Archive | December, 2013

How is gender bias in science studied? IV. The future

10 Dec

This is part 4 and the final part of my series on how gender bias in science is studied. In the past few weeks, I summarized how gender bias in science has been studied: through surveys and interviews (Part 1), through existing data (Part 2), and through experimentation (Part 3). What we have learned is that there is evidence to support gender bias in science, most objectively through experimentation. Now the tough question – what do we do now? And I certainly hope that it doesn’t involve turning the physics department pink.

Here are a few things I could think of:

1. First, let’s start by changing the process of job and scholarship application review. Bias during reviews of job/scholarship applications and interviews is nothing new, and definitely not limited to gender and science. A study from 1997 showed that blind auditioning of musicians for symphony orchestras resulted in a significant increase in the percentage of women advancing into the next round, as well as being selected as a winner in the end. Additional research supports the use of anonymous job application procedures to ensure that the job application review process is less biased against women. These provide established cases for modifying the current process of hiring and award evaluation in research and academia. While it might be difficult to introduce an anonymous/blinded process at the faculty-hiring level (it is not difficult to guess who the researcher is given one’s work experience and publication record), it is very doable at the early career level. I think because the potential implication can be very significant, this should be implemented as soon as possible, with experimental conditions set up so that we can actually see if anonymous application processes can actually improve the hiring of women into positions in science, as suggested by my friend Artem.

On top of this, I agree with the suggestion by the Moss-Racusina et al paper reviewed previously, that the policy for hiring should be specific and the process should be transparent.

2. We have discussed the role of implicit bias in my previous postCan we actually reduce or eliminate implicit bias? Researchers in the US found that in the case of race, implicit bias is malleable. In an industrial setting, there are firms that provide strategies to address work place bias. Whether or not such a strategy is effective should be further evaluated, as noted by Bendick and Nune, but it is worth considering. It looks like the European Research Council will be introducing unconscious bias training for award selection panels; I am hoping that this will set itself as a good example for future academic hiring and award evaluation.

3. There needs to be some major structural changes with regards to how academic research and tenureship appointment works. For the past hundreds of years, it has been assumed that academic careers are taken up by men who do not need to make time for their families, and who are comfortable with leaving their families behind to advance their careers. This is unfair for both men and women, and creates a hostile environment toward women and pregnancy.  And believe me, students are already thinking about the bad rep of an academic career when they are in undergrad. Just check out this question by a student during UBC Science’s 50th Anniversary Lecture – Science: The Gender Dimension.

Now, as noted by Eileen Pollack in her New York Times article Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? during her conversation with Meg Urry, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale, she said:

No one is claiming that juggling a career in physics while raising children is easy. But having a family while establishing a career as a doctor or a lawyer isn’t exactly easy either, and that doesn’t prevent women from pursuing those callings.

The chance is that, it is more than providing child care services or parental leave, but also about whether people in academia welcome such practice. We have had a bad rep for long enough – changes in the system could provide a positive view of academic careers as a whole for female students who are just starting their academic career.

4. We should continue to encourage female students to consider STEM careers in their future. The reality is that if a girl does not take high school level science courses (physics, chemistry, biology), she will not fulfill the requirement for taking upper-level first year university science courses – this becomes a barrier for the girl to enter a physical science degree program. According to the US Department of Education, by grade 8 you can see the level of interest in science diverging between boys and girls – this means that we need to start early in order to sustain girls’ interest in science. There were many ideas about how this should happen, but trying to figure out which one works is a delicate matter – many suggestions are based on surveys or personal experiences, which suffer from recall bias. I again hope to see more longitudinal data on which strategies influence girls positively (without negatively discouraging boys). I also want to point out that I don’t yet see evidence for the following two strategies. One is to turn everything pink – you probably already know how I feel about that. If someone can do a study to show how pink wires and capacitors actually get girls to be interested in building with electronics more, I am all for it. The other is to introduce over-feminine role models. The “Science, It’s a Girl Thing” video from the European Commission is a prime example of this:

(Because, right, if girls want to study chemistry then they should all be interested in cosmetics, wear heels, and blow kisses)

While I understand the motive for these two strategies, my fear is that we are simply reinforcing existing gender stereotypes. Last year, research by Betz and Sekaquaptewa actually suggested how feminine models could turn young girls away from science. I hope to see more studies such as this to to tease one which strategy works, and which one doesn’t.

5. Last but not the least, we all need to change our attitudes toward success. Being a woman in science can be a double-edge sword: If you are not aggressive and successful, people think that it is your fault and your decision to not stay in science. But if you are ambitious and aggressive, people think that you are not approachable and intimidating and event not good for the job (see Competent Yet Out in The Cold: Shifting Criteria for Hiring Reflect Backlash toward Agentic Women by Phelan et al.). It also looks like we women hesitate to promote either ourselves, or promote other women. Furthermore, some women become “non-feminine” in order to feel they belong in a male dominant field, as suggested by Pronin, Steele, and Ross in their article, Identity bifurcation in response to stereotype threat: Women and mathematics.  This recent ad from Pantene, albeit a commercial ad, pretty much sums up the problem.

The consequence is that many of us ended up settling into the stereotype set out for us. Günthera, Ekincib, Schwierenc, and Strobeld found that women tend to hold back when we feel like we won’t win anyways. As suggested by Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender,

One possibility is that…when stereotypes of women become salient, women tend to incorporate those stereotypical traits into their current self-perception. They may then find it harder to imagine themselves as, say, a mechanical engineer.

As women, we need to realize that some of this responsibility does fall on our shoulders, that we should be more supportive of our successful colleagues (and sometimes the difficult decisions they made), and push ourselves further even though there is a risk and we might not win. If we all just sit back and do what is expected of us, the future of women in science will not change for the better.

***

Here are a few other posts/resources to check out. I am also including a list of research references I used in the post at the very end. There is a podcast based on this series in the plan, so look out for that in the future! 

Research articles referred to in this post

Download the list in pdf format

Bendick M. & Nunes A.P. (2012). Developing the Research Basis for Controlling Bias in Hiring, Journal of Social Issues, 68 (2) 238-262. DOI:

Goldin C. & Rouse C. (2000). Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians, American Economic Review, 90 (4) 715-741. DOI:

Aslund O. & Skans O.N. (2012). Do Anonymous Job Application Procedures Level the Playing Field, Industrial and Labour Relations Review, 65 (1) 82-107. http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/ilrreview/vol65/iss1/5/

Rudman L.A., Ashmore R.D. & Gary M.L. (2001). “Unlearning” automatic biases: The malleability of implicit prejudice and stereotypes., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81 (5) 856-868. DOI:

Betz D.E. & Sekaquaptewa D. (2012). My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3 (6) 738-746. DOI:

Phelan J.E., Moss-Racusin C.A. & Rudman L.A. (2008). COMPETENT YET OUT IN THE COLD: SHIFTING CRITERIA FOR HIRING REFLECT BACKLASH TOWARD AGENTIC WOMEN, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32 (4) 406-413. DOI:

Pronin E., Steele C.M. & Ross L. (2004). Identity bifurcation in response to stereotype threat: Women and mathematics, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40 (2) 152-168. DOI:

Günther C., Ekinci N.A., Schwieren C. & Strobel M. (2010). Women can’t jump?—An experiment on competitive attitudes and stereotype threat, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 75 (3) 395-401. DOI:

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