Decades into the post-feminist era, there are still pockets of society where women are held back from advancement due to pervasive stereotypes.
If that reminder conjures up images of a military base or a corporate boardroom, think again. We’re talking about university science laboratories.
“Both male and female faculty judged a female student to be less competent and less worthy of being hired than an identical male student,” a Yale University research team reports in a disturbing new study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Specifically, the researchers found that a female applying for a job as a laboratory manager was offered “a smaller starting salary and less career mentoring” than a male applicant with identical qualifications.
“We focused on hiring for a laboratory manager position … because it functions as a professional launching pad,” notes the research team of Corinne Moss-Racusin, John Dovidio, Victoria Brescoll, Mark Graham, and Jo Handelsman.
The researchers recruited 127 faculty members from the biology, chemistry, and physics departments of six major, research-oriented American universities (three public, three private). All were sent the same set of materials—a resume and application from a student—and asked to provide feedback.
For half, the prospective lab manager was named John; for the others, she was named Jennifer. His/her application “was designed to reflect high but slightly ambiguous competence,” the researchers write.
Besides evaluating the material, the faculty members filled out the Modern Sexism Scale, which was designed to measure unconscious gender bias.
The results were disheartening. “Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant,” the researchers report. “These participants also selected a higher starting salary, and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.
The old-boys-network at work, with men favoring other men? Actually, no. Or at least, not entirely.
“The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses,” the researchers write. “Male and female faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.”
So what was driving their evaluations? Crunching the data, the researchers determined that the female student was perceived as less competent than the (identical) male. What’s more, this perception was tied to the subtly sexist attitudes revealed in the Modern Sexism Scale.
“Our results likely do not reflect faculty members’ overt hostility toward women,” the researchers emphasize. “Instead, despite expressing warmth toward emerging female scientists, faculty members of both genders appear to be affected by enduring cultural stereotypes about women’s lack of science competence that translate into biases into student evaluation and mentoring.”
The researchers conclude by noting this is not just a problem for women being discriminated against; rather, it is a “wasted opportunity to benefit from the capabilities of our best potential scientists, whether male or female.” They point to a 2012 report that suggests America will need one million new scientists and engineers over the next decade to stay competitive, a mark that will be extremely difficult to meet without greater participation by women.
The researchers call for establishing “objective, transparent student evaluation and admissions criteria” to undermine this dynamic. But unconscious bias is very hard to dislodge, and this study shows how easily it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as women fail to get key jobs or mentorships and thus never reach their full potential.
Don't be fooled by those identical white coats: Equality in the lab is still a long way off.