Political Animal


September 23, 2012 11:09 AM Yet another study confirming gender bias in the sciences — take that, Larry Summers!

By Kathleen Geier

Inside Higher Education reports about a disturbing new study that suggests strong gender bias in the hard sciences. It’s the first study that I’m aware of that looks directly at faculty bias as a factor in women’s underrepresentation in the sciences.

Here’s the study’s methodology: a group of researchers from Yale submitted applications for a lab manager position to faculty members in the biology, chemistry, and physics departments at a number of research universities. The application materials were identical, except that half were assigned a female name, and the other half assigned a male name. Science faculty were asked to evaluate the applicants’ competence, hireability, and mentoring potential (how deserving they were of mentoring), and also to recommend a starting salary.

The results were dismaying, to say the least: the researcher report that

Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant

Surprisingly, there were no significant differences in the male and female scientists’ evaluations of the applicants. Women scientists were just as likely as their male counterparts to show bias against the female applicants, and indeed, there was a larger gender gap in the salaries the women scientists recommended than the ones the men recommended. Also alarming is the fact that bias against female applicants was independent of the evaluators’ age, with younger scientists as likely to be biased against women as the older ones. Faculty members’ tenure status and academic discipline didn’t seem to make a difference, either. A separate assessment suggested that the faculty members harbored pre-existing biases against women, albeit largely unconscious ones.

Sadly, the basic findings of the Yale study are not anything new. There is an overwhelming body of social science evidence that suggests strong sexist bias against women in a variety of occupations, and in many other aspects of life as well. You can find some of the more interesting studies here, here, here, and here; see also Echidne of the Snakes’ excellent primer on the gender wage gap. That’s why it was so troubling, a number of years back, when Larry Summers, who is after all a social scientist by training and by all accounts a brilliant one, dismissed out of hand the possibility that bias was impeding women’s progress on the sciences, and focused instead on the theory that our teeny tiny ladybrains made us biologically incapable of the big, manly job of excelling in science.

What the Yale findings demonstrate is that bias against women in the sciences is deep and widespread, and that female scientists and younger scientists are just as likely to be biased as their old dude counterparts. Ridding the discipline of biases that are this deep-rooted will be tough. That’s why educating scientists about the pervasiveness of gender bias and how it works is so important — how can they possibly overcome their own biases if they don’t learn to recognize them, and don’t take proactive steps to act against them?

Larry Summers’ head-in-the-sand attitude about sexism in the sciences infuriated many women because we know that if we remain in denial and continue to make excuses about the problem, it will never go away. An abundance of research demonstrates that even well-meaning people and supposedly objective people can harbor biases that will cause them to discriminate. Educating people about bias and instituting strong affirmative action programs are crucial if we are to have any pretensions whatsoever about creating a society that truly provides equal opportunities for all. Larry Summers style do-nothingism will get us nowhere.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • c u n d gulag on September 23, 2012 1:17 PM:

    Being a woman, is being the new "black."
    Or, the old "black," since women still go through this BS.

    I remember back when people said that blacks couldn't be Pitchers in Baseball, because they weren't tough enough.
    And then along came Bob Gibson, and threw that bull in the ears of the ones who said it.

    And then, they said that blacks couldn't be Quarterbacks in Football, because they lacked the mental capacity.
    Amd then Doug Williams won a Super Bowl by having a great game.

    So, just keep plugging along, women.
    And put the women who succeed on pedastals - no, not so that men can look up their skirts, but to show other women that this can be done.

  • SL on September 23, 2012 1:48 PM:

    The most obvious explanation is that, given the choice, every lab director in their right mind would want to avoid dealing with maternity leaves. Research labs are operated almost entirely with money from peer-reviewed grants with grossly inadequate budgets. When a worker goes on maternity leave for a year you not only lose precious manpower and waste a lot of time training a temporary replacement (IF you even have the money) but you usually have to pay a portion of the salary of the person on leave (usually benefits, which where I work amounts to 25% of the salary). Anyone who has experienced how incredibly difficult, competitive, unpredictable and stessful it is to obtain and renew research funding would know that a maternity leave can have catastrophic effects on productivity and budgets. Good luck asking the funcding agencies if they will top off your budget when a worker is on leave. Research is a brutal occupation, which explains both the result of this particular study and, more generally, why most successful researchers are batshit crazy.

  • navarro on September 23, 2012 2:05 PM:


    you've just made one of the best arguments i've ever seen for requiring fathers to have equal maternity leave to women. let's work on it.

  • jjm on September 23, 2012 2:08 PM:

    To@SL: which institution gives a year's maternity leave???

  • frazer on September 23, 2012 2:08 PM:

    But the lab directors weren't being asked if they thought the applicants would be likely to take maternity leave. They were being asked, among other things, if the applicants were "competent," which has nothing to do with whether or lot you might become pregnant. They said the women were less competent.

  • Emily on September 23, 2012 2:25 PM:

    You know, you're not doing our side any favors by emulating the lame, hyperbolic rhetoric of the right. "Teeny tiny ladybrains"? Really, I don't remember Larry Summers using those words. Summers said some unpopular and untrue things, but he's not Michelle Malkin. If we want a real discussion about the wage and gender gap, we should be speaking in ways that facilitate reasoned debate, not resorting to Maureen Dowd-level snarkiness.

