Gender Bias in the STEM Work Place

Chicago high school students at the annual “Science Careers in Search of Women” event at Argonne National Laboratory in 2009. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There is no escaping challenging social issues. Since the 1970s, the world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers has sought to overcome its reputation for being a male-dominated field. For instance, many colleges offer scholarship programs for female undergraduates as incentives for young women to pursue careers in scientific research. Yet, the last few weeks have seen science academia being forced to confront a problem that puts a very vivid light on the way in which it truly values gender equality in the workplace. A Yale study has shown that — regardless of how much we want to deny it — the first name of the person submitting a résumé for consideration remains a crucial factor in determining whether that person will be offered a job in science research.

The study, which was originally published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), consisted of 127 job applications from fictional applicants being submitted as applications for laboratory manager positions in research-intensive universities. The candidate summaries were identical in all aspects except for the name of the “applicant”, which was either “John” or “Jennifer”. Both “candidates” were portrayed to have average qualifications and experience for the position they were applying for.

The results? Faculty participants who were screening the applications rated the male applicants as more qualified, hireable and competent in comparison with their identical female counterparts. Male applicants were offered an average starting salary of $30,328, whereas the average starting salary offered to the female applicants was $26,508. The male applicants were also more likely to be offered opportunities for career mentoring from the faculty members who were reviewing their qualifications.

The study’s results identify unconscious bias as the most likely cause of the disparity between the male and female applicants. The age and gender of the faculty participants did not cause a disparity in judgment. Both male and female faculty members were equally biased against the female applicants. The type of scientific background that the faculty member possessed also did not significantly alter the results. Despite the current trend of many universities having the majority of their biology majors being female whereas physics majors are male, biology professors were just as likely to prefer the male applicants as physics professors.

A study of this sort has many social implications. Current incentives such as affirmative action and gender-based research scholarships are clearly not dealing with the reasons why gender disparity exists in the first place. These measures do not ensure that the women who begin pursuing careers in the sciences will do so successfully. As it may have been likely that many of the faculty members did not intentionally discriminate against the female applicants, cultural influences are extending into the field of science by creating an environment for the unconscious gender bias to grow. Women applying for STEM job positions today do indeed have more doors open for them than they did in previous decades, but gender disparity has not been erased.

In a field in which researchers are taught to think objectively in order to balance variables and determine solutions for problems, scientists do not extend this objectivity into considering the qualifications of the person who will work alongside them in their research. This PNAS study is scientific proof that even science cannot escape prejudice. It remains to be seen how these findings will effect policy-making decisions in dealing with gender equality in STEM fields.

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