Panel addresses gender bias in sciences

Panel members included Priyamvada Natarajan, Corinne Moss-Racusin, Rana Dajani and Megan Urry (left to right).
Panel members included Priyamvada Natarajan, Corinne Moss-Racusin, Rana Dajani and Megan Urry (left to right). Photo by Colleen Flynn.

A Yale study showing a significant bias against women in the sciences continues to make waves across the world of academia.

The paper, written by Yale faculty and published in the October issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was discussed at a panel hosted by Women in Science at Yale Thursday night in Davies Auditorium. Drawing over 100 audience members from across the Yale community, panelists discussed the findings of the study, which showed that male candidates were preferred by science faculty members of both genders.

The study surveyed over 130 faculty members from top research universities, who were given one application for a lab manager and told they were helping in the hiring process. The applications were identical except for the name of the candidate — half of them were from an applicant named John, and the other half were from an applicant named Jennifer. Both male and female science faculty members were more likely to rate the male candidate as very competent, were more likely to hire him and rate him as worthy of their mentorship and paid him an average of $4,000 more than the identical female applicant, the study found.

“The hardest part for scientists is that they see their work as highly objective and themselves as disinterested observers, and they feel they know how to be objective, so it is hard for them to admit they have a bias,” said Yale astronomy and physics professor Priyamvada Natarajan, a chair of the Women’s Faculty Forum.

Natarajan said she was not surprised by the findings supporting a gender bias against women because they align with her experience in science departments at major universities. At the panel discussion, Natarajan said these stereotypes and preferences develop at a very young age because society conditions people to think in prejudiced ways.

Panelist Rana Dajani, a molecular biologist at Hashemite University in Jordan and a visiting Fulbright scholar at Yale, said this bias originates from the different expectations set up for men and women in the home. Because people view man as the breadwinner and woman as in charge of the child-rearing, people see the world through that lens, Dajani said. She and some of her colleagues have discussed the possibility of conducting a similar study in the Arab world, where the number of women and men in the sciences is almost equal.

In some science departments at Yale, there is a large disparity between the number of male and female faculty members.

Megan Urry, chair of the Physics Department and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, said in her department of 34, only four faculty members are women. Women are underrepresented in the field as a whole, as only 12 percent of physics faculty members are women, according to the American Institute of Physics.

Corinne Moss-Racusin, a postdoctoral associate at Yale and an author of the paper, said the bias affects everyone, even people who think they are egalitarian.

“Often, paradoxically, people who think of themselves as objective and egalitarian are often not on their guard against these creeping biases,” she said.

All four panelists said mentoring is a key issue in gender equity in science.

In academia, particularly the sciences, mentoring is crucial and can often make or break one’s career, Natarajan said. Data from the PNAS paper, though, showed faculty members were more willing to devote their time to mentor male candidates than the equally qualified female candidates.

Unconscious gender bias results in a waste of intellectual talent by excluding qualified candidates, Urry said. Rather than focusing on the gender of a candidate, the science community should instead “keep their eyes on excellence,” Natarajan added.

Now that the science community is aware of its own bias, Moss-Racusin said scientists and scientific institutions must take action to avoid future stereotyping. Though she said the biggest changes usually come from the top down, individuals cannot always wait for this big change and should instead push for more intervention research on this gender bias.

She also recommended that departments change their mentoring structure — perhaps by providing secondary mentors and establishing a more transparent advising system — to prevent bias.

Postdoctoral associate Cheryl Seifert, who attended the panel, said she thought it was very surprising to hear about a bias in the sciences.

“The first step in counteracting the bias is awareness,” she said.

Physics student Wendell Smith GRD ’16 said the panelists did a good job approaching the topic from both a male and a female perspective. Though he was among the approximately 15 men in attendance, Smith said about half the men present asked questions.

WISAY hosted a panel last year that discussed the underrepresentation of women in the science fields.

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