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Oct. 10, 2012

Are Women Perceived as Less Able in Science?

by Luis Quevedo

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A recent study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) indicates the persistence of a marked gender bias among science professors in the US. The research, conducted by a team of scientists led by Jo Handelsman,  professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University, presented 127 university professors with one of two resumes, John's or Jennifer's. Both resumes were exactly the same, except for the candidate's name and gender.

The study was straightforward enough. Laboratory directors in the fields of biology, physics, and chemistry from three public and three private universities were asked to assess a candidate's worth, whether he or she would be hired, and how much he or she would earn -- based solely on the resumes.

Asked to rate both Jennifer and John on a scale from 1 to 7, the evaluators gave John an average score of 4, whereas Jennifer's identical resume scored only 3.3.

And, there's more: when asked if they were likely to mentor or hire the candidate, more respondents decided in favor of John. Those positive evaluations had a translation in salary, too. John would get an offer of $30.328, while Jennifer a less enthralling figure of $26.508.

One of the most interesting conclusions of the study was that the evaluator's gender, specialization, or age, did not correlate with bias. An old male physics professor was as likely as a young female biology professor to discriminate against Jennifer. Thus, the researchers hint at a generalized, subconscious cultural prejudice, instead of premeditated discrimination as the probable cause for their results.
 
Undoubtedly, in the last decades, American institutions of higher education have made some progress in increasing the number of women in science. Nevertheless, the upswing in female representation in the sciences is now showing signs of deceleration -- even regression -- as reflected in the total number of women in certain disciplines. For example, the percentage of female computer science students was 37% in 1985, but by 2005, that figure had shrunk to 22%.
 
Reference: "Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students" 10.1073/pnas.1211286109
About Luis Quevedo

Luis is the Spanish Language Producer for NPR-Science Friday/ Recovering scientist that moved away from the bench and towards the light of the cathode ray tube of tv. He is a filmmaker, writer, producer, tv-host, and cultural agitator.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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