Gender Bias and America's Science Preeminence

10/04/2012 11:35 am ET | Updated Dec 04, 2012

Two events in September spoke in profound ways about the role of women in science, and together they hold an important lesson for America's challenge of maintaining its global science preeminence.

On Sept. 4, Norway's King Harald presented the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, Nanoscience and Neuroscience to seven laureates at Oslo Concert Hall. Four of the seven winners were women, including the first person ever to receive the prize as a sole winner. On Sept. 25, a new peer-reviewed study was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that science professors at American research universities demonstrated bias against women in hiring.

The contrast could not have been starker. And, to add to the complexity, all four of the Kavli Prize-winning women are currently affiliated with American research universities. The Kavli Prize is, of course, the top prize in the world in three fields not honored by the Nobel Prize: astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience. It has been awarded every other year since 2008, and each prize consists of a gold medal, a scroll, and a cash award of $1,000,000.

As president of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's oldest foundation devoted wholly to science, I attended the award ceremony in Oslo, and I took particular pleasure in the fact that six of the seven awardees were from American universities. The seven winners were:

  • For astrophysics: David C. Jewitt, University of California, Los Angeles; Jane X. Luu, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Michael E. Brown, California Institute of Technology.

  • For nanoscience: Mildred S. Dresselhaus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • For neuroscience: Cornelia Isabella Bargmann, Rockefeller University; Winfried Denk, Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, Germany; and Ann M. Graybiel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Interestingly, all four women received their undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees at American universities. Perhaps not coincidentally, all four were at one time affiliated with MIT.

    Jane Luu received her bachelor's degree from Stanford University and her Ph.D. at MIT before becoming a professor at Harvard University; she is now a senior scientist at MIT. Mildred Dresselhaus received her undergraduate degree from Hunter College and her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, before joining the faculty at MIT. Cornelia Bargmann earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia and her Ph.D. at MIT before joining the faculty of the University of California, San Francisco and then moving to Rockefeller University. Ann Graybiel completed her undergraduate work at Harvard University and her Ph.D. at MIT, where she remains on the faculty today.

    Despite these four women's history of extraordinary accomplishments, the study of gender bias by American science professors, conducted by researchers at Yale University and published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tells a very different story. The abstract describes the study as follows:

    In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), 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 hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student. Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent.

    As The New York Times elaborated:

    [T]he Yale researchers ... contacted professors in the biology, chemistry and physics departments at six major research universities -- three private and three public, unnamed in the study -- and asked them to evaluate, as part of a study, an application from a recent graduate seeking a position as a laboratory manager. All of the professors received the same one-page summary, which portrayed the applicant as promising but not stellar. But in half of the descriptions, the mythical applicant was named John and in half the applicant was named Jennifer.

    Jo Handelsman, a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale and the senior author of the article reporting the study findings, said to The New York Times, "I think we were all just a little bit surprised at how powerful the results were -- that not only do the faculty in biology, chemistry and physics express these biases quite clearly, but the significance and strength of the results was really quite striking."

    Both September events underscore core realities for America's continued preeminence in the sciences: First, women scientists are essential to that continued preeminence, and second, our nation will not be able to achieve its true potential in the sciences if gender bias undercuts deserving candidates.

    James M. Gentile is President and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (, which celebrates its Centennial -- 100 years of science advancement -- this year.