Binders Full of Women, Or Not: A look at bias in scientific opportunities

Campus

Unconscious bias against women persists in academic environments.

One of the recent presidential debates stirred a heated national debate about the inequalities and prejudices women face in their workplace when, on Oct. 16, Mitt Romney said that when he was a businessman, he had “binders full of women” he turned to for finding employees. However, these issues are not only prevalent in positions of leadership and public service, but also in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.

The Association for Women in Science, based on reports from the National Science Foundation, points out that women constitute approximately 50 percent of the U.S. population, but represent only 24 percent of the workforce in STEM fields. Several reasons have been proposed to explain this abysmal disparity, including lifestyle preferences, lack of interest in the STEM fields and even discrimination.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS, PMID: 22988126) sheds some light on one potential driving force for this anomaly: unconscious bias against female undergraduate students.

Researchers at Yale University conducted an experiment in which 127 science faculty evaluated the application of a fictitious undergraduate student for the position of lab manager. Each professor was randomly assigned the application of one male or one female student and asked to evaluate the candidate in terms of competence and hireability. Professors were also asked how much salary they would offer the potential candidate and how many hours of mentorship they would dedicate to the student. The catch: the qualifications were identical except that half of the applications listed a female name and the other half listed a male name.

The results of this study are alarming. While female students scored higher than male students in likeability, they scored lower than males for competence, hireability, salary and in commitment to hours of mentorship.

“Likeability” was determined using a scale that represented the participant’s answers to the following questions:

  • How much did you like the applicant?
  • Would you characterize the applicant as someone you want to get to know better?
  • Would the applicant fit in well with other laboratory members?

More concerning is that this study presents evidence suggesting that female students are less likely to be hired because they are perceived to be less competent than their male counterparts. Results were independent of the faculty member’s gender, age, scientific discipline and tenure status. 

The authors concluded that faculty participants are unintentionally and subtly biased against female students. They suggest that the bias stems from widespread cultural stereotypes about women’s competence in science. It is thus not hard to conceive that unequal treatment of female students by university advisors may undermine their decision to pursue a career in the STEM fields, ultimately depriving our society of some of its most promising scientists and engineers.

With manufacturing jobs moving overseas, the United States cannot ignore the importance of staying at the forefront of scientific and technological innovation to support the growth of our economy.  With a projected deficit in the STEM workforce of 1 million workers in the next decade, it is critical to increase the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in the STEM fields. We simply cannot afford to lose talented scientists and engineers due to this unconscious bias.

When we overcome our own limitations and prejudices, we will become a more egalitarian, educated and fair society, where no special binders will be needed to recruit talented individuals.