Kristian Marlow, M.S.

Kristian Marlow

The Superhuman Mind

The Academic Gender Bias

A new study shows that gender bias in academia is still quite pervasive

Posted Nov 24, 2012

Although gender bias in the corporate workplace has garnered much attention from the media in recent years, the problem is pervasive throughout many other places. Many women in scientific academia will tell you they have observed or been subject to gender bias. This is particularly tragic, since the body of academic researchers is supposed to consist of those so interested in doing good work, they are willing to forgo larger industry paychecks and work late nights and long weekends from a desk in some tiny university in rural Indiana.

Naysayers often construct several arguments thought to undermine the credibility of what they believe to be anecdotal evidence for gender bias. One argument is that because the push to include more women in scientific research is only recent, there has not been enough time for hardworking academic women to rise to the top and gaining publicity for it. Many believe that we are likely to see the number of female invited speakers increase over the next few years when women have had a little more time to make more breakthroughs. Another argument is that, due to psychological difference that supervene on gender, women are less likely to be assertive and therefore simply don’t make their voices heard loud enough so that all of the men in the room listen up.

However, a new study from the University of California Davis shows that gender bias is much more concrete than often thought. Looking at the gender of academics accepted to conferences, Isbell et al. found that gender might still play a large role in the selection process. Most research on this problem has focused on how women have been represented in academic journals, finding that women tend to be less published than men. One might respond with one of the two arguments above or with an even stronger one: the selection process of most academic journals requires that the person who determines whether the article will make it through the review process is blind to the authorship of the paper. How can there be any gender bias if the reviewer doesn’t know the gender of the author? Many academics report the review process is often not as blind as it’s purported to be. Some really famous authors get published all the time despite the fact that some of their papers are uninteresting, sloppy or both.

Researchers found that women gave significantly more poster presentations than oral talks, while men gave more oral talks than poster presentations. Poster presentations are often considered to be less prestigious than oral talks. Because authors must choose whether to submit an oral talk or poster presentation, this might be a self-selective problem: perhaps women submit more posters while men submit more oral talks. Researchers then looked at symposia, events where the speaker is invited to speak on the topic of their expertise by a panel of other academics. Because symposia involve invitations, the authors ensured that the genders of the invitees were known. And because those who are invited to symposia are often the best experts a conference can get, these events are representative of what the panels consider to be authors of the best work. They studied the field of primatology, one that has consisted of mostly women for a very long time, avoiding the objection that women have just not had enough time to publish much yet.

When conference panels were made up of all women, there was no statistical difference between the percentage of female symposia speakers and the percentage of women in the field of primatology overall. In other words, the number of female speakers matched what we would expect them to be given the number of women in primatology. However, when conference panels were mixed in gender, the percentage of female invited speakers dropped slightly. And then the panels consisted completely of men, the percentage of invited speakers dropped dramatically. 

The tendency for men to invite other men might be the result of homophily, where men find it easier to conduct business with men due to having similar personalities, it remains a problem nonetheless. Not only does the unfairness of gender bias greatly affect both its victims and perpetrators, it can undermine the quality of work that is produced. How would our understanding of radiation be different if Marie Curie had been rejected at the time merely because she was a woman? If we truly desire the highest quality of research, we work to actively undermine gender biases in order to allow more intelligent individuals to contribute to our growing body of knowledge.