Implicit bias in STEM

Jen here –

This post was originally written as a response to an email that was sent out in my department. That email was worded in a way that suggested that women are not underrepresented in STEM fields. I’ve reworded and rewritten my original email here. Included in this article are numerous links to studies to support the claim that women and other diverse groups of researchers are discriminated against.

Language is powerful and in order to have productive dialogue regarding representation of diverse groups in STEM fields, it is best not to start with suggesting that any underrepresented group is not underrepresented. This is simply counterproductive. The barriers to women in science are worldwide and supported by quantitative data.

An article cited as supporting the ‘myth’ of underrepresentation in STEM (here) was directed at the publication results of women, but only samples American Geophysical Union (AGU) journals. Even if women have a higher acceptance rate by the 19 AGU journals, this is not a representative sample of ‘high-impact’ journals, as it is only sampling from a small subset of journals. Furthermore, it is mentioned we (scientists) should use caution when quoting specific studies, but the article is a news story- not peer-reviewed literature. We must take into account why fewer women are submitting to these high impact journals, such as Nature and Science. This is a systemic problem that is rampant in academia. Institutional policies and subtle biases within an individual’s academic career perpetuate gender inequality.

More specifically, data has been mined from the Paleontological Society and the North American Paleontological Convention to explore gender gap trends in paleontology. The gender breakdown data of members of these societies depicts a near even 50-50 split among graduate students, but a reduction to 25% women and 75% men at the professional membership level. This indicates that at somewhere between grad school and academic careers stages, women are being lost from the geosciences. There are easy steps to support these women graduate students as they transition to early-career stages in all areas of the sciences, such as: providing childcare at meetings, fostering mentoring opportunities, confronting internal biases, and conscious efforts to invite women as speakers. Women are less likely to be asked as invited speakers in a variety of venues, for example: TED talks and conferences. Additionally, work has been conducted to explore the likelihood of choosing women speakers at mathematics conferences compared to the observed outcomes. The author provided evidence that underrepresentation of women as invited speakers in mathematics should, in fact, be an overrepresentation given individuals in the field (easily digestible article on the content here).

The gender gap permeates through the peer review process, in terms of women suggested as reviewers and editors inviting female reviewers. The aforementioned link provides a comprehensive summary of many peer reviewed publications on the subject. Furthermore, the STEM community must take into account implicit gender bias (which refers to the attitudes and/or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner), a main contributor to the gender gap. Work has been conducted on the gender differences in recommendation letters, indicating that female applicants (to jobs, graduate schools, etc.) are half as likely to receive excellent letters versus good letters compared to their male counterparts. Here is an article with six tactics to counteract unconscious biases. This permeates into funding opportunities and invited papers as well and has a direct effect on career success of women. Women commissioned to write Nature News & Views is much lower than the women scientists in their respective fields. One study determined that male applicants were funded over female applicants on the basis of ‘quality of researcher’, rather than ‘quality of proposal’. As academics we are evaluated based on our publication rate, but if women are commissioned less to write for high-impact journals, refused funding more frequently, and given less excellent letters of recommendation, then publication rate is an inequitable measure. This has been recognized in the medical literature as well. A recent study suggests that this bias is much less substantial when grant reviewers focus solely on the quality of the grant, instead of the presumed quality of the author of the grant. Gender bias goes away when grant reviewers focus on the science.

Further complicating the idea that women ‘publish less than men’, women in academia-namely, those in a university setting, are much more likely to be asked of favors from students. Meaning, women are much more likely to spend extended time with students who ask for ‘special favors’ (e.g., second chances on assignments, etc.), Female Professors Experience More Work Demands and Special Favor Requests. Women statistically also do more internal service than men, says a study that surveyed approximately 19,000 faculty members across the country. Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family? This increased service load leads to lower productivity in other areas such as research and teaching, which can directly affect salary and success in academia.

All of these issues are even further compounded when you consider that women of color, women with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community are under considerably more discrimination than white, heterosexual, cisgender, nondisabled women (accessibility in the geosciences). There are a multitude of studies indicating that academics that are part of more than one underrepresented group are further discriminated against (e.g. Racial Microaggressions Against Black Counseling and Counseling Psychology Faculty; Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards). While there are numerous variables involved in understanding these biases, we do know that these biases affect people very early in life, as there are many studies that identify problems like students of color are less likely to be identified as gifted by their teachers, thus taking away opportunities at a formative time (read more here).

To create a more inclusive and diverse scientific community we must recognize our implicit bias and work to support and encourage diversity. The onus should not  rest on women and other underrepresented groups to  fix the systemic discrimination in academia, as well as provide evidence that it exists every time issues arise concerning it. 

Related article (here) by Dr. Phoebe Cohen that has similar goals and is easy to read and well organized.

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