Our earlier articles about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)  were from  research funding, gender bias  and outright sexist points of view. Now an October 13, 2015 article  in The Conversation highlights some unexpected new findings on STEM gender bias. The author is by David Miller,  Doctoral Student in Psychology, Northwestern University  and the article, Men and women biased about studies of STEM gender bias – in opposite directions , starts with a summary of an experiment on gender bias in 2012 which shook the scientific community. The 2012 study showed that science faculty favour male college graduates over equally qualified women applying for lab manager positions. However, though the study was rigorous, many didn’t believe it.

“This report is JUNK science. There is no data here,” said one online commenter. Others justified the bias saying, “In every competitive situation, with a few exceptions, the women I worked with were NOT competent.”

The new Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) study starts by assessing the original study. The researchers recruited 205 people from the general public and 205 Montana State University tenure-track faculty, who read and then evaluated the abstract of the 2012 study. There was evidence of male bias against the research quality of the abstract, for STEM faculty,  but not for gender bias toward the abstract’s authors. The study notes that “This lack of author gender bias replicates prior research. Both experimental and real-world data typically show little to no gender bias in peer review. However, notable exceptions are sometimes found.”

The unexpected element of the research findings came from a third study which asked participants to read an abstract that either reported bias favouring men or reported no bias. The findings were that  “women rated the quality of the research higher when the abstract showed bias than when it didn’t. Men showed the reverse pattern. So both genders were biased, but in opposite directions.”

The article notes that studies have found mixed evidence of gender bias.  “For instance, the paper notes an experiment showing bias against female psychology tenure-track applicants. But experiments conducted 15+ years later show opposite results. In fact, several studies show a preference for female applicants in real-world faculty searches, not just hypothetical ones.”

In an important section headed Communicating controversial research with caution, the article gives the 2014 example where “Cornell University professors Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci wrote a New York Times op-ed about their 67-page review of literature on women in academic science. The NYT wrote the headline “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” which ignited understandable outrage.”  For more details, see Men and women biased about studies of STEM gender bias – in opposite directions

The article suggests that while the findings of the new study are a concern, it is also a concern if the evidence of gender bias is overhyped. Overhyped claims could make these fields unattractive to women or even make people less likely to believe evidence of bias when it does exist.” The author concludes that “Progress in science requires actively engaging in and learning from debate with others, even if we may find their views offensive. Civil discussion can be challenging with controversial topics such as gender bias. But, to flourish, the science needs the debate.”

David Miller’s warning about communicating controversial research with caution seems particularly relevant in light of an October 21, 2015 article in The Conversation by Cornell University Professors of Human Development, Stephen J Ceci and Wendy M Williams, who featured in the above NYT example of the sensationalistic headline. In the October 21, 2015 article, Women preferred for STEM professorships – as long as they’re equal to or better than male candidates, the authors report that since the 1980s, hiring audits at universities show a preference for hiring women for entry-level professorships in STEM.

The authors carried out a recent experiment to find out why academic faculty preferred women. They describe previously published national research which asked  873 science and engineering faculty across the US “to rank three hypothetical applicants for entry-level professorships, based on narrative vignettes about the candidates and their qualifications.”  That previous research “found that both female and male faculty strongly prefer (by a 2-to-1 margin) to hire an outstanding woman over an identically outstanding man.” The authors note that “these experiments were not designed to mimic actual academic hiring”  and “looked at typical short-listed candidates – who are extremely qualified – at the point of hiring.”

The recent experiment used the same methods, finding that “faculty of both genders and in all fields preferred the applicant rated the most outstanding, regardless of gender.” The authors’ interpretation of the results is that “women who are equal to or more accomplished than men enjoy a substantial hiring advantage.” However, they acknowledge that women still face unique hurdles in navigating academic science careers, giving links to evidence of this.  They conclude that “Sex biases and stereotypes might reduce the number of women beginning training for the professorial pipeline, but when a woman emerges from her training as an excellent candidate, she is advantaged during the hiring process.”

However, an August 5, 2015 article in The Conversation by 6 Cornell Professors and Associate Professors (all female) has doubts about the value of hypothetical experiments. In Let’s face it: gender bias in academia is for real, they note that “the study in question “controlled for,” and thus eliminated, many of the sources of bias, including letters of recommendation and teaching evaluations that disadvantage women in the hiring process. Furthermore, only one-third of faculty who were sent packets responded. Thus, the audit study captured only some of the voices that actually make hiring decisions. “

The authors give examples of gender bias throughout the hiring process and note that for a female candidate who is invited for an interview, the bias does not end. They are clearly outraged that the study goes so far as to blame women’s underrepresentation in the sciences on “self-handicapping and opting out” of the hiring process. Their conclusion is that “the battle against sexism in our fields has not been won, let alone reversed in favor of women. We must continue to educate hiring faculty, and even the society at large, about conscious and unconscious bias.”