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Gender Bias and the Sciences

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Two recent studies shed important empirical light on gender bias in the sciences and should be cause for great scrutiny and reflection by America's universities and colleges. Our nation's continued preeminence in science and technology will depend on engaging the best and the brightest, regardless of gender -- or of other attributes except for talent and performance.

The first of the two studies is a peer-reviewed report, published in September by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that showed that science professors at American research universities demonstrated bias against women in hiring. That study's abstract states:

[S]cience 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.

The second study, funded by the National Science Foundation and titled "Gender Segregation in Elite Academic Science," was published in the October issue of Gender and Society. The lead study author and principal investigator, Elaine Howard Ecklund, is an associate professor of sociology at Rice University. As the university describes it:

The study surveyed 2,500 biologists and physicists at elite institutions of higher education in the United States. Researchers also interviewed a smaller scientific sample of 150 scientists one on one about the reasons they believe there are gender differences in scientific disciplines. ... The study's key finding is that both male and female scientists view gender discrimination as a factor in women's decision not to choose a science career at all or to choose biology over physics. However, the two sexes still have differences in opinion about when discrimination occurs.

As Professor Ecklund elaborates:

During interviews, men almost never mentioned present-day discrimination, believing that any discrimination in physical science classes likely took place early in the educational history (primary school), which they believe explains women's predisposition to biological sciences. However, female scientists believe that discrimination is still occurring in present-day universities and departments.

The study in Proceedings clearly supports that latter perspective.

As the "Gender Segregation" study, which was co-authored by Anne E. Lincoln of Southern Methodist University and Cassandra Tansey of Texas A&M University, states:

Our findings indicate that gender remains extremely salient in scientists' explanations of the gender disparities among disciplines, indicating that even those women who persist in science remain different from their colleagues who are men in terms of how they explain their career choices, in particular their choice of a career in one discipline instead of another. And the perceptions senior academic scientists have about why women are more likely to go into biology than physics are particularly important because of the impact these scholars have on the next generation of academic scientists.

These studies are of great significance for the future of science in America and for our nation's global leadership in science and technology - and the jobs that they produce more broadly for Americans. If we are to continue to be preeminent in science and technology, we must engage women fully in that challenge. But according to the "Gender Segregation" study:

[I]n 2006, 81 percent of women scientists in academia were concentrated in just three disciplines -- psychology, social sciences, and life sciences such as biology -- while not even 12 percent of women academic scientists worked in the physical sciences or engineering (National Science Board 2010). Women are particularly underrepresented in physics. Although almost 50 percent of high school physics students are female (McDonnell 2005), women earned only 19 percent of bachelor's degrees in physics and about 19 percent of general physics doctorates in the 2008-2009 academic year (National Science Board 2010).

As the study's authors so aptly state, "[I]f women experience barriers to entry or success in certain science disciplines, science and even society as a whole suffer by losing important human capital that might contribute to advancing scientific knowledge." And that's human capital that America cannot afford to lose.

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