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THE BLACK HOLE

The good, the bad and the ugly of gender bias in academic science

By JONATHAN THON | OCT 29 2012

It is without question that gender disparity persists within academic science. While it has often been suggested that greater numbers of women moving through the academic pipeline will ultimately resolve this problem, I’m not so sure. It’s been roughly 33 years since the United States Congress passed the Women in Science and Technology Equal Opportunity Act and after years of wholly unnecessary studies and a now substantive body of evidence concluding that overall intelligence or innate ability does not differ between men and women, the numbers remain frankly unacceptable.

The good:

Approximately 58% of all first-time graduate students and 59% of all graduate students in fall 2011 were women (link here). Indeed, women have contributed to a larger share of the growth in first-time and total graduate enrollment over the past decade, with a 4.1% and 3.8% average annual increase since 2000, compared to a 3.5% and 2.8% average annual increase for men, respectively.

Women earned about two-thirds of the graduate certificates awarded in 2009-11, 60% of the master’s degrees, and 52% of the doctorates – marking this the third consecutive year in which women earned the majority of the degrees awarded at the doctoral level, with average annual increases being greatest in the health sciences.

The bad:

A 2011 study by the National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resources Statistics (PDF) found that among those employed in academia fewer than 10 years, women comprised 68%; among those employed in academic health sciences more than 10 years, women comprised 59%. While these female proportions far exceed those in engineering (where women make up 19% and 6%, respectively), it should be emphasized that in the fall of 2010 and 2011 women contributed 80% of first-time graduate student enrollment in the health sciences, and 74% of health science doctorates.

Women with eight or nine years of postdoctoral experience who are employed full-time in academia are about 7% less likely than men to be tenured, whereas those with 14 or 15 years of experience are 8% less likely than men to be tenured (“Gender differences in the careers of academic scientists and engineers“).

But perhaps most alarming is that despite the disproportionately high numbers of women in science, 42.9% are assistant professors, 37.3% are associate professors and only 20.3% are full professors (“Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering“) and earn, on average, 85.2% of their male counterparts’ salary (National Science Foundation).

The ugly:

While much has been made about lifestyle choices, whether free or constrained, being a major driver of inequality – and it is absolutely true that women take on a disproportionate amount of child and family care, also called the “second shift” (see “Housework is an academic issue“; “Time spent in housework and leisure: Links with parents’ physiological recovery from work“; “She minds the child, he minds the dog“) – it is past time we accept that gender bias, intentional or otherwise, is also an important cause. Despite significant decreases in overt sexism over the last few decades, particularly among academic faculty (“The attitudes toward women scale and attitude change in college students“), subtle gender biases are shaped by repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes (“Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components“; “Are people prejudiced against women? Some answers from research on attitudes, gender stereotypes, and judgments of competence“) and acknowledging this fact is important.

The question is whether science faculty exhibit bias against female students that could contribute to the gender disparity in academic science. The answer is that they do. A recent randomized double-blinded study out of Yale in which science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student – randomly assigned either a male or female name – for a laboratory manager position found that faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hire-able than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. Perhaps the most striking observation of the study, and the element that casts doubt as to whether the glass ceiling for women in academic science will shatter without active intervention, is that the gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses. In other words, female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student. Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent.

Whether bias is intended or unconscious, discrimination in academic science exists. The truth is that despite female students now comprising the majority of graduate enrollment, science remains robustly male gender-types (see “Math = male, me = female, therefore math ≠ me“; “Ingroup experts and peers as social vaccines who inoculate the self-concept: The stereotype inoculation model“), and resources are inequitably distributed among the sexes (“A study on the status of women faculty in science at MIT“).

Again, while I am normally an enthusiastic proponent of quantitative study, we certainly don’t need numbers to tell us what all of us already know. Gender biases in academic science exist – it’s long past time we stop searching for excuses, and start identifying solutions.

For a cheat-sheet of recent statistics on this issue, please visit the Women in Science Quick Takes, assembled by Catalyst and published in June 2012.

This is an important issue for young scientists and we welcome submissions from our readers. For further articles posted by The Black Hole on this continuing series, please visit:

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is an assistant professor in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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  1. Lorne Carmichael / October 31, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    Why, if there is now a “substantive body of evidence concluding that overall intelligence or innate ability does not differ between men and women” is it good that “[a]pproximately 58% of all first-time graduate students and 59% of all graduate students in fall 2011 were women.”?

    • R. Elio / November 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm

      While I cannot speak for the author, it might be regarded as good in the “pipeline” sense, i.e., in having more females at least starting to move through a pipeline such that the disparities remaining at the more senior levels are addressed a decade or so down the road. In the past, the absence of females in roles comparable to their male counterparts was attributable to their absence in this sort of pipeline. There are also other factors (alluded to below) that are likely to lead to an attrition in this population as well. Graduate school is also a choice as well as a competition: males may be entering the workforce after post-secondary because they want to, and are able to.

      • Dr. RTFM / November 14, 2012 at 6:10 pm

        “Graduate school is also a choice as well as a competition: males may be entering the workforce after post-secondary because they want to, and are able to.”

        Why is it that if the same answer is applied to women’s choices it is considered to be unacceptable and part of the alleged systemic discrimination in the system against women? (Incidentally, if women are discriminated against, why is it that they live >5% longer on average than do men? And while we’re asking questions, what reputable scientist would seriously consider such a coarse-grained analysis as men v. women in health sciences?

  2. Gary / October 31, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    I’m a little confused by some of the “bad” laid out by Dr. Thon.

    In the first “bad” paragraph, does he suggest that it would be “good” if females comprised 74% of those employed in academic health sciences, in line with degrees awarded? Why is it, exactly, that it is considered prima facie “good” for women to predominate in graduate studies, but “bad’ for women to predominate less in employment? I do recognize that the discrepancy between the two is likely “bad”, but Dr. Thon should support his preference for “correcting” the latter rather than the former. I’m not saying his bias is “wrong”, just that it deserves support, not assumption.

    This: “But perhaps most alarming is that despite the disproportionately high numbers of women in science, 42.9% are assistant professors, 37.3% are associate professors and only 20.3% are full professors” isn’t alarming without comparable statistics for men not included in this short article, but available in the cited source. As that source notes many confounding factors which make interpretation challenging, perhaps the most comprehensible statistic is from the phase II analysis of the data, table 4-4, which shows that from the awarding of degree, men were promoted to associate after 8.31 years, to full professor after 12.64 years on average. For women these figures were 8.39 and 12.67. There is a disparity here, but it’s not quite so “alarming”, and the source calls for caution in interpretation due to other factors unaccounted for.

    There are good points in this article, and Dr. Thom rightly points to some studies that support a charge of bias, but this:
    “Again, while I am normally an enthusiastic proponent of quantitative study, we certainly don’t need numbers to tell us what all of us already know.”?

    Oh, well then.

  3. Lorne Carmichael / November 3, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    I think the issue is whether, in a perfect world where everyone makes life choices free of any artificial constraint, would we all make the same choices? Even on average? I think the answer is certainly no. And if it is no, then why do we measure progress by our closeness to a situation that is not the ideal we are striving for?

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