15-06 Story 1: Gender bias in science


Synopsis: Few female role models exist at major research universities in scientific fields, subverting efforts to get more women into math and science. Many scientists have dismissed gender bias as a factor. However, new research shows that unintentional bias results in women being subconsciously considered less competent than their male scientific counterparts. Experts explain how unconscious bias exists and its pervasive effect in academia and society at large.

Host: Reed Pence. Guests: Dr. Joan Herbers, Professor of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University and Past President, Association for Women in Science; Dr. Jo Handelsman, Associate Director for Science, US Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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 Gender Bias In Science

Reed Pence: For the past generation or more, one goal of many educators has been to get more girls into math and science. Some technical fields like Computer Science have been remarkably resistant, but in many others the gender gap has begun to close. Dr. Joan Herbers is professor of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University and past president of the Association for Women in Science.

Joan Herbers: The good news is that the kinds of overt discrimination that many women experienced 30-40 years ago has really become a minority stance. So, most faculty members in the sciences really encourage their women students they think as much as their men students. Women are up to 50% of the undergraduates in many of the sciences including chemistry, biology, the earth sciences as well as in graduate schools.

Reed Pence: However, in spite of that, there are still few women among the highest ranks of academic researchers. Nearly half of all Biology PhD’s are women, yet at most research universities women make up less than 20% of senior faculty, according to Dr. Jo Handelsman, Associate Director for Science at the US Office of Science and Technology Policy. She’s on leave from her position as Professor of Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale University.

Jo Handelsman: So it’s not just a pipeline issue that people say, well, it’ll catch up over time. It’s had that chance to catch up, and in fact it hasn’t, and so there are other barriers there. So the question we have is are there events that happen early on in women’s training that somehow discourage them later on, or reduce their confidence that they can be scientists, that make them ultimately dropout.

Reed Pence: Discrimination and bias are well documented in other fields, but Handelsman and Herbers say many scientists have scoffed at the possibility that they could be guilty. As far as they’re concerned, there is no bias in the ivy-covered laboratory.

Jo Handelsman: I had talked about the potential impact of bias on the scientific enterprise for close to 10 years. I’d given literally hundreds of talks in seminars about this topic in scientific communities. And after almost every single talk that I ever gave, somebody would say but this doesn’t apply to us because we’re scientists and therefore we’re trained not to be biased. We’re trained to be objective. We’re trained to just look at the data dispassionately, and therefore we don’t let biases like this shape our behavior.

Reed Pence: Handelsman designed a study to see if that’s true. She asked about four hundred science professors at major universities to evaluate an undergraduate candidate for a lab manager job. All of the professors received an identical one page description of the candidate however half of them were told the candidates name was John for the rest it was Jennifer.

Jo Handelsman: What emerged was the participants would be substantially more likely to hire the student as a lab manager if it was a male. They would be more likely to provide him mentoring than his female counterpart. And they considered him to be more competent then the female student. And they would offer him a higher salary than the female student with the identical record. Any implications go way beyond just hiring an undergraduate as a lab manager, because if there’s this kind of different evaluation of an undergraduate then it’s very likely that there will be different evaluations of male and female post-docs, faculty, grantees, authors — you know, at every stage in academic life.

Reed Pence: Handelsman says it’s important to note that female professors were just as likely as males to judge the female candidate as less competent. Handelsman says it appears that professors are not consciously downgrading women; it’s just how most people in our society operate.

Jo Handelsman: They’re ingrained and they’re not intentional and that’s what we have to remember is that no matter how fair we want to be, these are always going to be kind of sitting on our shoulders and affecting our work. And it’s not, you know, a plot by men against women to keep women out of science or something like that. I also think it makes the discussion much less tense because it no longer becomes an accusation of one group against another. It’s something that we all share, and we can talk about our own experiences whether we’re men or women. And it doesn’t become an Us versus Them or a holier-than-thou behavior. This is something that every one of us should be struggling with.

Joan Herbers: We don’t read “ see this is it, oh — this is from a woman therefore chuck it in the lower pile.” No! It’s simply the way we as human beings have been brought up in our society, that we undervalue women’s contributions and overvalue men’s contributions.

Reed Pence: None of this is surprising to Herbers or Handelsman, and if it can happen in the data-based world of science it’s likely happening everywhere. Indeed, research shows that we all unavoidably use stereotypes and biases to quickly categorize people, but those kind of culturally ingrained unconscious attitudes are very hard to break. Women in science sometimes say they need to work twice as hard as men to get anywhere. Handelsman says that women need to submit research to more journals before it’s published, work harder to get grants, and are less likely to win awards.

Jo Handelsman: Women claim — and I have seen more anecdotal evidence of this than anything else — that they have to achieve more in order to be recognized the same amount. I haven’t seen that studied in science specifically very much, but it certainly is true from vast numbers of experiments that we all give less credit to women for the same amount of work, even the women themselves. I mean, there are these interesting experiments where if you asked people to do a task and then ask them afterwards how much they think they should get paid for that task, women will suggest lower amounts of money in payment for the task then men will. So it’s not people being discriminatory or actively discriminating against women. It’s simply that we just have been trained not to value women’s contributions as much.

