Struggling Against Gender Bias in STEM Fields

In spite of wishful thinking, sexism and gender bias persist in science, tech, engineering and math. (Image: Getty, New Scientist)

In spite of wishful thinking, sexism and gender bias persist in science, tech, engineering and math. (Image: Getty, New Scientist)

[Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of American Astronomical Society (AAS) Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) Status newsletter (p. 15-17). If you quote this article in any way, please cite the version in Status. Many thanks to Nancy Morrison and Joannah Hinz for editing assistance.]

Suppose that two astrophysicists with similar education, experience, and accomplishments—let’s call them Dr. X and Dr. Y—apply for a tenure-track faculty position. If Dr. X is female and Dr. Y is male, and if the selection committee members have conscious or unconscious gender bias, then, unfortunately, one might expect it to be more likely that Dr. Y would be offered the position.

But a controversial and influential new paper argues the opposite. In the title of their April 2015 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, both psychologists and full professors at Cornell University, claim, “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track.” [1]

The authors base their conclusions on five randomized, controlled experiments at 371 U.S. colleges and universities in biology, engineering, economics, and psychology. In these experiments, tenure-track faculty members evaluated the biographical summaries or the curricula vitae of fictitious faculty candidates—including one “foil” candidate—mostly with impressive qualifications but with different genders and different life situations, such as being a single parent or having taken parental leave.

Their analysis reveals an unexpected result: faculty reviewers strongly preferred female candidates to male ones by a highly significant 2:1 advantage. Williams and Ceci conclude, “Efforts to combat formerly wide-spread sexism in hiring appear to have succeeded. After decades of overt and covert discrimination against women in academic hiring, our results indicate a surprisingly welcoming atmosphere today for female job candidates in STEM disciplines, by faculty of both genders.”

The article received considerable media attention from a variety of outlets. In particular, Nature, The Washington Post, The Economist, and Inside Higher Ed reviewed the article without much skepticism. Presumably, the authors’ claim that sexism no longer exists and gender bias is a thing of the past is a message that many people want to hear. On 31 October 2014, Williams and Ceci published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” in which they presented a shorter version of the same argument. [2]

On the other hand, Lisa Grossman in New Scientist [3] and Matthew Francis in Slate [4] analyzed the study in more detail and expressed more criticism. Both authors outlined the flaws in the analysis by Williams and Ceci. The experimental evaluations in their study involved only reviews of candidates’ biographies, without all the other activities that normally enter into faculty hiring and that may be affected by gender bias: personal interviews, presentation of talks, social events with potential colleagues, and determination of a short list by a selection committee. These simplified experiments do not accurately represent a real hiring process.

Many other studies and and a wealth of anecdotal evidence contradict the conclusions of Williams and Ceci. For example, Viviane Callier, Ph. D., contractor at the National Cancer Institute, told us [5] that recent surveys [6,7] found evidence of pervasive sexism in letters of recommendation—a domain in which the assumption of a level playing field does not apply and which is out of the woman applicant’s control. Moreover, faculty hiring is dominated by graduates of a few prestigious institutions and labs that are disproportionately headed by men, who are more likely to hire other men. “To imply, like Williams and Ceci, that ‘we are done,’ or that ‘the problem is solved,’ does a great disservice to the scientific community,” Callier said.

In any case, analysts agree that the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields is an ongoing problem. According to a National Science Foundation study in 2008, 31% of full-time science and engineering faculty are women. This fraction varies among different fields, however. In an American Institute of Physics survey [8], the representation of women among physics faculty members reached 14% in 2010, and for astronomy-only departments, it was 19%. Similarly, a 2013 CSWA survey of gender demographics [10] found that 23% of faculty at universities and national research centers are women. These fractions demonstrate improvement in recent decades, but clearly much more work needs to be done.

Furthermore, although women outnumber men among college and university graduates, men continue to dominate the physical sciences, math, and engineering. At higher levels of academic careers, the gender demographics worsen, in what is often described as a “leaky pipeline.” Women constitute only one third of astronomy graduate students and less than 30% of astronomy postdoctoral researchers. In addition to the underrepresentation of women, gender inequality persists in other areas as well: according to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research [9], although women now pursue graduate degrees at the same levels as men, women with such degrees earn no more than 70% of their male colleagues, a larger divide than the overall pay gap.

