Women Are Still Discriminated Against in Science

A recent study in PNAS suggests that, at least when it comes to science, gender bias is still going strong

For a very long time, women have fought to be considered competent, to vote, to be hired for the same jobs as men and to be promoted at those jobs. And we’ve come a long way. But a recent study in PNAS suggests that, at least when it comes to science, gender bias is still going strong.

Basically, the study showed scientists applications for a lab manager position that were identical. The only thing that was different was the name on the application. Some were male names; others were female names. Here’s the takeaway from Sean Carroll at Discover Magazine: “female applicants were rated lower than men on the measured scales of competence, hireability and mentoring (whether the scientist would be willing to mentor this student). Both male and female scientists rated the female applicants lower.”

You don’t necessarily need a double blind study to see that science is still skewed towards men. An abstract presented at the American Astronomical Society showed the breakdown of male and female members and speakers at conferences. A recent synthetic biology conference was called out for having just one woman out of 26 speakers—although they’ve since updated their speakers list.

It is technically illegal to discriminate against women simply because they happen to be women. But most people doing the hiring have no idea they’re doing it. You might even be part of the problem without realizing it. You can test your inherent gender bias here. You might be surprised what you find.

So, to the extent everyone can agree that this is a problem (which, not everyone does, as the comments on Sean Carroll’s original blog reveal), what can be done about it?

One way to tackle this issue might be with blind applications. Take the classical music world, for example. For a long time, women were consistently being passed over for orchestra spots in favor of men. In the 1970s, women made up less than 5 percent of the musicians in the five most prestigious orchestras in the United States. Now, they make up 25 percent. Still not nearly equal, but far better. What happened was that orchestras instituted blind auditioning, during which the applicant plays behind a screen or wall and no one can see what they look like. This study found that blind auditions “can explain between 30% and 55% of the increase in the proportion female among new hires and between 25% and 46% of the increase in the percentage female in the orchestras since 1970.”

The practicality of taking names off applications is difficult, as it makes it impossible to check references or do background checks on anyone. But it could be useful for the initial screening process. The real moral here is that women are still at a disadvantage in the science world because they’re women—a problem they’ve had for a long time that simply isn’t going away.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Women in Science
Women of Science on the Smithsonian Channel

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