Jen, John, and the science ladder

A CV and cover letter are sitting on your desk – or rather desktop. They’re from a recent college grad who wants to get some more research experience before applying to grad school. This wasn’t a standout student, but you see potential. You consider the academic achievements, the research experience, the letters of reference from professors. To hire or not?

Many things factor into the decision, but have you stopped to check whether gender might be one?

Last fall, a striking study was published in PNAS using this very scenario. Tenure-track faculty from chemistry, physics, and biology departments at six large research universities were asked to assess the likelihood of hiring a student for a lab manager position. Some saw materials for a male candidate, some for a female one. They were actually the same materials, only with “Jennifer” switched for “John” and “she” for “he”. You might know what’s coming…

John ranked higher than Jen. Actually the faculty “liked” Jen more, but John’s ratings for competence and hireability were higher. John was offered a higher starting salary (by about 15%). And John was offered more mentoring – as defined by providing help with a tough concept or encouraging him to stay in the field or focus on research. The scores for both John and Jen were moderate, but John’s scores were consistently and statistically significantly different.

The study also compared the scores given by male and female faculty. Depending upon your perspective, the result might be surprising or not (I’m in the “not” category). Both male and female faculty exhibited gender bias.

Jo Handelsman, the senior author on the PNAS paper, is a professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at Yale and an HHMI investigator; the study was run by Corinne Moss-Racusin, a psychology postdoc at the university. At a panel on gender bias in academia this week, I listened to Dr. Handelsman explain how she ended up on a social science experiment. The curious thing about this study is that, unfortunately, the results should not be that surprising. They recapitulate observations from decades of social science studies. With equal qualifications, men are considered more competent, better qualified, worth more money.

Yet as she discussed the issue of gender bias with her colleagues, she kept encountering denial. I’ve heard some of them myself. “Do you really think that’s still a problem?” “It might happen at _____ but not here.” “That doesn’t happen in science, because we’re trained to look at evidence.” Now we have the evidence that it really does happen in science. So what do we do about it?

From ASBMB Women in Academe Task Force Report (ASBMB Today, Feb 2012)

Often discussions regarding the gender gap in science (with regard to recruitment, advancement, and pay) seem to focus on what women can do (Act this way! Negotiate!) and what can be done to convince us to join and remain in the pipeline (Programs! Education!). In biochemistry, women are joining the pipeline in equal numbers as men. But in academia, attrition occurs at the application phase. Women make up less than 30% of the applicants and appointees to tenure-track positions. Women cite family and work-life balance as influential factors in making career decisions.* These are important issues, and I think the emergence of more family/life-friendly policies are fantastic and beneficial for both men and women.

But we also need to consider what to do about subtle gender bias, which influences the mentoring women receive (or don’t) and the valuation of our work. There were some suggestions in the panel discussion aimed at addressing gender bias more directly – and there’s substantial overlap with tactics to combat racial bias, as well. One was helping both faculty and trainees understand bias and the evidence for it, because raising awareness of bias can reduce its impact. To this end, UW-Madison developed a guidebook for search committee chairs to help reduce the impact of bias and improve diversity in faculty searches. Even games can help raise awareness of bias. Another possibility (which is highly debated in science) was blinding reviews of papers and grants. One of the more subtle ideas was making sure that images of women and minorities in science are visible everyday, because visual priming also reduces bias but only lasts 24 hours.

Much of the conscious bias toward women in science (and society, in general) has dissipated. But the data illustrate that we’ve still got a long way to go. The first step is to recognize and accept that. The next…? That will depend on departments and administrations – with some continual prodding. Looking around my institution, I have hope that the gender gap in science will continue to shrink in the years to come.


* Men more frequently cite “departmental culture” as a major factor. I can’t kind of wonder if things like work-life balance and family issues are coded in it.



Eva Asmen has posted two ideas to fix gender balance that don’t make her cringe

And Nature has a entire feature about the women in science, including an interactive way to explore the NSF data for their biennial report Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering.

This entry was posted in bias, science carers, women in STEM. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Jen, John, and the science ladder

  1. chall says:

    great post and thanks for the links/references to things I’ve heard much about that are very clear. And as you, I’m not too surprised that both men and women express gender bias – we’re all exposed to subtle nuances that we internalize….

    I’ll admit being a little baffled about “departmental culture” since I don’t understand what that entails but then again it might be clearer if I see all the other options that were possible to choose from – or was it “write your own comment”? Maybe in the future it will be more acceptable/usual for both genders to write “family-work balance” and admit that work is work and family/outside life is something worth having too?

  2. Pingback: A Chemical Imbalance: Gender and Chemistry in Academia | Ever on & on

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s