Reed Pence: And while women have to work harder at the things that might get them ahead, Handelsman says they’re also typically given more tasks that are less of a career asset.

Jo Handelsman: They are the recipients of a lot of what one person called “academic housework.” This sort of the drudgery of departments that they get more student advising and they get more of the thankless committee assignments. And when there are certain kinds of problems, those tend to go to the women. And some of that is conscious on the part of chairs or colleagues. But some of it is also where students migrate, that students tend to see women, and this is yet another bias, as more sympathetic more empathetic and they’re much more likely to approach them with more personal kinds of problems either decisions about their futures or interpersonal issues in the labs where they work or other kinds of more emotional issues than just the sort of standard advising that we typically do with students. And so women end up being very, very, very busy compared to men of the same level.

Joan Herbers: Women have a real tough time saying no when they are asked by their department chair to teach that extra course or to sit on that extra committee. And of course when women are in an underrepresented group they often get asked to do a lot of the service work because every committee want to have “the women’s point of view.” It’s very common when a man is asked to do something extra maybe chair a really important committee the man will negotiate help for his laboratory well I’ll do that if you support my graduate student or I’ll do that if you take away one of my courses. Women do not negotiate in that way and so they tend to say yes, and then they feel overwhelmed. So helping our chairs and deans understand these patterns of behavior, gendered behavior, and making sure that they offer the same kinds of negotiation options to women as to men is a really important strategy.

Reed Pence: Herbers has helped establish programs to help women develop negotiating skills and tried to get college leaders to understand the unwritten rules that add to implicit bias. She calls one of them “face time.”

Joan Herbers: How much time you’re spending at work is a measure in many faculty members’ minds of how serious you are about your career. So, if you don’t come in until 10 o’clock in the morning or if you leave at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, there’s less face time at work. And we often hear statements about “Oh, yes, that person’s really serious about it, or comes in on the weekends, is in the office by 7 o’clock in the morning.” So, there’s an unwritten assumption and an implicit bias against people who are not physically present. And this is especially important in the STEM disciplines where so much of the work goes on in laboratories. You have to interact with your students. You have to run your lab, and so on. So, that issue of face-time has become really, really important, and we work with our chairs and our department leaders and our deans to understand the source of a lot of the unwritten rules, and ask them whether that’s really contributing to the overall success.

Reed Pence: It may be unconscious bias to assume that a woman’s less likely to put in long hours on the job. But other bias is more overt.

Joan Herbers: We’ve been told by some of our women faculty that they’ve been explicitly discouraged from getting pregnant. Or, if they get pregnant, make sure that baby arrives in the summer months so that you can be back in the classroom in the fall, for example. They have been discouraged from taking additional time on the tenure clock because they’re afraid it’s going to come back to bite them from what some of their colleagues have said and so on. So again it’s that very nebulous interpersonal interaction space that is hampering women’s careers.

Reed Pence: Herbers’s study at Ohio State finds that women are less happy than men in University Science departments. They feel unappreciated and cut out of informal networks. So, while universities may be able to recruit women, they often have trouble retaining them. Often women leave to become adjunct faculty, lecturers or teachers at community colleges, and that leaves few role models and mentors for women who are earning more and more advanced science degrees. So what do we do about it? Well getting a scientist to admit they can be biased is a start.

Jo Handelsman: There certainly is some evidence that simply evaluating one’s own decisions and holding oneself accountable and holding colleagues accountable for fairness and unbiased decision making is an enormous step in removing the impact of bias. So, there’s some very interesting research that shows that the more people don’t think they’re biased, so, the more they will protest their objectivity, the more biased they are. You know at face value that sounds like a paradox, but the interpretation is that people who admit that they’re biased are more likely to evaluate their decisions more carefully.

Reed Pence: Bias can be an unconscious part of many of our dealings with people. It’s not only about hiring. So Handelsman says scientists need to make careful evaluations part of everyday conversation. Maybe we all should.

Jo Handelsman: It needs to be acceptable for one person to say to another are we being fair here? Did we hold all these candidates to the same standard? Are we rejecting this paper based on standards that we’ve held every other paper to? And when that kind of question becomes just the norm, then I think we will reduce the impact of bias.

Reed Pence: Handelsman says it’s unlikely we can change unconscious bias. Thirty years of experimentation have shown it to be fairly unshakable. But she says we do know how to reduce its effects. Herber says it’s also important to secure the active and vocal support of influential men. Because when men make arguments in favor of equality for their colleagues, spouses and daughters, it carries more weight than when women speak out alone. She says research shows when we make things better for one disadvantaged group, we make things better for everyone. I’m Reed Pence.


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