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Scientists not immune from gender bias, Yale study shows

Mon, 09/24/2012 - 9:58am
Yale UniversityYale University

Hypothesis: Scientists have a superior ability to root out gender bias in their labs because they are trained to rigorously reject subjective criteria.

Experimental result: Naaahhh.

Yale University researchers asked 127 scientists to review a job application of identically qualified male and female students and found that the faculty members – both men and women – consistently scored a male candidate higher on a number of criteria such as competency and were more likely to hire the male. The result came as no surprise to Jo Handelsman, professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology (MCDB), a leading microbiologist, and national expert on science education. She is the lead author of the study scheduled to be published the week of Sept. 24 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Whenever I give a talk that mentions past findings of implicit gender bias in hiring, inevitably a scientist will say that can’t happen in our labs because we are trained to be objective. I had hoped that they were right,” said Handelsman, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor.

So Handelsman and Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, a postdoctoral associate in MCDB and psychology, as well as colleagues in social psychology decided to test whether this bias among researchers might help explain why fewer women than men have careers in science. They provided about 200 academic researchers with an application from a senior undergraduate student ostensibly applying for a job as lab manager. The faculty participants all received the same application, which was randomly assigned a male or female name. The faculty were asked to judge the applicants’ competency, how much they should be paid, and whether or not they would be willing to mentor the student.

In the end, scientists responded no differently than other groups tested for bias. Both men and women science faculty were more likely to hire the male, ranked him higher in competency, and were willing to pay him $4000 more than the woman. They were also more willing to provide mentoring to the male than to the female candidate. 

“I think this shows just how subtle and pervasive these cultural stereotypes are,” Moss-Racusin said. “There has been a feeling that women are underrepresented in the sciences because of personal or lifestyle choices, but it is clear that gender bias is also present.”

Handelsman said she is investigating methods that might help employers and educators — scientists or others — recognize unconscious gender bias.

Other Yale authors are John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, and Mark J. Graham.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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