Gender Bias: Prove it.

Gender bias is hard to prove, and can be even harder to talk about.  The topic of gender bias makes people think about feminism, and talk of feminism can be polarizing. In the real world, gender bias can often be suspected… but difficult to quantify. Discrimination can feel confusing or subjective.  It can lead to self-doubt and skepticism.  It’s hard to know when you are being harassed or marginalized, and what to do if you suspect you were.

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Mostly, gender bias can only be identified by noticing a difference in outcomes.  Some examples may include hiring a man instead of a better qualified female colleague, fewer women reach tenured positions, and the apparent gender gap in publications. Common theories to explain such bias suggest that women are disinterested in traditionally lucrative fields (engineering, law, medicine), or they choose a lifestyle of motherhood instead of focusing on a career. However, we all know of female scientists…either through the media, or in our own lives, who have expressed dissatisfaction and frustration in the workplace, feeling powerless or confused when they felt they were victims of gender bias in the work setting.  Working in the sciences may present additional challenges, as laboratories, classrooms, field work and professional meetings all present unique environments that could potentially leave individuals vulnerable to gender bias in a traditionally male-dominated setting.

Accounts of gender bias in the workplace became so ubiquitous among myself and my colleagues, that it made me curious to see what the facts were.  Does a gender disparity still exist within academic science? What scientific studies had been completed regarding this issue, and if so, were there any data to back up this breadth of personal experiences?

A brief search led me to a scientific american article, detailing a randomized, controlled experiment that explored these very questions. This study took the clinical approach I was looking for when discerning the prevalence of gender bias. A panel of science faculty from research-heavy institutions were given an application packet from a student applying to a lab manager position, with the intention to go on to grad school. Half the scientists on the panel were given an application with a male name attached, the other half packets with female names. By making all variables but gender equal, these researchers provided a factual representation of bias. The results indicated that faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. The panel also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants didn’t matter, and the study showed that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against female students.  A separate study takes this notion one step further, and showed that “Gender differences in earnings persist despite the parity in education obtained by women.” Even with the same level of education, women continued to earn less then men through the highest level of education.

An exhaustive search of the literature showed this handful of studies addressing the presence of gender bias in today’s scientific institutions, and most of them at least 30 years old. Still, this antiquated research presented some interesting trends. On one hand, it looks like plenty of progress has been made towards gender equality in the sciences.  Women have not only matched, but exceeded the rate of enrollment and degrees earnings by men. However, I am still unsure whether this parity exists in the professional world.  Are women hired at the same rate as men in high paying positions?  How do race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and ethnicity affect the hiring rate among professional scientists?  It is important to note that research on the presence of intersectional oppression in the workplace is also significantly lacking.

There still seems to be no way of quantifying sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. If a gender disparity still exists, we must quantify the causative variables. In an effort to meet this demand, Jess and I are conducting interviews with entomologists from a diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, races, etc.  We aim to record the experiences of these individuals, and investigate if people were more likely to experience discrimination based on their gender, race, or sexual orientation.  

If you reached the end, thanks for reading through this slog of a blog. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Jess and I at modernscientistperspectives@gmail.com for more information about our study!

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