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Gender Bias in Academia

Updated on March 6, 2013

I wasn't very surprised lately when I came across a bold recent study claiming that women are subject to unfavorable bias in academia. In their randomized double-blind study that was published in PNAS, science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student "who was randomly assigned either a male or female name" for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and eligible for hire than the identical and equally qualified female applicant. They also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. It was also noteworthy that female faculty members were just as likely as their male colleagues to favor the male student.1

The researchers tried to explain their findings by correlating such behavior to cultural stereotypes about women's lack of science competence which translated into biases in the female evaluation and mentoring. From my personal perspective as a woman in science, this unfair and sometimes unconscious bias runs alongside the conventional way in which many still perceive women - possessing traits of low self-confidence, indecisiveness and insecurity; making it a risk for any supervisor to choose a woman over a qualified male candidate.

Another major factor is the impact of having children on a woman's career; in many cases the academic environment will impart a feeling of guilt upon those considering a family life outside their prospering careers as researchers. No doubt they might be pleased for you as a woman but if this affected your job and their expectations of your work, they will pile the pressure on and stamp you as a woman unable to balance her familial responsibilities with those related to her prestigious career as a scientist.

I have also noted that for some reason women are seen as being less serious about progressing within their tenure track academic careers than men, usually settling for positions that are less challenging that don't reflect their full and very real scientific potential. Approximately 45% of biomedical PhD students in the UK are women. This percentage of women in junior tenure track positions drops to 30% and when looking at top professorial levels, we can clearly see a steep fall to not more than 15%.

Surely academia is losing out on some of its brightest brains by weeding out women from top tier positions. In fact, one must ask why academia is not seeing the benefit of women in science; opting for a conventional perception, unwilling see the added value of their inborn differences and abilities within science.


  1. Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students


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