When Sexism is Subtle in Academia

We have a new journal club in our department where we cover lots of papers on topics about science and science education. We’re a pretty diverse group, and so I’m always learning and enjoying the discussions. Recently, we covered a paper called Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students” by Moss-Racusin et al. which hit quite a bit close to home for many of us.

You may have already heard of this study since it’s two years old. In it, male and female professors from a variety of institutions were presented with a fairly generic excerpt from a student’s application for a lab manager position. The only difference is that some faculty were presented with a generic American male first name on the application, and some were presented with a fairly generic American female first name. In this random, double-blind study, the faculty members of both genders were more likely to want to hire and mentor the male lab manager as well as offer them a higher salary. Do read the paper and supplement for the details.

We tried several ways of looking for an obvious flaw in the methods and analysis and weren’t able to find one. In a sense, we didn’t want it to be real. Not only does subtle sexism create an extra barrier for us, the female academics discussing the paper, but we were also just as likely to be guilty of subtle sexism in our own hiring, mentoring, and teaching practices. Though overt sexism is still a barrier to be overcome in some circles, the more insidious subtle sexism is likely to drag this problem out for even longer.

The studies come out one after another with similar messages: “elite male faculty hire fewer women,” “women are cited less than men,” “male faculty are paid more than female faculty,” and so on. It’s hard not to get discouraged. And discouraged we were, or at least despondent, while discussing the first paper, trying to look for obvious methodological flaws. Sometimes it is hard to determine or come to terms with how much such bias has had in ones on career choices and academic path, and that uncertainty is frightening.

There is one shiny beacon of hope. We ARE talking about it. We are discussing the problem. More and more academics, male and female, are being made aware of their own biases. That is the one, most important lesson, I think, that one should be taking from this entire skeptical enterprise: our brains are biased and complex. Paying attention to the problems is one way to begin mitigating them.

Why so fewAt CONvergence in Minneapolis last week, Skepchickcon had both a panel and a salon on Women in STEM. One great resource brought forth was the American Association of University Women‘s report: Why So Few? Written in 2010, it:

presents in-depth yet accessible profiles of eight key research findings that point to environmental and social barriers — including stereotypes, gender bias, and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities — that continue to block women’s progress in STEM. 

(STEM = science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.) It also offers some ideas of what we can do differently to change the situation for ourselves and the women in academic and non-academic STEM careers. Changing stereotypes requires exposing boys and girls to female role models in STEM, remembering that science and math skills are achieved, not inherent, and teaching them in the most effective ways, and supporting and mentoring females in academia and business, from undergraduate through to the senior levels. There is reason for hope, and it involves every one of us mentoring and caring for all of our colleagues and developing their growth.

Many good programs are spending time, effort, and funds on encouraging girls in STEM, but lets not forget the women already in some later stage of their career. As our enlightening journal club discussion concluded, we realized that we all still dealt with the threat, fear, and uncertainty of unconscious bias and its effects on our work and careers. But at least we knew we were in this together.

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Nicole is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at a small liberal arts college. Her home on the internet can be found at One Astronomer's Noise.

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