Are you biased?

The days when people overtly said that women can’t or shouldn’t do science are thankfully long gone, I’m sure 2005 seems like a long time ago to most of us!

Despite that and despite many more women beginning careers in biology and medicine there is still a clear and distressing pattern of male domination of the higher ranks.

In Sweden in 1997 women held:

  • 44% of biomedical PhDs
  • 25% of post-doctoral positions
  • 7% of professorial positions

In the USA in 1996 women in medical colleges accounted for:

  • 32% of assistant professors
  • 21% of associate professors
  • 10% of full professors

This is still the pattern we see repeated over and over again around the world. You might be interested to note that in the 1990’s the UN ranked Sweden as the top country for gender equality!

I genuinely believe that there is no doubt in most people’s minds now that women are equally capable of doing science. However, we all experience a lifetime of social conditioning that perhaps leaves us all, men and women, with a subtle bias about what people of a particular gender are or are not good at. There is a wealth of information about this I would love to discuss, but for now I just want to highlight three papers that I feel are particularly pertinent to why women don’t feature more in the higher ranks.

A computer simulation*: Martell and co-authors note that women’s work is often evaluated less favourably but that this gender bias is quite small, so how much difference does it really make? They created a virtual company with 8 hierarchical levels containing 500 people in the bottom level and only 10 in the top level. There were an equal number of men and women, promotion was based on a performance evaluation score and the range of scores for both sexes was identical. If men were assigned just a 1% bonus for being male only 35% of the highest level jobs were ever filled by women. A situation not dissimilar to the one we see in real life.

So if women have to work harder to overcome the disadvantage of not being men how much harder do they have to work? Wenneras and Wold* performed a careful and thorough study of all applications for post-doctoral fellowships made to the Swedish Medical Research Council in 1995. Applications are all scored by a group of scientists and those with the highest scores are awarded the funding. They found that to receive the same score a female applicant had to be two and a half times more productive based on an objective and widely accepted method of scoring productivity!

Exploring the color of glass:* Trix and Psenka conducted a detailed and quantitative assessment of letters of recommendation written for people applying to become part of the faculty of a large medical school in the USA. On average, letters of recommendation for male candidates were longer, included less terms that suggested there was doubt about their ability and were more complete. Women were more often hardworking, conscientious or dependable and men were more often excellent, superb or outstanding. The focus of the letters differed, more often portraying women as students and teachers and men as researchers and professionals. The implication of this perception of gender is that women must work harder in order to compensate for a lack of ability. In fact it seems that women must work harder to overcome the assumption that men are more capable.

* I’ve added a link to the paper for people who have access to a subscription but if you don’t you will only be able to see the abstract.

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