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Gender Bias in the Hard Sciences? No Duh

Madame Marie Curie- 2 time Nobel winner

Here’s the bad news:

Despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science. Abundant research has demonstrated gender bias in many demographic groups, but has yet to experimentally investigate whether science faculty exhibit a bias against female students that could contribute to the gender disparity in academic science. 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 signifi- cantly 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. We also assessed faculty participants’ preexist- ing subtle bias against women using a standard instrument and found that preexisting subtle bias against women played a moder- ating role, such that subtle bias against women was associated with less support for the female student, but was unrelated to reactions to the male student. These results suggest that interven- tions addressing faculty gender bias might advance the goal of increasing the participation of women in science.

I disagree with the premise in the first sentence after the abstract that there is a severe shortage of scientists that is going to worsen by the end of the decade.  That simply isn’t true.  What *is* true is that there will be a shortage of scientists who want to keep doing work in the sciences for minimum wage, which is where industry wants to take us.  Industry can keep whining about the lack of labor but what it really wants is cheap labor that it can lay off at will and underpay and as I  have said before, smart people tend to steer away from that kind of work.  If they make enough money, they can do science as a hobby, like D. E. Shaw.  But I digress.

Pick any woman working in the hard sciences, academic or industrial setting, and they will all of them tell you some personal horror story.  I myself know of several:

  • The female chemist who was hired to be a group manager.  I heard non-stop snippy comments from her male subordinants about how she was just a quota.  Her qualifications were nothing special.  She was taking the place of a more qualified male chemist.  No, they didn’t have anyone in mind specifically.  Just in general.  Since she was the ONLY woman at her level, I could never figure out why the guys felt they needed 100% of those positions all to themselves.  They couldn’t even fork over one position to a qualified woman?  Were we supposed to be running, some kind of affirmative action program for white male chemists because 90% representation at the managerial level was unacceptably low?  Are white male chemists some kind of protected group?  This was just after she took her position, so I could never figure out how they made the decision so quickly that she wasn’t worthy.  My interactions with her pretty good.  I liked the way she communicated.  It was low key but very focussed.  And she was pretty smart and asked the right questions.  She got to the heart of the matter without a lot of bullshit.  So, whatever those guys were seeing, I totally missed. Anyway, after a few years, she left the company and went elsewhere.   I still occasionally run into the guys who worked for her and while I consider them my friends, I think they were totally unfair to this woman.  They’re still grumbling about having had to work for her for no particular reason that I can tell.  There were a lot of male managers who they readily admit were worse in terms of expertise and managerial ability.  We laugh about a horror show they were, but for some reason, no one says they shouldn’t have had a crack at a managerial position. They feel quite differently about this female manager for no tangible reason.  It’s like, “I’d work for a woman but not that woman”.  But in actuality, they can’t think of a single woman they’d want to work for.  Go figure.
  • The female supervisor who got pushed out of the way for a male supervisor who schmoozed his way to the top and undermined her at every opportunity, in front of her direct reports and behind her back.  There were witnesses to the out in front behavior and behind closed doors behavior. She got very little credit for the mountains of work she did.  Having worked with her closely, I know she was very smart and actually knew the science.  The man who replaced her was a lot more political and connected.
  • The guys who steal projects from women, usurp their authority, have meetings with her collaborators behind her back and then accuse them of being “out of the loop” and “not up to date” afterwards.  That is extremely successful.  Those guys get promotions.  Well, it’s a cutthroat world and the number of jobs are shrinking.  It’s every man for himself.
  • When there are positions available, they go to men.  When there are promotions, they go to men.  Sometimes the same man, over and over and over again.  That is why some departments have very few women in them.  Women remain junior for much longer and do not get mentored.  When it is time to cut staff, the junior people get the ax.  Voile! No more women.
  • Women get graded on their behavior.  They are always told to not be too pushy.  But if they back off too much, they can’t get their work done.  Then, they are told to be more assertive.  So, they try that, but they’re told it’s not assertive in the “right” way.  You’re either “not a team player and too aggressive” or “ineffective”.  Your success depends on your ability to walk on eggshells.  What does this have to do with the actual science?  Nada.  But if the guys don’t want to play with you, and these days when there are fewer and fewer jobs, they have a lot of incentives to make your contributions look insignificant, it’s exceptionally easy for them to pull out the behavioral critique to put you in your place.  They wouldn’t get away with that with a man because men in science are perceived to be more competent and pushy behavior in a man is seen as a good thing.

The GOOD news is that this should be a somewhat more tractable problem to solve in the sciences because scientists have a greater respect for actual data.  If you collect enough data and take enough measurements and show correlations and present this information in a seminar with enough numbers and charts and graphs, they might start treating it like a problem that needs to be solved.  It could be another project.

There is also the possibility of using diversity and sensitivity training to work through why men have their crazy ass attitudes to women who are just trying to do their jobs.  For instance, men who have stay at home wives who do not work are probably the worst bosses for women.  That’s not to say that they are mean or slavedrivers.  It’s just that they see the world through a traditional male-female point of view.  A man who works for such a boss is going to be seen as more needful of promotions and raises because the boss with a stay at home wife identifies with a male’s traditional responsibility.  But he may not be able to identify with his female direct reports and their responsibilities.  Show that boss enough papers and studies in respectable peer reviewed journals and he may be easier to re-educate.  This might not be the case with the guy who runs the accounting department (well, not right away), but scientists should be more responsive when they see all conditions and parameters tweaked and analyzed.

Well, anyway, that’s the way they handle gender bias in Finland.  They have a department that analyses workplaces where there are allegations of gender bias and they measure EVERYTHING.  That is where the truth lies.  It is not a “he said-she said” problem.  That’s too subjective and rarely works unless someone leaves a smoking email or is caught on tape. But absolutely everything can be measured.  It’s a much fairer, more objective way of finding the truth. Your attitudes and conditioning lead you to do certain things, write certain things, order your environment a certain way.  You can count the number of times male colleagues respond to a female colleague’s emails and phone calls, what meetings she is invited to, how many time she is responded to during those meetings, who is talking while she is presenting and for how long, how many times is she interrupted, how close her workspace is to positions of importance, how much space she has in square feet.  You can search performance reviews for words that describe behavior instead of competence and outcome. Do the same for male reports, compare and contrast. If there is gender bias in the data, it will be hard to ignore.

If Obama were really the feminist icon he’s supposed to be, he’d order the EEOC to apply the statistical analysis model to ferret out the truth instead of putting all the burden on women plaintiffs. I’m not holding my breath.  But it COULD happen.  If women file a complaint against a company or managers, the burden should be on the company to prove it isn’t true.  Submit to a statistical analysis and see what turns up.  Men like statistics, right? Women could develop a new appreciation for them as well.  The goal is not to punish but to make people accountable for their behavior whether they are aware of it or not.  Of course, repeat offenders should be punished but this method is more likely to figure out what it is they’re being punished for.

Hmmmm, maybe what we really need is a very powerful woman and true feminist icon to advocate for this kind of thing once she leaves public office.  {{hint, hint}}

Anyway, the study comes as no surprise.  I haven’t read the PNAS paper all the way through yet.  (How nice that PNAS is offering this one gratis.) This study won’t be the last you’ll be hearing about this.  That’s because women are starting to realize that they can make math and numbers work for them.  They just need access to the data.

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