Gender bias on both sides of scientific research

A disturbing new study from researchers at Yale University was released this week in PNAS, reporting that gender bias is still pervasive in science and the workplace. An identical application for a laboratory manager position was given to 127 senior faculty members at a number of research universities, the only difference being that half of the applications contained a male name, while in the other half the applicant’s name was female. Across the board supervisors (male and female alike) ranked the ‘male’ application as more competent, more hireable, and stated that they would be more willing to supervise this candidate. Even more striking was the pay gap that existed between the recommended wages for the male and female applicants, a difference of roughly $3,700 starting salary. This is representative of the reported 23% average earnings difference between men and women in the workplace.

Despite efforts for equal opportunity and the eradication of sexism from science, this study clearly demonstrates that there are significant lingering differences in the perception of male and female applicants and their competence based solely on gender. These findings are particularly disturbing as the job was for an entry-level research position, suggesting that there is a bias against women even trying to get their foot in the door in science. The gender disparity in tenure-track professorships has previously been explained with similar rationales as those used to justify the dearth of women in executive suite positions in finance or industry, namely differences in life choices or a lingering male-domination from previous generations. However, now there is clear evidence that women are discriminated against from the start of their careers, making it far more likely that they will drop out of the profession, and thus perpetuating the gender imbalance in science, particularly at the higher end of the career ladder.

Gender bias in science isn’t just present in a lack of professional opportunities; women are frequently excluded from being subjects in research studies, particularly those involving the brain or behavioral traits. Women can be ‘difficult’ subjects as anatomically our brains differ in size from males, and hormonal fluctuations can affect chemical reactions to pharmaceutical challenges used in experiments. Instead of pursuing and exploring these differences though, females subjects are often omitted from both human and animal research. Results from male participants are then applied to females post-hoc, however this method is far from perfect as these very differences in behavioral and biological performance make extrapolations imprecise and potentially invalid.

For example, a study published earlier this year in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research reported on the differing effects of heavy alcohol consumption and recovery on the brain in men and women. Females appear to be more sensitive to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol on the brain, particularly in the frontal lobe, with a greater proportionate reduction in white matter volume than men with every additional drink. Conversely, male alcoholics show a greater decrease in volume in the corpus callosum (neuron tracts that connect the left and right hemispheres) related to the duration of heavy drinking. Fortunately, abstaining from alcohol was linked to recovery of white matter in both genders, with longer periods of abstinence associated with greater recovery in each region. However, men did not exhibit this trend with less than one year of sobriety, while women experienced neurogenesis only within the first year. While these distinctions between women and men are subtle ones, they are significant and could be related to differences in behavioral ability or possible treatment outcomes.

Ignoring female subjects in research studies biases results and can hinder progress in the advancement of clinical treatments. Similarly, dissuading or not adequately supporting women in their own research endeavors undoubtedly handicaps scientific progress by limiting the intellectual pool of talent. Reports of women being naturally ‘bad’ in science or mathematics have been overwhelming refuted and lingering prejudices, even unintentional ones, hurt not only the individual but the field of science as a whole.

(Thanks to Adam Levy and Ruth Watkinson for the gender bias article.)