  • R on September 23, 2012 5:33 PM:

    Larry Summers deserves plenty of snark. As head of the oldest and (in its own eyes, at least) most prestigious university in the country, he displayed his own ignorance of established research with his misogynist remarks about "aptitude." For that he was rewarded with a job at the White House.

    @SL: What Frazer, Navarro, and jjm said. From your remarks it seems likely that you've had a co-worker take a maternity leave. At least it was a happy event (though I'm guessing you didn't organize the lab baby shower), and not a colleague dealing with the death of a spouse or undergoing chemotherapy or taking care of a parent with dementia or recovering from a car accident. Life happens -- suck it up.

  • navarro on September 23, 2012 6:19 PM:


    i rise in defense of sl on this one point--they weren't asked to rule on the competence of an applicant, although that can be understood as part of what they actually did, they were responding to an application for a job and any time someone is weighing an applicant for a job there are many more factors being considered than will be spoken of by the prospective employer. i'm sure the possibility of maternity leave would be on the minds of those reviewing the applications. but all of this is arguing in favor of mandatory leave for men and women upon the birth of a child.

  • Anonymous on this issue on September 23, 2012 7:58 PM:

    Just for the record, Larry Summers did not dismiss bias out of hand. In fact, he explicitly acknowledged it. But he did also suggest that it wasn't the biggest factor in the hiring results we see, at least for people working at high-end universities. (The deviation from average aptitude, which was what got him into hot water, was second-biggest, and bias/socialization was third.)

    The biggest factor, he argued, was hirers' desire to hire - at least in what he called "high-powered intense work" - workers who would think about their job for "eighty hours a week".

    I suspect this is wrong, but it's interesting and testable. If it's right, then at least in some versions it would be consistent with the research results above. And it was part of a pretty interesting speech which suggested a lot of thought about the issue. You can read it at:

    Sadly some people are happy to go on caricaturing Summers' views.

  • Cranky Observer on September 23, 2012 8:50 PM:

    = = = The biggest factor, he argued, was hirers' desire to hire - at least in what he called "high-powered intense work" - workers who would think about their job for "eighty hours a week". = = =

    Peer-reviewed studies [1] have shown over and over again that no human being can maintain concentration 70, 80, 100 hours/week for more than a few weeks. Those who claim they can do so are simply exhibiting the human trait of being most confident where we have the least understanding.

    Anecdotally it is my experience that far more men than women believe in this "80 hour/week worker" myth, which could explain why a man in a position of power would think that men were better hires.


    [1] Much of the current research having been funded by the nuclear power industry after some unfortunate incidents traced back to the "hero worker" myth.

    Frosch: veGoose - 1st try (how is one supposed to handle small caps?)

  • Cranky Observer on September 23, 2012 8:54 PM:

    = = = Emily @ 2:25 pm: If we want a real discussion about the wage and gender gap, we should be speaking in ways that facilitate reasoned debate, not resorting to Maureen Dowd-level snarkiness. = = =

    Yes, 40 years after the first gender equity in employment laws were passed we can see how well the "meek and well-behaved" strategy has worked to assuage men's biases.


    gGovis 1931, - 1st try

  • paul on September 24, 2012 9:26 AM:

    It's not surprising that the (relatively few) women who have survived the system's weeding-out process should have essentially the same attitudes as the men.

    And all of this speaks to the structural sexism that's entrenched even now: If you're considering whom to hire, a woman will have (because of structural discrimination) lower career prospects and offer less payback for mentoring than a man of the same attainments, so "of course" they would be a less attractive hire. The same way that, on average, a black person in a racist society would be less likely to rise to the top, hence less attractive to hire and mentor.

  • rilkefan on September 24, 2012 11:26 AM:

    The comments about Summers in the OP are straight-up lies. And entirely unnecessary, unless you want people to wonder about the objectivity of your reporting.

  • bay of arizona on September 24, 2012 12:15 PM:

    Look no further than the defense of Summers to see why this problem exists in the first place, and will not change. And they like to call themselves "progressives" while defending sexism.

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  • Kundrak on December 22, 2012 2:36 AM:

    I'm a 42 year old childless MD/PhD, mentored by a brilliant hematologist worthy of the Nobel Prize. I published first author with him and one of the works has been referenced repeatedly as novel proof of ... But as a "girl" or "the woman" I have been asked "have you EVEN written anything?"
    Tax-payers funded my education with the understanding that I would be obligated to perform research otherwise I would need to pay back the NIH. Too bad, this old boys network hasn't deemed me worthy of CONSIDERATION. Perhaps these prestigious medical schools should be required to refund federal grant dollars received while training such individuals, if upon graduating and hiring said individuals, they deem them lowly. How can an institution toot their horn-"the most selectve Medical School in the USA" and then discard exemplary graduates because they are capable of populating the USA with brilliant kids while simultaneously contributing their unique talents in research.
    And SL -- I think the BATSHIT CRAZY scientist is tempted to fabricate data to make up for his 80 hour week because he envies the efficient professional who clears the chaos to find time for life and the observations that inspire hypotheses. Men take longer because their thoughts are arranged in series. This is a fault. So, stop trying to put your positive spin on inefficiency to sell it as dedication.
    Plus how I love such fluid concepts about a woman's worth. I have been told point-bang, it is unfair for me to earn more because I DON'T have kids, unlike the men. It's worse that a side-walk shell game because an entire institution blatantly runs the CON.