“Unconscious bias” against women in science and math is not unique to men. In a 2012 PNAS study [11], Corinne A. Moss-Racusin and her Yale University colleagues found that female faculty are just as biased as men against female scientists. When people assess students, hire postdocs, award fellowships, and hire and promote faculty, biases propagate through the pipeline. Contrary to the conclusions of Williams and Ceci, the problem is on both the supply side and the demand side.

What can be done to address such biases? As difficult as it may be, if scientists simply acknowledge that we all carry some inner biases, those biases may be reduced. Meg Urry argued in the January 2014 issue of Status [12] that people who are aware of bias tend be more careful about how they make hiring decisions. In addition, increasing the fraction of women in hiring pools and in search committees helps to reduce unconscious bias as well.

Some institutions have National Science Foundation-funded ADVANCE Programs to increase the representation and advancement of women in STEM careers. The University of Michigan’s program [13], for example, includes efforts to develop equitable faculty recruitment practices, increase the retention of valued faculty, improve the departmental climate and work environment, and develop encouraging leadership skills of faculty, staff and students. Their program could be emulated at other institutions.

Finally, other important issues relate to gender bias and underrepresentation of women, including improving maternal and paternal leave policies, increasing access to child care, developing dual-career policies, promoting work-life balance, and reducing gender inequality of housework. Furthermore, other forms of underrepresentation are also important, and workers in STEM fields continue to strive to improve diversity in race, class, and sexual orientation, as well as gender.

References Cited
[1] Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. 2015, “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track,” PNAS, 112, 5360n
[2] Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. 2014 October 31, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” New York Times
[3] Grossman, L. 2015 April 17, “Claiming sexism in science is over is just wishful thinking,”
New Scientist
[4] Francis, M. R. 2015 April 20, “A Surprisingly Welcome Atmosphere,” Slate
[5] Callier, V. 2015, personal communication by email
[6] McNutt, M. 2015, “Give women an even chance,” Science, 348, 611
[7] Madera, J. M., Hebl, M. R., and Martin, R. C. 2009, “Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1591
[8] Ivie, R., White, S., Garrett, A., & Anderson, G. 2013, “Women Among Physics & Astronomy Faculty: Results from the 2010 Survey of Physics Degree-Granting Departments,” American Institute of Physics
[9] Institute for Women’s Policy Research 2015, “The Status of Women in the States: 2015 Employment and Earnings”
[10] Hughes, A. M. 2014 January, “The 2013 CSWA Demographics Survey: Portrait of a Generation of Women in Astronomy,” Status, p. 1
[11] Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoli, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. 2012, “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students,” PNAS, 109, 16474
[12] Urry, C. M. 2014 January, “Why We Resist Unconscious Bias,” Status, p. 10
[13] University of Michigan, ADVANCE Program

One Man’s Perspective on Diversity and Inequality in Science

[This blog was originally posted at the Women in Astronomy blog. Thanks to Jessica Kirkpatrick for editing assistance.]

It’s obvious, but one thing I’ve noticed over my career so far is that many departments, institutions, conferences, organizations, committees, high-profile publications, big research grants, etc., both nationally and internationally, and especially leadership positions, are filled with straight, white, men. There are notable and impressive exceptions, but the trend is clear. The distributions of people in the scientific workforce clearly don’t reflect their distribution in the overall population. For example, according to the AAS’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, nearly half of undergraduate students who obtain bachelors of science degrees are women, but only a third of astronomy graduate students and 30% of Ph.D. recipients are. Women compose 25-30% of postdocs and lower-level faculty, and this drops by half (to 15%) of tenured faculty. This is not explained by historical differences in gender: if women were promoted and retained at rates comparable to men, then the fractions advancing to higher career stages should be equal. The demographics in terms of race aren’t good either: according to the American Institute of Physics, African Americans and Hispanics combined account for only 5% of physics faculty.

Of course, this isn’t news to readers of this blog. And the disturbing lack of diversity doesn’t just affect us in astronomy and astrophysics or even just in the physical sciences. For example, as you’ve probably seen, the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley has deservedly been in the news lately. Tech companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have all been criticized for being dominated by white men (and recently, also Asian men). We definitely need to work more at improving diversity in all STEM fields.

