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Study shows pervasive gender bias in science

Posting in Cancer

Remember when Larry Summers said that maybe women were innately worse at science?

Yeah, scratch that.

A study shows that women are up against a huge obstacle when it comes to working in science: They are consistently perceived as less accomplished and capable simply because of their gender.

The study

In the study, professors in biology, chemistry and physics at three public and three private universities were asked to evaluate an application from a recent grad who was looking for a job as a lab manager.

Each professor received the exact same profile of the candidate with one difference: Half of the descriptions named the candidate as John, and the other half as Jennifer.

They were each asked to rate the candidate's competence, asked whether they would be willing to hire or mentor this person and then pick a starting salary for him/her. John was given a 4 out of 7 rating for competence, and Jennifer a 3.3. John was more likely to be named a candidate they might hire or mentor, and he was, on average, offered $30,328. Jennifer? Almost 13% less: $26,508.

The bias did not correlate to age, sex, discipline or tenure status, meaning everyone was equally biased even though women outnumber men as biology majors, while the gender balance is skewed the other way in physics.

“I think we were all just a little bit surprised at how powerful the results were — that not only do the faculty in biology, chemistry and physics express these biases quite clearly, but the significance and strength of the results was really quite striking,” said Jo Handelsman, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale and the senior author on the paper told The New York Times.

The results were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cause and implications

The researchers tried to uncover why the professors deemed Jennifer less hire-able and offered her a lower salary, and the root cause is that they thought that Jennifer was less competent. As Smithsonian magazine put it:

The researchers’ analysis revealed that the disparities in hireability and salary offered were mostly due to differences in perceived competence for the female applicant. That is, when the researchers controlled for competence—by comparing only professors’ evaluations that had provided similar ratings for competency for both applicants—the hiring gap disappeared. A root reason for why females are underrepresented in science, then, could be this bias for inexplicably viewing them as less competent, thus making it more difficult for them to get jobs.

“Our results raise the possibility that not only do such women encounter biased judgments of their competence and hireability, but [they] also receive less faculty encouragement and financial rewards than identical male counterparts,” the researchers wrote.

On its face, this study may seem like bad news for women, but it's really bad news for everyone: If we are unconsciously not cultivating half of the population to their full potential, then society as a whole suffers. Women may not have opportunities to make discoveries such as cures for cancer or AIDS, or to help us invent the next big technological breakthrough, which in turn means the rest of us may not get to enjoy these fruits either.

Related on SmartPlanet:

via: Smithsonian, New York Times

photo: RDECOM/Flickr

— By on September 25, 2012, 2:23 PM PST

Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure