Bias-Women in the Science

No matter how hard women try to forge equal footing with men in the workplace, ingrained cultural biases prevail. That holds true if you are a mother applying for a marketing job or childless and applying for a job as a chemist or biologist.

Three different studies over the last five years, the latest conducted by researchers at Yale University, have indicated quite strongly that women in biological, social, physical and chemical sciences are in a bind despite efforts to combat gender bias. Women struggle in the sciences before they have children…and, in some cases, even before they start their careers. If you are female and hoping for a stellar career in the sciences, be prepared for obstacles in surprising places.

Scientists are Not Objective

In the Yale study, 127 scientists, all faculty members, were asked to rate two equally qualified applicants and were told that one was male and one female.  Researchers found that participants rated the male applicant as “significantly more competent and hirable” than the female, even though they were identical in every other way. The faculty participants also offered a higher salary and more mentoring opportunities to the man.

One would think that scientists would be objective and immune to gender bias. The hypothesis for the study was: “Scientists have a superior ability to root out gender bias in their labs because they are trained to rigorously reject subjective criteria.”

Dr. Jo Handlesman, who reported the Yale study’s findings, told The New York Times, “I think we were all just a little bit surprised at how powerful the results were — that not only do the faculty in biology, chemistry and physics express these biases quite clearly, but the significance and strength of the results was really quite striking.”

As the study states, “These results suggest that interventions addressing faculty gender bias might advance the goal of increasing the participation of women in science.”

Equalizing the Playing Field

This promise to increase female participation in the sciences echoes a controversy that occurred more than a decade ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when the Institute publicly acknowledged it had discriminated against female professors.

In March 2011, an article, “Gains, and Drawbacks, for Female Professors,” examined the “unintended consequences” of M.I.T.’s subsequent attempt to equalize the playing field upon discriminating against women 12 years prior. Yet ironically, M.I.T.’s efforts to combat gender bias backfired: Female professors feel they were given an unfair advantage. This feeling has trickled down to female undergraduates who ask their professors “how to answer male classmates who tell them they got into M.I.T. only because of affirmative action.” For many women, it seems a lose-lose situation: before, a lag in female recruitment; now, a rise that feels insincere.

Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology commented on the M.I.T. situation: “To women in my generation, these residual issues can sound small because we see so much progress,” she said. “But they’re not small; they still create an unequal playing field for women — not just at universities, and certainly not just at M.I.T. And they’re harder to change because they are a reflection of where women stand in society.”

In response to the new Yale study, Hopkins held her earlier position, adding, “People tend to think the problem has gone away, but alas, it hasn’t…They’re [women] getting undercut.”

Among the many female scientists who weighed in on Yale’s study, earth science teacher Janelle Wilson wrote that it’s all about getting girls interested in science from the beginning. “We need to start early and provide positive influences and mentors throughout elementary and middle school in order to counteract long-standing cultural norms. This will give young women the confidence and desire to pursue STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] degrees and careers as we work toward gender equality.”

When You are a Mother

Not surprisingly, moms who work find it tough and are still undercut in the workplace. In a 2007 study (mentioned in The Great Divide: Working Moms Vs. Childless Women) similar to the Yale study, Stanford University sociologist Shelley Correll found that when 192 raters, in this case paid undergraduate volunteers, reviewed resumes for midlevel marketing positions that differed only in parental status of the applicant, dads and women without children were rated higher than mothers. Correll found that mothers were rated less likely to be competent and committed workers, and less likely to be promoted or recommended for hire.

The raters offered mothers the lowest wages-they averaged $13,000 lower than wages for fathers. Correll’s study, titled "Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?," suggests that if you are mother and fortunate enough to be hired, you will probably start at a salary that is over 7 percent lower than childless women are offered.

For more, see my previous posts, The Kid-Ceiling: Women Feel It Long Before Seeing Glass-Ceiling and Women at the Top: Not So Fast 


Anonymous. "Scientists Not Immune from Gender Bias, Yale Study Shows." Yale News. N.p., 24 Sept. 2012.

Correll, Shelley J., Benard, Stephen, Paik, In. “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 112, No. 5 (March 2007), pp. 1297-1339.

Moss-Racusin, Corinne A., John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handlesman. "Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 27 Sept. 2012.

Wilson, Janelle. "Get Girls Interested While They’re Young." The New York Times, 30 Sept. 2012.

Zernike, Kate. "Gains, and Drawbacks, for Female Professors." The New York Times, 21 Mar. 2011.

Copyright 2012 by Susan Newman

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