Gender bias among scientists linked to lower rates of hiring women

Study inside French science agency shows effects of both explicit and implicit beliefs

August 27, 2019
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Scientific hiring committees with members who are aware of the problem of biases against women are more likely to promote women, a study has demonstrated.

The study was carried out with the cooperation of the agency, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, creating a real-world scenario to test an association widely suspected, its authors said.

The study data “suggests that when people recognise women might face barriers, they are more able to put aside their own biases”, said one of the authors, Toni Schmader, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

The French agency, CNRS, is the largest fundamental science agency in Europe. The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, examined two years of decisions by 40 hiring committees charged with filling elite research positions at CNRS.

The research team began by using an implicit association test – flashing words on a computer screen to see how quickly participants assigned the words to a particular category – to measure how strongly the various hiring committee members associated men with science.

The researchers also measured explicit bias, by directly asking hiring committee members questions about the professional and personal barriers facing women in science careers.

Both the explicit and implicit biases were associated with lower rates of hiring women, with the effect more pronounced in the second year, when test subjects may have been less aware they were being studied, the authors said.

CNRS, in a statement, said it participated because women remain underrepresented in scientific research. At CNRS, women hold only 35 per cent of research jobs across all disciplines, with the rate worsening at higher-level positions, the agency said.

“From particle physics to the social sciences, most scientists, whether male or female, associate ‘science’ and ‘masculine’” in the concepts and words they have accumulated over their lifetimes, CNRS said.

Such stereotypes are implicit, meaning they are not detectable in typical conversations, and are no less prevalent among scientists than among the general population, the agency said.

In response, CNRS this year began offering its hiring committee members training sessions on gender stereotypes. The study authors – Professor Schmader and four colleagues at French institutions – urged additional steps, including training to help the committee members analyse their own behaviours and take steps to overcome them.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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