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.)

9 thoughts on “Gender bias on both sides of scientific research

  1. Wow. I am glad you shared this. I get a pile of studies in my email every morning, but I never get studies about this (a true shame). You have made a good pragmatic case for doing something about the gender imbalance. I appreciate this approach.

    Aside: does your blog have an RSS feed? I am trying to add it to my RSS list so that I actually get these studies that are missing from my morning pile. I know I can subscribe via email, but I prefer not to fill my inbox that way. Any help would be appreciated.

    All the best!

    • Hi Nick,

      Thanks for the comment! Gender imbalance is still unfortunately an issue in science fields, despite what we may like to think. However, hopefully more studies like this one will help push back against any unconscious bias we have and bring more awareness to the issue.

      Also, I’ve just added an RSS feed back to the blog homepage (had one up there previously but somehow it got lost in a sidebar reshuffle). Let me know if there are any issues with it!

      • Thanks for the RSS feed. Now I can follow with greater ease, and even share your great posts on my blog.

        Also, I just found this study in my pile of articles this morning:

        It basically reports that women are not only underrepresented in Science, Tech, and Innov fields in the major economies, but they are declining in some (including the US). It also shows that some of the major economies that to great lengths to ensure opportunities for women show a decrease in female representation in these fields.

        Thanks again for sharing!

  2. Clear post. As a woman studying and practicing spiritual Science and the divine Mind, we too are ignored more than men. Society has a long way to go before touting equality. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Thanks for your comment Cheryl! It is unfortunate that we still hold such lingering prejudices, despite our best efforts. Hopefully reminders like this one will help us consciously fight against any bias we might feel.

      On the flip side, there’s an interesting finding that often the biased expectations held against us, particularly for things like women’s abilities in math or science, are amplified by our own insecurities in the matter. For example, one study found that women come off as less confident and less professional when talking to a male colleague about work than when speaking with a female. So in some ways we reinforce the biases and insecurities we might even hold against ourselves in these arenas, despite our knowledge and best intentions otherwise!

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