Subtle bias, stunning impact in sciences

1 Oct

It’s not a great time to be a recent graduate looking for a job. Not even for doctors. Especially if you’re a woman.

Here are some findings from a recent Yale study by Corinne Moss-Racusin and colleagues, “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students”:

This first graph illustrates the gap, not in actual competence, hireability and mentoring between male and female students, but in perceived competence by professional scientists. Moss-Racusin split the professionals into two groups; half “were given [a student] application with a male name attached, and half were given the exact same application with a female name attached. Results found that the ‘female’ applicants were rated significantly lower than the ‘males’ in competence, hireability, and whether the scientist would be willing to mentor the student.” (

That’s right. The mentoring and hiring resource pool for students consistently perceived the male students to be more desirable candidates, even when female candidates’ qualifications weren’t just similar, but exactly the same. As Scientific American blogger Ilana Yurkiewicz explains, “When scientists judged the female applicants more harshly, they did not use sexist reasoning to do so. Instead, they drew upon ostensibly sound reasons to justify why they would not want to hire her: she is not competent enough.”

This phenomenon is called aversive discrimination. As opposed to blatant racism, aversive discrimination is “a subtle, often unintentional, form of bias that characterizes many individuals who possess strong egalitarian values and who believe that they are nonprejudiced. [Although they] do not wish to discriminate against members of minority groups… [they] act on unconscious
negative feelings when they are able to justify their actions in non-[identity-based] terms” (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1986). [Note: Dovidio is Moss-Racusin’s mentor at Yale.] Various studies have illustrated the very real effects of aversive discrimination:

  • Job candidates with addresses in wealthier, more educated and/or white neighborhoods got more callbacks from prospective employers, regardless of race, in a study by Bertrand & Mullainathan (2003). This held true across
    occupations (retail cashier, mailroom clerk, sales, and office management positions), regardless of employer size, affiliation and EOE advertising.
  • Bertrand & Mullainathan also found that an applicant named “Emily” “will need to send 10 resumés to get one callback; ‘Lakisha’ will need to send out 15. And while whites candidates with better resumés received 30% more callbacks; black candidates with equally improved resumés saw minimal positive impact.
  • Goldin & Rouse (2000) noted that pre-1970’s when major US orchestras conducted non-blind auditions, women accounted for 10% of new hires, but since blind auditions were widely instituted (in the 70’s and 80’s), women have comprised a signficantly higher percentage of new hires (33% in Boston & Chicago, 40% in SF, and 50% in NY).

And even when women in Moss-Racusin’s study did get hired, they hadn’t cleared the hurdle of inequity of the sexes. Check it out:

In hard numbers, the scientists offered female applicants $26,507.94 compared to the $30,238.10 they offered to identically qualified male applicants. And some folks in and outside of the scientific community are OK with that.

In her blog post “Study shows gender bias in science is real. Here’s why it matters,” Yurkiewicz sums up one fairly normative reaction to the disparity, offered by one camp of Discover magazine readers: “Equally qualified women should be discriminated against, because they could go off and get pregnant.”



Justified sexism, anyone?

Let alone the cost to the scientific and medical communities (not to mention the general public, who benefit from the advances made by those professionals), justifying this penalty for having a uterus opens the door for other justified discrimination: older people should be discriminated against because they’re more likely to get sick. And people who already have children? They should definitely be discriminated against because they sometimes put their kids before work. (And I’m talking about male and female parents, mind you.)

Then there’s the problem of anyone who has parents… you know how sentimental people can get when an elderly parent takes ill. That’s a lot of potential personal time, eating away at our productivity…

And who, then, is left who is suitably risk-averse for us to hire?

** Thanks to my colleague BB for the article.

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