I’m a half-white half-Iranian man in astronomy and astrophysics. Everything is competitive these days, but in my opinion, if I’m applying for a job or a grant, for example, and if a black or Latino person or a woman with the same experience and qualifications as me has also applied, I think she should probably get it. While the grant and job markets in STEM fields are very competitive, I think we should look at the big picture, in which we need to strive for more equality in our universities and institutions. It’s also important to keep in mind that both men and women leave academia (though at different rates) and find important and fulfilling careers elsewhere.

I’d also like to point out that, in Iran, STEM fields are not seen as “male” subjects as much as they are in the US and they therefore have almost gender parity in these fields. For example, 70% of Iranian science and engineering students are women and when I last visited Tehran, I met many brilliant female Iranian physics students who could speak about science in both Farsi and English. And in recent news, Maryam Mirzakhani recently became the first woman to win the Fields Medal mathematics prize, and Azeen Ghorayshi won the Clark/Payne award for science journalists. (She recently wrote a story for Newsweek about smog in Tehran, which keeps getting worse.)

In any case, we all benefit—and science benefits—when we have a diverse community. A more diverse workforce, including among leadership positions, helps to produce new ideas and perspectives and to guard against bias. In business, when there is more diversity, everyone profits.

Speaking of bias, how can we deal with “unconscious bias”? In practice, two applicants are never identical, so we have to assess people on a case-by-case basis. It turns out that both men and women surprisingly have similar biases against women in STEM fields, though the biases can be reduced when people are more aware of them and when diverse committees make decisions about hiring and leadership decisions. In addition, diversity and racial equity should be considered at both the initial and shortlist stages of admissions and hiring, and the academic tenure system should be more flexible.

On the issue of leadership and mentorship, I’ve had female and male bosses and mentors and I’ve advised male and female students; in addition, I’ve worked with and for people from many different countries and backgrounds. As far as I can tell, it hasn’t made a difference for me, and I’ve seen a greater variety of management and collaboration styles among men and women than differences between them (though I’ve seen more overconfident men than women). Unfortunately though, some people still do view female leaders differently and hold them to different standards than male leaders.

So what can we do? Many people who are trying to improve this situation are doing excellent work on public outreach and educational programs especially with the purpose of reaching and encouraging girls, minorities, and underprivileged youth. It’s not hard to find such programs everywhere: for example, I recently participated in the Adler Planetarium Astrojournalists program and in a physics outreach program at UCSD with Intertribal Youth organized by Adam Burgasser. The success of such programs, as well as the growing numbers of role models, help to gradually changing cultural stereotypes and reducing biases. For those of us at research institutions, work on outreach and communication should be valued as much as research achievements when hiring and tenure decisions are made. One way to do this would be to explicitly state this in job advertisements and to hiring and tenure committees at our own institutions. It would require more work from such committees, but that’s a small price to pay.

The literature on “confidence gap” issues has been growing rapidly, encouraging women to “lean in” and be more confident and self-assured at work. This is important, but it amounts to encouraging women to behave more like men. We can’t neglect persistent structural and institutionalized barriers and we can’t forget that gender and race inequality is everywhere or that men and white people are benefit from their privileges. (And although class is a separate issue, it’s worth pointing out that there is also a lack of class diversity within higher education and graduate programs. According to the US Census Bureau, the income discrepancy between the working class and the professional class with higher academic degrees is growing, so this problem is getting worse.)

Increasing gender and race diversity is an important goal and an ongoing struggle, but it’s also a means to an end. I believe that we need to set our sights higher than merely having a few more white women and people of color among faculty members. We need *paid* maternity leave, universal or child-care options, better dual-career policies, and paternity leave should be expected. We shouldn’t praise men who continue working full-time rather than spending time with their new children, and we still have a long way to go until men share housework equally with women. Work-life balance issues affect everyone, including single people and those without children. We can advocate for new policies at our own institutions, and city- or state-wide or even national policies would make a huge difference. As a potential step in that direction, even Congress is aware of these issues: in the America COMPETES Act (which funds STEM R&D, education, and innovation) reauthorization it’s now directing the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) develop and implement guidelines for policies that encourage work-life balance, workplace flexibility, and family-responsiveness. In any case, we’re gradually making progress, but much more work remains to be done.

Diversity in Science

Diversity in science and diversity in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) in general are important issues, and I’d like to write more about them. This post is related to my previous post, in which I discussed work-life balance issues. I’ll only review some of the relevant issues here, and I plan to follow up and write more about them in later posts. On diversity in astronomy and astrophysics, I recommend checking out the Women in Astronomy blog, the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA), and the STEM Women blog. I focus on the situation in the United States here, but these are issues that people are seeking to address internationally, though the specific situation and possible solutions vary among different countries. (For statistics on members of the International Astronomical Union, see this paper.)

