Science and the gender problem

Within academic science there has long been a gender bias favouring men over women. Male scientists are more likely to be hired than women despite equivalent qualifications, men get paid more than women for doing the same job, there is a publication bias favouring male over female authors and women are starkly under-represented among the professoriate, accounting for less the 10% of full professors.

You may think that in a society that increasingly demands gender equality that the problem of sexism in academia would be improving if not gone entirely. In fact a paper published just last year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams did suggest that gender discrimination in the sciences was not as big an issue as was previously thought. However, a new study published in the same journal last month by Corinne Moss-Racusin and her colleagues has drawn a very different conclusion and will make depressing reading for anyone who thinks that the situation is getting any better. Their study focused on a single issue; discrimination against female students applying for laboratory manager positions.

The study was elegant in its simplicity. The authors sent out entirely fictitious job applications to physics, chemistry and biology professors (n = 127) across the USA, ostensibly for a laboratory manager position. These professors were asked to review the applications and assess the students competence and hireability as well as the amount of salary and personal mentoring they would be willing to give the student if they were given a job. The jobs applied for were not in the professors own labs, they were merely asked to review the applications and provide feedback. All the professors received identical applications with the exception of the name of the applicant; half (n = 63) were randomly assigned applications with a male name (John) and the other half (n = 64) were given applications with a female name (Jennifer).

The results are disheartening for they show a clear bias against female students. Remember the applications were identical except for the name; any significant difference in hireability, competence, amount of mentoring or starting salary must therefore be due to gender bias.

The graph below shows how the applications of male and female students were evaluated. Female applicants scored lower on all counts.

The tables below show the mean scores for perceived competence, hireability, mentoring and salary of applicants grouped by sex and whether the application was reviewed by male or female faculty.

This table shows the perceived scores for a male applicant named John.

This table shows the perceived scores for a female applicant named Jennifer.

Scales for competence, hireability, and mentoring range from 1 to 7, with higher numbers reflecting a greater extent of each variable. The scale for salary conferral ranges from $15,000 to $50,000. Means with different subscripts within each row differ significantly (P < 0.05). Effect sizes (Cohen’s d) represent target student gender differences (no faculty gender differences were significant, all P > 0.14). Positive effect sizes favor male students. Conventional small, medium, and large effect sizes for d are 0.20, 0.50, and 0.80, respectively (51). n male student condition = 63, n female student condition = 64. ***P < 0.001.

The tables above show a clear bias against female students who score lower across the board and were given potential starting salaries of $3000 – £4000 dollars a year less than male students. What’s really interesting is that this gender bias is not just confined to male faculty, in fact scores given to female students by female faculty were lower than those given male faculty on all counts.

Here’s one more table to make the point. Female students with identical academic records and job applications are likely to be paid substantially less than males students. These results are statistically significant.

The implications of this study are clear; there is a significant bias against female students in the sciences.

Female scientists are perceived as being less competent, less hireable, less worthy of mentoring and deserving of a lower starting salary than men. This perception is held by both male and female faculty.

What can be done about this problem is not clear but educating scientists about the issue may be a good place to start. The authors are not suggesting that scientists are consciously discriminating against female students, in fact most would probably be horrified to learn that this was the case. Education then could help academics to be more aware of the issues and to be more careful to judge an applicant for a job solely on their merits and not on their gender.

I’ll finish with the conclusion to the paper which is worth quoting in full:

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, 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 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 women’s full participation
in science, it may undercut not only academic meritocracy,
but also the expansion of the scientific workforce needed for the
next decade’s advancement of national competitiveness.

Both papers are open access and are available for free by clicking the links below.


Ceci S.J. & Williams W.M. (2011). Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (8) 3157-3162. DOI:
Moss-Racusin C.A., Dovidio J.F., Brescoll V.L., Graham M.J. & Handelsman J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (41) 16474-16479. DOI:

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