunate because the next front-line battle is against a much more subtle variant of sexism that is related to unconscious bias (check out Virginia Valian's research for more. Better yet, take her gender schema tutorial and tell me it doesn't change your world view, I dare you!). I only recently learned about the concept of unconscious bias, but now that I've learned about it I've seen it manifest itself in many surprising settings, including in my own behavior (yikes!).

Unconscious biases are related to our exposure to pervasive stereotypes and other societal norms. We all have them because we're all humans existing within a society. We have to make quick decisions and judgements all the time, and it is because of this adaptation that we often hold unintended (i.e. unconscious) biases against certain people. No matter how enlightened we are, there's no getting over the feeling of nervousness when a large group of rowdy teenagers steps into our subway car. They might all be AP wiz-kids. But the normal initial reaction, at least for me, is to look for a nearby exit.

A perfect example of the manifestation, and deleterious effects of unconscious bias was highlighted in a recent ground-breaking study in the Publication sof the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The article entitled Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students by Moss-Racusin et al. The abstract, intro and conclusions are a must-read for any progressive scientist, and I guarantee it will only take you about 15 minutes to set your head a-spinning.

The authors set out to test four hypotheses:
  1. Our hypotheses were that: Science facultys perceptions and treatment of students would reveal a gender bias favoring male students in perceptions of competence and hireability, salary conferral, and willingness to mentor 
  2. Faculty gender would not influence this gender bias 
  3. Hiring discrimination against the female student would be mediated (i.e., explained) by faculty perceptions that a female student is less competent than an identical male student 
  4. Participants’ preexisting subtle bias against women would moderate (i.e., impact) results, such that subtle bias against women would be negatively related to evaluations of the female student, but unrelated to evaluations of the male student.
The methodology was to have a group of 127 science professors (bio, chem and physics), split evenly between men and women professors, evaluate one of two applications: one by a male student and one by a female student. They also ranked the students using several metrics including competence, hireability and the prof's willingness to mentor the individual after they are hired. Further, if they hired the student, they offered a starting salary ranging from $20K/year to $50K/year. The result is summed up in two very depressing, yet unsurprising figures:

In all metrics, the male student was ranked significantly higher than the female students. What was surprising, at least to me, is that the gender of the professor didn't matter: both men and women judged the male student as being superior.

But wait! Couldn't it just be that the male student actually was objectively better, and these objective scientists simply made cold, hard judgements? Well, therein lies the rub: both the male and female student applications were identical except for the name of the applicant. Half of the "applicants" were John, and half were Jennifer. Now look again at those figures. The differences among all of those "objective" judgements came down to the professors' reaction to the gender of the applicant.

This is a landmark study because nothing like this has ever been performed within the sciences. Seriously, read the article.

While reading the intro, I had another revelation: believing that you are purely objective can blind you to subtle, implicit biases: "[R]esearch demonstrates that people who value their objectivity and fairness are paradoxically particularly likely to fall prey to biases, in part because they are not on guard against subtle bias." From the bibliography: Monin B, Miller DT (2001) Moral credentials and the expression of prejudice. J Pers Soc Psychol 81:33–43. 25. Uhlmann EL, Cohen GL (2007) “I think it, therefore it’s true”: Effects of self-perceived objectivity on hiring discrimination. Organ Behav Hum Dec 104:207–223.

Thus, hypothesis 1 was verified, while hypothesis 2 was rejected.

Some other interesting outcomes of the study:

"Results of multiple regression analyses indicated that participantspreexisting subtle bias against women significantly interacted with student gender to predict perceptions of student composite...and mentoring."

There's verification of hypotheses 3 and 4.


Can unconscious bias be at least partially responsible for the deficit of women professors in astronomy. I'd say this study shows that the answer is yes.

Next potential factor affecting my observation of an underrepresentation of women astro professors: institutional barriers and the two-body problem.

Please sound off in the comments! I'm learning a lot from you.


Still not convinced that you should read the article? Yeah, I understand. I often find myself against a potential-energy barrier when it comes to clicking on links. Well, here are some additional highlights:

  • Test subjects liked the female students significantly more: "However, consistent with this previous literature, liking the female student more than the male student did not translate into positive perceptions of her composite competence or material outcomes in the form of a job offer, an equitable salary, or valuable career mentoring. Moreover, only composite competence (and not likeability) helped to explain why the female student was less likely to be hired."
  • "These findings underscore the point that faculty participants did not exhibit outright hostility or dislike toward female students, but were instead affected by pervasive gender stereotypes, unintentionally downgrading the competence, hireability, salary, and mentoring of a female stu- dent compared with an identical male."
  • "The fact that faculty membersbias was independent of their gender, scientific discipline, age, and tenure status suggests that it is likely un- intentional, generated from widespread cultural stereotypes rather than a conscious intention to harm women"
  • "Our results raise the possibility that not only do such women en- counter biased judgments of their competence and hireability, but also receive less faculty encouragement and financial rewards than identical male counterparts. Because most students depend on feedback from their environments to calibrate their own worth (41), facultys assessments of studentscompetence likely contribute to studentsself-efficacy and goal setting as scientists, which may influence decisions much later in their careers."
  • "The dearth of women within academic science reflects a significant wasted opportunity to benefit from the capabilities of our best potential scientists, whether male or female. Although women have begun to enter some science fields in greater numbers (5), their mere increased presence is not evidence of the absence of bias. Rather, some women may persist in academic science despite the damaging effects of unintended gender bias on the part of faculty. Similarly, it is not yet possible to conclude that the preferences for other fields and lifestyle choices (911) that lead many women to leave academic science (even after obtaining advanced degrees) are not themselves influenced by experiences of bias, at least to some degree. To the extent that faculty gender bias impedes womens full participation in science, it may undercut not only academic meritocracy, but also the expansion of the scientific workforce needed for the next decades advancement of national competitiveness"


Jason said…

1) I didn't know that this had never been done before in the sciences! I have heard of similar experiments before; I guess they were in other disciplines.

2) It's important to realize that these unconscious biases become concrete over time, and do not only apply to applications. Repeated small unconscious double standards, slights, roadblocks, and discouragements eventually over a career result in shorter cv's and thinner tenure packets, at which point women and minorities appear to be objectively inferior to equally capable white males.

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