July 30, 2015

Does gender bias benefit women in academia?

By Clara Castillejobecerra

Historically, women have been underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). This trend seems to be predominant in academia, where sexist hiring has been labeled as one of the culprits. But does current evidence support this hypothesis?

Research from Cornell psychologists, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, suggests that sexism in hiring may no longer be an obstacle for women in academia. Published earlier this year, the objective of this study was to determine the role of the gender bias in tenure-track faculty hiring. Male and female candidate profiles, which were identical in every respect except for sex, were created and subsequently reviewed by faculty from all 50 US states who were then asked to rank the candidates for an assistant professor academic position.

Overall, tenure track faculty members were twice as likely to prefer hiring women over identically qualified men. To account for differences in lifestyle, the authors also tested how candidate family and marital status influenced rankings. They found that female faculty members strongly and significantly preferred divorced mothers over traditional fathers, while male faculty members preferred women who took one year parental leave over those who did not.

This highly publicized study contradicted decades of research regarding the gender bias and obstacles that women face in academia. Although the authors believe it is a “propitious time for women launching careers in academic sciences,” we should take these results with a grain of salt. The study did not address the obstacles that keep women from pursuing academic positions nor the struggles they might encounter once they are part of it.

While the gender gap for trainees seeking PhDs closed in the early 90s [1], women still only make up a quarter of tenure track jobs [2]. So, why aren’t more women pursing academic faculty positions? Do women simply have different career ambitions than men?

Although it is certainly tempting to blame the low number of female faculty on personal career choices, the reasons are more complex. Factors such as the lack of role models, crediting success to luck, the struggle to balance career and family, and the perceived gender bias are real obstacles that need to be addressed in order to solve the problem of female underrepresentation in STEM. As an institution and as part of the scientific community, it should be our duty to empower women to trust their qualifications and confidently pursue their career ambitions.

Perhaps soon, we might truly eliminate the obstacles and gender bias that prevent women from pursuing academic positions and from making substantial contributions to the STEM fields.

Editorial comment: Please refer to the posts by Stella Hartono and Rielyn R. Campbell for further reading on the gender bias and struggles for women in science.

[1] The bachelor’s to Ph.D. STEM pipeline no longer leaks more women than men: a 30-year analysis

[2] Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap

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