For Women Scientists, the Deck is Stacked Against Them from the Start

The lack of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields is well-known and well-documented. Women’s representation has gone up in the past few decades, but the growth has been uneven. You’re much more likely to find a woman in the biological sciences than, say, engineering or computer science. In fact, according to the U.S. Census, representation of women in computer science has gone down since the 1990s.

What’s going in here? White men don’t have some innate gift for math and science. Math certainly isn’t just a guy thing, either. In fact, the more egalitarian the society is, the more you see parity in the math achievements between boys and girls. So again, what gives?

A lot of the focus around closing this gender gap has revolved around role models. One study indicates that, in communities where there are more women working in STEM fields, high school girls are more likely to take physics than they are in communities where women are not so well represented. According to NPR:

Teenage girls growing up in communities where women are better represented in tech are more likely to see women commenting on tech issues in public forums and in school discussions — and more likely to run into a friend’s astrophysicist mom at a birthday party.

By contrast, Riegle-Crumb said, girls growing up in communities where most working women are in jobs traditionally held by women such as child care or nursing might not see the possibilities that exist.

“If I am a young woman growing up in a community or culture like that, then that’s what I see as, ‘Well, this is what I am expected to do,’ ” [sociologist Catherine] Riegle-Crumb said. “And so it may not ever occur to me, that, ‘Oh, you know, I don’t actually have to do that. There’s a vast array of things I could choose to do.’ But if no one around me is doing those things, it’s hard for me to even consider that possibility.”

This makes sense. Society is always sending quiet yet pernicious signals to girls and young women about what is appropriate to do and what isn’t. But that’s really just the beginning of the story. Getting more women into STEM jobs is easier said than done. It’s not just a matter of getting young women to major in science or math in college; they’re doing that in droves already (at least in some of the sciences).

A recent study indicates that, at least in math jobs, the deck is still stacked against women. In an experiment where the researchers controlled for market forces, they found that employers heavily favored men, even when the math ability of both the men and women were the same.

So this is bad. But lest you think that the discrimination only starts after a budding scientist enters the workforce, well, I have news for you. According to a new study, discrimination starts at the professor’s inbox.

Researchers Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania, Modupe Akinola of Columbia University, and Dolly Chugh of New York University sent over 6,000 emails to professors from 259 colleges pretending to be students asking about research opportunities prior to applying for a doctoral program. The messages were the same, except for the names, which were chosen to evoke a certain race and gender. For example, “Steven Smith” represented a white male while “Latoya Brown” represented a black female.

What they found was startling and disheartening. Across multiple disciplines, not just STEM, professors replied much more often to the emails with the stereotypically white male names. Even more intriguingly, the gender and racial diversity of the academic department didn’t seem to matter. Everyone favored the white male.

This study is undergoing review, but it largely fits in with what previous research has shown. A 2012 study shows that science faculty have an unconscious bias against women in hiring and pay decisions. In this study, researchers submitted applications for a lab manager position for a student who intended to go on to graduate school. Half of the applications were given male names, half were given female names, and the names were assigned randomly. They found that female applicants were rated much lower in competence and whether or not the scientist reviewing the application would be willing to mentor the student. In addition, the study also found that the salaries offered to the female applicants were lower; $26,507.94 compared to $30,238.10. And, like in the previous study, it didn’t matter whether the hiring scientist was a man or woman. They both exhibited a similar bias.

While we like to think that just diversifying faculty will stop discrimination in its tracks, the truth is that we’re all brought up with sex stereotypes that can go unnoticed unless you’re really paying attention.

So, as usual, the problem of the STEM gender gap is really a series of smaller problems that diminish the potential of half the population. Since these biases are largely unconscious, we need to make an effort to determine what we think about gender and why we think it. If unfair assumptions are made, we need to work to mitigate that. Studies like those I’ve summarized are disheartening, but you can’t fix a problem you don’t know about. Now that we’re starting to get a better grasp of the problem, we can start taking steps to eliminate it.

Photo Credit: evan p. cordes via Flickr


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago


Jerome S
Jerome S1 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson4 years ago

Same old glass ceiling in place...

Scott haakon
Scott haakon4 years ago

Robert H. It is not about sex it is about perceptions. In this culture,women have had to use camouflage so they would be taken seriously.(Creative occupations excepted)

Scott haakon
Scott haakon4 years ago

Silly study. All one has to do is look a cultural stereotypes. Ask a girl 11-15 year old what stem students look like,their social acceptance and the same for boys. Look at the flack Marissa Meyer received for Vogue Cover.
"Those quick to criticize Marissa, who is also a computer science professor at Stanford (you know, on the side), for the photo's vanity, overlook how a piece like this can have a positive effect on encouraging women into STEM fields. Women interested in the arts, style, and fashion — who may have previously felt excluded from the industry's male-centric, geek culture — can relate to the Yahoo executive's penchant for designer workwear and, because of Marissa, one day see themselves at a tech company in that same C-suite position."

Robert Hardy
Robert Hardy4 years ago

I just can not understand why anyone would think a person was "less" just because of their sex. I just can not understand this at all! What is wrong with us?

greenplanet e.
greenplanet e4 years ago

Don't say that!

Sara Sezun
Sara S4 years ago

This erroneous belief on the part of scientists that white males are more gifted in science has no scientific basis.

alex l.
alex l4 years ago

please remember; standing up for women does not make you a man-hater.

that is how you are silenced - women of all kinds often refuse to stand up for the rights of little girls and other women because they are too often called "man-haters" for doing just that.

it is actually the opposite - if you would stand up for boys and men, but are afraid to stand up for girls and women because people will think you are "one of THOSE women" then you have fallen for woman-hating.

standing for women is NOT standing AGAINST men; it is refusing to be treated badly. period.

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla4 years ago