September 27, 2012
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When former Harvard professor Lawrence Summers said that there were “innate differences” between the genders that led to fewer professional female scientists, he kicked off a firestorm of debate about why women are still so absent in the field.
On Monday, a study revealed some answers--and it was the professors, not the female students, who were to blame.
When asked to rate an imaginary student based on only a single-page resume, science professors considered the male student more competent, and said they were more likely to hire him for a laboratory position or agree to mentor him.
The catch? The two resumes were identical, except on half the resumes the student’s name was John, and on the other half, it was Jennifer.
The study’s methodology sounds like a Dick and Jane reading primer on college. The characters, Jennifer and John, are each 22-year-old, white, recent graduates with a B.A. in science. They each had a 3.2 GPA, two years of prior research experience, three letters of recommendation and plans to apply for a doctoral program in science. They each wanted to work as a laboratory manager. The plot twist: John was more likely to be hired, mentored, intellectually valued and paid accordingly -- just by virture of his gender.
Under the study, 127 science professors at six universities across the country read either John or Jennifer’s resume and then rated him or her on a scale of 1 to 7 for competence, hireability, starting salary and mentoring capacity.
On average, John scored a 4 out of 7 for competence and received a starting salary of $30,328. Jennifer, on the other hand, scored only a 3.3 out of 7 for her competence and received a starting salary of $26,508--nearly $4,000 less than John. The professors similarly devalued Jennifer in terms of hiring and mentoring.
“Our results revealed that both male and female faculty judged a female student to be less competent and less worthy of being hired than an identical male student, and also offered her a smaller starting salary and less career mentoring,” wrote the study’s five researchers, who were all science professors at Yale University.
This study demonstrates a bias similar to that perceived in other academic fields. However, because of the reliance--if not worship--of logic and quantitative data in the sciences, the researchers were startled that professors were so likely to be blinded by gender stereotypes and unconscious biases.
“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,” study co-author Jo Handelsman told the New York Times
Similarly surprising was that the bias was fairly constant regardless of the professors’ gender, age or status. In other words, a young female science professor was just as likely to discriminate as an older, tenured male professor.
Given the United States’ precarious position in the sciences internationally, the study concluded that this discrimination did not only negatively impact female students but also the future of America’s economy.
“To the extent that faculty gender bias impedes women’s full participation in science, it may undercut not only academic meritocracy, but also the expansion of the scientific workforce needed for the next decade’s advancement of national competitiveness,” the study’s authors concluded.
Sounds like yet another reason why it was a bad idea for President Obama to tap Lawrence "innate differences" Summers to be the former director of the White House’s National Economic Council.