The National Digest

Female Scientists Face Implicit Gender Bias When Seeking Promotions

It can be hard for women in science to get promoted. This study may help.

Quick, close your eyes and picture a scientist.

There’s a pretty good chance you did. Many of us unconsciously associate the concept “science” with the concept “male,” even if we would consciously reject that association. Unfortunately, the “science = male” stereotype is making it harder for female scientists to get promotions they deserve. Yes, even in 2019.

A two-year study published Monday in Nature Human Behavior examined how 40 scientific evaluation committees decided which researchers should get promoted to plum positions. It found that most scientists on the committees — whether they were men or women, and whether they worked in particle physics or political science — unconsciously associated science with men.

That implicit bias affected their promotion decisions, so long as they didn’t consciously believe there were external barriers (like discrimination) holding back women in science. But, interestingly, the implicit bias did not influence their decisions if they acknowledged the existence of such barriers.

Basically, if someone can say, “Yes, gender bias exists — women really do get discriminated against on the basis of gender,” the simple fact of acknowledging that can undercut their unconscious tendency to discriminate against women. Aware that such bias can exist, they’ll seek to counteract it.

The findings are both disheartening and potentially very heartening. Although they show that both male and female scientists still harbor gender stereotypes that are hampering the careers of brilliant women, they also show that these stereotypes can be combated.

“We highlight the need for efforts to educate committees and governing bodies about the existence and consequences of these biases,” the authors write. “Recognizing the role that such biases can play might enable committees to set them aside at the time of final decisions, thereby facilitating gender equity and diversity.”

The authors’ suggestion here — that educating scientists about gender biases may cause the biases to lose their swaying power — needs further study. Research into implicit bias and how to effectively counter it has become a controversial and heated field in recent years, not least because it’s often racial bias that’s come in for scrutiny.

Before we dive into the methods and findings of the new gender bias study, it’ll help to get a bit more grounding in the field of implicit bias.

Implicit biases are associations that get activated automatically in our minds and can lead us to discriminate against people we subconsciously associate with negative traits (like aggressiveness or laziness) even though we have no conscious intention to do so.

These days, plenty of companies are aware that many of us harbor implicit biases against different racial groups, and they’re trying to “train” employees out of them. Last year, after two African American men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia just for waiting around for a business associate, in an incident that went viral, the chain’s 8,000-plus US stores closed for an afternoon so employees could attend an anti-bias training to “address implicit bias.”

But as my colleague Julia Belluz has explained, anti-bias trainings typically don’t work. In fact, they can sometimes backfire by making people think more about stereotypes. A better approach may be to make the stores more racially integrated and put more minorities in leadership positions, because there’s evidence that we become less prejudiced when we interact with members of other groups. That’s known as the contact hypothesis.

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