10/11/2012 01:28 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

Perfect Bias: Why Women Underperform

The Yale study announcing that science professors widely regard female undergraduates as less competent than their male peers didn't get much attention. It didn't produce outrage. Maybe gender discrimination in the sciences is old news. Maybe it is taken for granted. However, one facet of the report that should have been surprising to us all is the revelation that the gender of faculty participants did not affect their responses: male and female professors were "equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student."

The study distributed resumes identical in all ways except for the applicant's name -- half were from "John," half from "Jennifer" -- to a group of science professors. Both men and women found John to be the superior candidate.

What stands out here is the fact that after all the attempts to recruit and retain women in the sciences, women get short shrift, even from their alleged sisters! We expect women to be less agile with equations and formulas, less worthy of mentorship and more inclined to veer off their career path to raise children, and what we expect is what we get.

According to the scientists behind the study, the result is due not to intentional marginalization, but to "subconscious cultural influences." Are we supposed to be relieved that this discrimination isn't deliberate?

In attributing routine discrimination to subconscious impulses, the scientists encourage us to excuse their findings as almost inevitable. Who can control the subconscious? But cultural influences are a collective responsibility. The resulting bias can hardly be justified as unavoidable.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves what the difference is between discriminatory behavior that is attributed to "cultural influences" and behavior that is "overt." After all, the study found that female students were routinely discriminated against on the sheer basis of their gender. And it's not simply a guy thing. Rather, the fact that this kind of prejudice extends outside the sciences and streams through the culture at large should raise red flags for all of us.

Low expectations for female performance are intimately connected to women's self-esteem and their self-selection out of fields perceived to be male terrain. Why don't women get to the top? According to Dr. Nancy Hopkins, a champion of women's advancement in the sciences who spoke with The New York Times about the Yale results, "They don't have the confidence level... They get undercut."

When I was in high school, none of my math teachers were women and no one raised an eyebrow when I opted out of math -- even though I was good at it -- to pursue the humanities in college. The message I got from the outset was that girls are expected to have wobbly self-esteem in the face of figures, so much so that for many it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and in turn a society-fulfilling one.

So I shouldn't have been startled when I went to my son's middle school on "take your parents to school" day and noted how reticent the girls were in his chemistry class and how vocal they were in language arts. I'd seen it all before. But my own middle school experience was thirty years ago: Weren't we supposed to have overcome these kinds of divisions by now?

Should we be surprised that young women -- then and now -- turn to other figures, namely their own, to try to overcome dismal self-esteem? Or that women may try to overcompensate for feelings of unworthiness or incompetence in areas designated as "female" appropriate?

Another study cited by Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times found that women and minorities routinely underperform on math and science tests when reminded before testing of their gender or race. The idea of "stereotype threat" is used to explain that these groups score lower because they are concerned about "confirming negative stereotypes" based on their social group.

Clearly, scientists aren't the only ones undercutting women. We all judge others -- and ourselves -- based on stereotype. To some degree we are all victims of "stereotype threat." We are all guilty of gender discrimination. And when judging other women, women can be some of the worst offenders.

Instead of a world full of female mathematicians and scientists at the tops of their fields we have a caving in to stereotype and the drive to female perfection discussed eloquently by Judith Warner in her important book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.

Demonstrating how vital the rhetoric of choice became for U.S. feminism in the wake of Roe v. Wade, Warner argues that the idea of "control" over one's body became the locus of feminist politics in the 1980s and '90s. She shows how both feminist and anti-feminist camps linked female selfhood to sexuality and proclaimed empowerment through bodily control.

But instead of honing these empowerment tools to effect policies that assisted women, women used them to police themselves internally. Ruled by a drive for self-perfection, a generation of women became not the rabble-rousers that they were poised to become, but rather a generation of control freaks. Warding off self-doubt, "control freakishness became the normative way for young women to deal with food and their bodies" and with adulthood more generally. And when these women became parents, they applied the same kind of sharped edged perfectionism to their parenting as they had to their own lives.

This is the same version of perfect madness that Barnard President Debora Spar struggles against in her recent article, "Why Women Should Stop Trying to Be Perfect." Spar writes, "part of what keeps women from the top ranks of their professions is a fear that they will not perform well enough... part of what makes women unhappy at home is a related fear that they are not quite good enough."

In spite of the fact that we do have some significant women at the top, elsewhere women are fearing success and doubting themselves. What makes women foreclose on self-worth before they've even left the gate? Subconscious cultural influences! They have produced an extreme kind of performance anxiety, an extreme kind of opting-out. And the results hurt us all.

The lesson to be learned from the Yale study is that gender bias exists in the sciences just as it exists everywhere. And this bias can be a self-fulfilling prophecy for women, who can then become their own worst enemies be it in the workplace or at home.

I'm not arguing that differences between men and women don't exist -- of course they do. No one disagrees that blue eyes are different from brown ones, but what significance or meaning do we attach to that difference? In the end, it's what we make of difference that matters. We can accept and embrace differences without making them the basis for unyielding, static and eternal division.

So are we stuck in a world in which gender bias will continue to dominate? How do we get out of this bind? Sure, young women could be better encouraged in math and science, but that is not enough. We all could focus our energies not on policing ourselves internally -- or judging other women -- but on establishing policies that make women equal across the board, inside and outside the sciences. That way, we could usher in "cultural influences" that take their cues not only from representative majorities, but also those closer to home. We could all work towards women working together with men in boardrooms and in family rooms, fearlessly demonstrating that everyone is better off when gender bias is not a foregone conclusion.