By diversity, I mean the distributions of people in the scientific workforce, including graduate students, postdocs, and tenure-track and tenured faculty as a function of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation don’t reflect their distribution in the overall population. In other words, the disproportionate majority of the scientific workforce is composed of white men. Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to STEM fields; we also see a lack of diversity in the media, law, among policy-makers, the tech industry, corporate boardrooms, etc. I will take it as given that diversity is an important goal: it’s important for equality, and everyone benefits when work environments are more diverse.


To give some specific numbers, according to the CSWA nearly half of undergraduate students who obtain bachelors of science degrees are women, but only a third of astronomy graduate students and ~30% of Ph.D. recipients are. Women compose ~25-30% of postdocs and lower-level faculty, and this drops by half (to ~15%) of tenured faculty. The female participation rate drops as you look up the “ladder”. Unfortunately, the situation is worse in non-astronomy physics, engineering, and math. For example, only 18% of physics Ph.D.s are women. Among the physical sciences, biology is doing the best on gender diversity. The following figure (taken from this Scientific American article) shows the breakdown among these sciences.


While I’m focusing on gender in this post, the lack of diversity by race and ethnicity is also a major problem. Fewer than 3% of US citizens receiving Ph.D’s are African-American and Hispanic, though together they represent more than a quarter of the US population. Clearly much more work needs to be done to rectify this situation and improve racial diversity. People are working on the whole “pipeline”, from elementary school students to people holding faculty and other senior positions. I should also make the obvious point that there generally appears to be a lack of class diversity as well within higher education and graduate programs. In addition, according to the US Census Bureau, the income discrepancy between the working class and the professional class with the higher academic degrees is growing.

These are not encouraging numbers, but at least they are an improvement over the situation a decade ago and much better than two decades ago. Nonetheless, the rate of improvement is very slow, and the problem will be not be solved simply by waiting for the pipeline to flow (i.e., the senior people retire and the more diverse lower ranks are gradually promoted). Even if overt sexism and racism did not exist at all in departments and hiring decisions, some inequality would persist in STEM fields. Many people are asking what is causing this and what can be done about it.

These are issues with which physical scientists could benefit from the research and input of social scientists. For example, consider these articles by Aanerud et al. (2007) and Timmers et al. (2010), which I found from a quick search of the literature. Aanerud et al. argue that in order to understand women’s tenure status, we should widen our lens and consider the role of labor market alternatives to academic careers; consequently, “we must be cautious about women’s favorable tenure ratio in fields with interpreting gender strong alternatives to academic tenure as indicating academic gender equity.” (In other words, in physics and astronomy we may not necessarily want to emulate the policies used in more diverse fields.) Timmers et al. argue that “Three sets of factors explain women’s low shares at higher job levels, notably individual, cultural, and structural or institutional perspectives, and policies to increase the proportion of women therefore should address these factors.” Policy measures that address the cultural perspective (such as expressing responsibility for applying a gender equality policy at department levels and women in selection committees) and structural perspective (such as accounting for the recruitment of women, adapting job advertisements, and bonuses for hiring women) appear to work effectively in combination.

Also, sociology professor Crystal Fleming has a well-written blog post on privilege and the importance of resilience in the face of rejection and failure while working in academia. This is important because scientists and academics, but more female than male ones, are affected by “imposter syndrome.” (Personally, I can tell you that I’ve had to work hard applying for numerous positions, fellowships, research grants, etc., and it’s difficult to be rejected by the vast majority of them.) As one more example, Adam Burgasser, a faculty in my department at UCSD, has worked with social scientists recently to better recruit and retain diverse graduate students. They’ve found that it’s important to follow-through and continue mentoring students through their graduate career.

What other kinds of things are being done or can be done to improve the situation? It’s important to encourage and mentor undergrads, grad students, and postdocs, and also to talk to them about alternative career paths outside academia, as there are many possible careers for scientists. As important, it’s good to reach girls and boys in primary and secondary school about science, and it’s important to try to reduce currently prevalent cultural stereotypes. For example, when many people think of typical scientists, they imagine a nerdy white man (such as in the TV show “Big Bang Theory”) in a lab coat. There are many ways to encourage girls’ interest in science, though some ways may be more effective than others (see this Slate article, for example). Members of university departments and other organizations have developed a wide range of outreach programs targeting girls and children of color, including numerous programs at UC San Diego that bring secondary school students and underprivileged youth to UCSD for interactive demonstrations, labs, lectures, and other activities aimed at enhancing their interest in science.

