Recognizing Subtle Gender Bias in Academic Science

by Catherine Manix Feintuch

The issues facing women in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are a hot topic these days.  In October, the New York Times published a piece asking “Why are There Still So Few Women in Science?” The article summarizes the statistics about the lack of women in the STEM workforce, the lack of women receiving STEM degrees and the lack of compensation for women in STEM jobs1. Much of the discussion about women in STEM careers centers on the idea that stereotypes are ingrained early, causing fewer girls to consider training in STEM fields and the biases they face.

Many of the other students in my PhD program read this article and as we discussed it, very few of us felt that we had ever been discriminated against. That may be because our PhD program is in Biomedical Science, and nationally 51% of students in Biology and Medical Sciences are women2. However, we agreed that women are under-represented in certain departments at our institution, like Biochemistry and Genetics.

Last November, I went to a symposium about promoting women leaders in global health at the 62nd Annual Meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH). The speakers repeated many of the same points in the New York Times article, but they also underscored the importance of implicit biases, which are unconsciously made, versus explicit bias, which occur purposefully, in keeping women out of leadership positions in global health research.

Dr. Jo Handelsman, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale University, was recently nominated Associate Director for Science at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Dr. Handelsman argued that while explicit bias may have decreased over the past 40 years, implicit biases remain strong3. She cited data that women receive less than their fair share of scholarly awards and receive less compensation than men for the same positions. Yet, while discussing these problems with her male and female colleagues, she found that many scientists thought they were immune from these sorts of biases due to their rigorous training. Therefore, she performed a randomized double-blind study to demonstrate that gender bias does exist among science faculty. The study, published in PNAS, found that both male and female faculty participants rated a male applicant as “significantly more competent and hirable than the (identical) female applicant” 4.

And this bias exists at all levels. Dr. Ann Bonham, Professor and Executive Associate Dean, School of Medicine at UC Davis School of Medicine, did a national survey of the percentage of women in leadership positions at medical schools and found that women are under-represented in higher leadership roles5:

15% Dean
15% Chair
20% Full Professor
30% Associate Professor
43% Assistant Professor
54% Instructor

This work by Dr. Handelsman and Dr. Bonham reiterate the countless studies demonstrating the problem of implicit biases against women in STEM. But what are the actionable items to combat this bias?

During the concluding panel discussion, Dr. Michele Barry, Senior Associate Dean for Global Health in the Stanford School of Medicine and past ASTMH President, suggested that we continue to write op-eds highlighting the problems and nominate women for academic awards. She also shared a story about how once during introductions at a meeting of female faculty, after mentioning their faculty position and research, the women professors all mentioned the number of children they had. It occurred to Dr. Barry that at similar meetings she had attended with male colleagues, the number of children they had had never come up. She wasn’t sure what the importance of that realization was, but it occurred to her that the same differences in women and men that are important for diversity might somehow contribute to implicit biases and we should be conscious of the image we present.

Lastly, Dr. Christopher King, ASTMH scientific program committee chair and professor, Center for Global Health and Diseases at Case Western University, closed with the comment that change will come from self-promotion. Scientists need to help each other recognize what we have in ourselves.

  1. Pollack, E. “Why Are There So Few Women in Science.” The New York Times Oct. 3, 2013 Web.
  2. “Are Stereotypes Keeping Women Away From Science?” New Jersey Institute of Technology. 2013
  3. Handelsman, J. “The Fallacy of Fairness: Persistence of Gender Bias in Science and Health.” 62nd Annual Meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH)
  4. Moss-Racusin, C et al “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.” PNAS 109 (41) October 9, 2012.
  5. Bonham, A. “Female Leadership in Global Health: A View From Academic Medicine on Lessons Learned.” 62nd Annual Meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH)

catherineCatherine Manix Feintuch is a PhD student studying pediatric Cerebral Malaria in the laboratory of Dr. Johanna Daily.

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