Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

43 Vassar St., Room 46-3037c, Cambridge, MA, 02139

© 2017 by Idan A. Blank

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Going Into Your Mind

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Compared to men, strikingly few women pursue PhDs and faculty positions in science. In addition, women scientists are allocated fewer resources, and undergraduate women studying science sometimes report being treated unequally. Is this due to discrimination?


Some people argue that there is no discrimination here – gender disparity is simply due to women’s “preference for non-science disciplines and their tendency to take on a disproportionate amount of child- and family-care”. One line of reasoning suggests that scientists do not discriminate against women because they practice objective thinking on a daily basis. However, 4 years ago, a team from Yale University showed that this was not the case: bias against women exists among scientists. Shocking, I know.


The team asked 130 science professors from 6 research-intensive universities to evaluate the application of an undergraduate who was interested in a science lab manager position. This application was, of course, fictitious, but the professors did not suspect that. All of them received the exact same application, but half of them thought the applicant’s name was John (a man), while the other half thought the applicant’s name was Jennifer (a woman). With two identical applications, would the gender of the applicant matter?


As it turns out, “Jennifer” was rated as more likeable than “John”, so there was no intentional, blunt hostility towards her. Nonetheless, male professors viewed “Jennifer” as less competent and, therefore, less hierable than “John”. They also offered “Jennifer” an annual salary that was almost $4,000 lower than that offered to “John”. And, most surprisingly, female professors were also biased against “Jennifer”, no less than male professors!


This bias against “Jennifer” seemed to originate not from overt sexism, but rather from an unintended, implicit bias against women. To measure such bias, professors had to rate how much they agreed with statements like “Discrimination against women is no longer a problem in the United States”, or “Over the past few years, the government and new media have been showing more concern about the treatment of women than is warranted by women’s actual experiences”. This subtle bias correlated with the ratings professors (both male and female) gave “Jennifer”: the more unintended bias professors had, the less competent and hireable they thought “Jennifer” was.

MY TWO CENTS: I feel very fortunate to work with two women cognitive neuroscientists who consciously pursue opportunities to hire and mentor female students. However, even in my department at the liberal and egalitarian MIT, only one third of the PhD students are women (50 out of 140)

CITATION:Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109 Moss-Racusin, C.A., Dovidio, J.F., Brescoll, V.L., Graham, M.J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. (41), 16474-16479.

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