The Challenges Hillary Clinton and I Face Every Day

04/15/2016 10:46 am ET Updated Apr 16, 2017
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a meeting with immigration rights activists and local offici
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a meeting with immigration rights activists and local officials during a campaign stop in New York City, April 13, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

I am a successful physicist -- ambitious, passionate about my work, with an excellent academic pedigree at top institutions. And yet because I am a woman, I have faced hurdles that no male with my credentials must face.

In this election year, I identify deeply with Hillary Clinton. My identification stems not only because of her political views and positions (which I happen to agree with) but with the struggle she continually faces because of her gender. It is a struggle that women in many professions must contend with on a daily basis.

Physics continues to be regarded as a man's domain by many even today. The percentage of female full professors like me across the US universities is still less than 10 percent and gender stereotypes and implicit biases often impact the advancement of female physicists.

Meg Urry, a professor of physics and astronomy and the director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics noted, "I also struggled to understand why I didn't seem to belong in my field -- why I was overlooked for leadership roles, why I was underpaid, why my suggestions were ignored until a male colleague proposed the same idea and why female scientists in general garnered a disproportionately small share of honors and awards." Many of my female physics colleagues across the U.S. share similar experiences.

Several female physicists who have won major awards or obtained membership in the prestigious National Academy of Science have been told by male colleagues that they have been honored only because of their gender and not because of their talents and achievements!

Many female colleagues from around the U.S. have told me that not a day goes by when they have not experienced something in their interactions with colleagues that is due to gender bias, including jokes that are disrespectful to women.

While the climate in the physics departments at universities needs improvement and implicit gender bias must be explicitly addressed, the environment for female scientists in industries is hardly better.

One incidence I vividly recall is when I volunteered to be a physics judge at the Pittsburgh regional science fair. At the end of the judging period, the physics judges were asked to assemble in a room and come to a consensus about the winners. I was the only woman in the room and everybody else was a scientist from industries in the Pittsburgh area. I was taken aback at how every time I tried to give a suggestion, it was completely ignored as though nobody heard what I had to say. I have a voice that projects extremely well, but other judges behaved as though I was not there!

Teaching evaluations of male and female faculty members also show implicit bias against women. For example, research has been conducted in which students are asked to rate the teaching of hypothetical male or female teachers based upon identical information about their teaching philosophy and approaches with gender being the only difference in different versions of the teaching dossiers given to them.

The findings suggest that students are significantly more likely to rate the identical dossier with the male name higher in terms of teaching effectiveness than the female name. The male teachers are given benefit of doubt and considered smarter. The dossier of a strict teacher with a female name often evokes labels such as "mean" but that is not the case for an identical dossier with a male name.

What is noteworthy is that people are unaware of their negative gender bias even though such an implicit bias impacts their actual decision making processes.

One research study suggests that hurricanes labeled with female names cause twice as much damage than those labeled with male names because people do not take hurricanes with female names as seriously and prepare for them.

The fact that hurricanes with female names are automatically considered less powerful reflects implicit gender bias. Without people's conscious awareness, this type of bias affects other types of decisions people make, including who employers hire and who people vote for.

In a research study about implicit bias in hiring decisions, identical resumes were sent for a job application -- one with a female name and another with a male name. The overwhelming majority preferred the male candidate.

To investigate whether scientists also have implicit gender bias, a research study was conducted at Yale University in which scientists were asked to review hypothetical equivalent curriculum vitae of a male and a female undergraduate student in science applying for a lab technician's position and asked how likely they were to hire them and how much they were willing to pay them if they hired them.

A female name caused backlash. Both men and women reviewing the curriculum vitae were less willing to hire the person and if they agreed to hire her, they offered her a lower salary. Consistent with this study, Carnegie Mellon University professor Linda Babcock's research also shows that both men and women have similar gender bias against professional women.

Several research studies suggest that even letters of recommendation of a man and woman generally differ qualitatively in its content, which could cost women jobs and affect their promotion prospects. For example, in one research study, researchers discovered gender stereotypes in such letters and found that women were described in more communal terms while men were portrayed in more agentic or assertive terms such as "born leader" and "goal oriented" which often adversely affected the prospects of the female candidate.

In another study, professional men and women were asked to rate the performance of chief executives who voiced their opinions more or less frequently about important issues. Male executives who voiced their opinion more than their peers received 10 percent higher rating but female executives who voiced their opinion more than their peers received 14 percent lower rating.

What these research studies and my own personal experiences suggest is that it is easy for people to interpret the same qualities in men and women differently and interact with them very differently due to their implicit bias.

Hillary Clinton in her run for the Oval House faces a similar implicit bias. Derogatory terms such as "power hungry" have been used to describe Clinton, but an equivalent male candidate with her vision, talent and ambition to lead our nation will never be labeled in this manner. Although most voters if asked say that they would vote for the best candidate regardless of their gender, the truth is that their evaluation is often clouded by the gender of the candidate.

According to experiments by Cecilia Mo of Vanderbilt University, voters unconsciously prefer male leaders. Mo remarks that "There appears to be a gulf between our conscious ideals of equality and our unconscious tendency to discriminate at the ballot box."

One of the most difficult aspects of implicit bias is the fact that those who are biased can be completely unaware, and even proud of their lack of bias. Here I give an example of a female physicist who was struggling to maintain an academic career in physics while her physicist husband worked in a tenure-track position. A colleague of her husband asked her why she was so concerned about having a tenure-track position, since her husband could support her financially. What if the gender roles were reversed? Would he have said the same thing to her husband? Ironically, this same implicitly-biased colleague was quoted in a newspaper as stating that physicists do not have any gender bias.

What is surprising is that even liberated people who are otherwise broad minded can harbor implicit gender bias when it comes to professional women like Clinton and me.

You can take tests at the website, implicit.harvard.edu, to check your implicit bias. The results of these tests suggest that even those who pride themselves as being objective have implicit bias against gender and race. Moreover, not only men, but even women are biased against professional women.

In order to elect the most qualified leader of our country, an immensely important job, we need to take gender completely out of the equation. Doing so requires unmasking and removing the implicit gender bias against Hillary Clinton and the built in male privilege that all the male presidential candidates have.

Since the biases against Hillary Clinton are implicit, it would be a worthwhile exercise for each of us who is voting to evaluate our thoughts about each candidate consciously reversing the gender of each candidate and keeping everything else about them the same.

Will our views about the candidates be different if Hillary Clinton were a male and all male candidates were females and everything else about them was exactly the same?

We should vote for the most deserving candidate who is ready to effectively embrace the opportunities and challenges that our great nation faces and who has the greatest ability and experience to push forward agenda and policies that empower all Americans and help them live better lives.