There are other cultural issues to deal with as well. For example, some people have stereotypes about their own bosses, but women are great leaders (maybe better than men) and people’s views about female bosses vis-à-vis male bosses are improving in some ways. It’s also difficult for people of color; an African American leader who appear authoritative or offers criticism of particular policies, for example, can be stereotyped as an “angry black man” or “angry black woman.” Whites and males should be more aware of gender and race privilege, and this is something that should be more frequently and openly discussed. (See this excellent blog post by Caitlin Casey.) In addition, some people, inadvertently or not, might act in a sexist or racist manner at work, and this should be challenged and called out. And we have to be very careful about “unconscious bias”: for example, both men and women surprisingly have the same biases against women in male-dominated fields, though the biases are reduced when people are aware of them and when diverse committees make decisions about hiring and leadership decisions (see this article by Meg Urry).

It seems like the literature on “confidence gap” issues has been growing rapidly, encouraging women to “lean in” and be more confident and self-assured at work. All of this is great and important. In my opinion, however, it’s also potentially misleading. We can’t neglect persistent structural problems, power relations, pernicious cultural frames, and we can’t forget gender and race inequality.

Increasing diversity is an important goal, but it’s also a means to an end. In my opinion, we need to set our sights higher than merely having a few more women and people of color among faculty members. We need *paid* maternity leave, universal or child-care options, better dual-career policies, and paternal leave should be expected. There should be no benefit for men who continue working full-time rather than spending time with their new children, and we still have a long way to go until men share housework equally with women. This is related to work-life balance issues, which are definitely not a “women’s problem”. (See also these NY Times articles continuing the struggle for gender equality.) We’re gradually making progress, but much more work remains to be done.

Some thoughts on “work-life balance”

Since my partner and I are about to go on vacation and I’m therefore about to go on a break from work, this will be my last blog until mid-January. I figured that this might be a good occasion to talk a bit about what some people call the “work-life balance.” I’ll try to make my comments general, but note that my perspective is that of a man, a scientist, and an academic in the US, which may be very different than others’ perspectives. One major difference of jobs in academia is that they tend have more flexible schedules but less security than other jobs. (For more discussion of these issues, I suggest looking at the Women in Astronomy blog and the American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Women.)

I think the main point I want to make here is that work-life balance issues and issues of equality and diversity are closely related, and issues of fair working conditions and job security are related as well but are discussed less often in this context.

One thing is clear: both women and men want to “have it all”, though what “all” refers to is different for different people. In addition, there has been much debate and discussion recently in news media, such as these articles in The Guardian and The Atlantic, of the fact that men also want a balance between work and life, which often refers to men taking a larger role than before at home with their families.  It’s interesting that this is considered noteworthy, but it’s good that changes toward equality are happening even if they’re a bit late.


When both men and women seek balances between work and life, this also should result in more equal career and employment opportunities for women and therefore more women in leadership positions than there have been in the past.  For example, when both men and women take parental leave, it is less likely to hurt them in terms of their long-term career advancement.  It is increasingly becoming understood and expected by co-workers and employers that both men and women take leave, though some employers (and universities) have better policies for this than others.  Many countries require paid paternity leave, but the US is not one of them.

I also want to point out that discussions of these issues often seem to occur about people with children, though of course people without kids want work-life balance too.  Work and careers are important for many people, but some people only notice a work-life tension when they have kids, partly because kids take a lot of time but also because some people’s lives are primarily focused on their work. This isn’t really a criticism (after all, many great scientists and artists have been passionately focused only on their work), but it’s worth noting that “workaholic” attitudes are common but are especially prevalent in the US, to some people’s detriment. In addition, when there is a lot of competition for jobs and job security is hard to find, there is more pressure to work harder and longer hours at the expense of other important things. In any case, every person has different goals and priorities, but jobs and employer policies should be flexible enough to accommodate that. A work-life balance is important for one’s mental and physical health and happiness and for the health of families and communities, though of course different people will have different ways for attempting to achieve such a balance.

Finally, to lighten things up, let’s end with an Onion article.