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Q&A: Is there a gender bias among academic scientists?

I have completed my PhD in Physical Chemistry from the Institute of Physical Chemistry, Peking University. I have applied for a fellowship in a prestigious American university. The competition for the position is likely to be intense. As a female candidate, are my chances of getting the position the same as those of equally qualified male applicants?

1 Answer

Your question comes at an interesting time, as gender bias among scientists is a topic that is currently being widely discussed globally. Interest in this topic was sparked by a recent study by researchers at Yale University, which was published in PNAS some time ago.

In this study, physics, chemistry, and biology faculty members from various research universities in the US were required to evaluate applications of undergraduate students applying for lab manager positions. Of the total set of applications, 50% randomly sampled ones were assigned female names and the rest, male names. The faculty members rated each application on the candidate’s  competence, whether he/she should be hired, what starting salary he/she should be offered, and how much mentoring support the faculty members would be willing to give the candidate.

The results showed that even if all the application material remained the same, male candidates received higher scores on competence, were more likely to be hired, and were offered higher starting salaries and more mentoring support than their female counterparts. What’s more interesting is that  both male and female faculty members favored male candidates in their evaluations, even though they subjectively reported that they enjoyed reading about women who excel in various fields of expertise.

Since this paper was published, it has been discussed in most leading science newletters in the US, such as The Scientist, Scientific American, and The New York Times. Many American scientists who have previously argued that no gender bias exists are now surprised by the statistical significance and conclusiveness of the study results.

The study authors state that the results probably did not stem from an intentional desire to hamper the progress of women in science but rather from some subtle, subconscious society-influenced prejudices that influenced the decisions of the faculty members. But these subtle influences could lead to a major real-world problem where women are not given equal opportunities in their research careers.

Now, coming back to your question: going by the findings of the above study, unfortunately, it would seem that your application may not receive the same evaluation as a similar application from a male candidate. However, the good news is that this recently published study has made scientists aware of the inherent bias, and awareness is the first step to change. It is quite likely that scientists who have read this published study and the related reports thereafter will now be more alert to possibility of a subconscious bias, which may lead them to consciously be fairer in their evaluations. In your application, position your academic achievements strongly, ensure that your CV appears impressive in its presentation, and hope for the best. I wish you luck and hope you get the position you’re applying for.

It would be interesting to discuss the gender bias issue in the context of academics in your country?. Are there any specific steps scientists can take to avoid bias at all levels? I throw these questions open for discussion and look forward to your active participation through comments.