I read an interesting blog post this morning, discussing the study that found a gender bias among science faculty.  The study itself is both fascinating and disturbing: a group of science faculty were given a CV which in some cases had a male name attached to it and in some cases had a female name attached to it.  The one with the female name was consistently ranked lower on competence and hireability and was associated with a lower starting salary.  The result itself isn’t surprising, since gender bias is something that has long been suggested to exist in science (and in many other disciplines).  What’s surprising is the extent of it and the fact that women did it just as much as men.

But the author of the blog post makes two interesting points beyond the study.  First she says:

Whenever the subject of women in science comes up, there are people fiercely committed to the idea that sexism does not exist. They will point to everything and anything else to explain differences while becoming angry and condescending if you even suggest that discrimination could be a factor. But these people are wrong.

She is absolutely correct in this, and it’s not just that people will find other reasons for why women aren’t found in STEM fields (because I bet this study could be replicated in any discipline in STEM and end up with the same results).  People also resist programs to try to address the imbalance.  For example, I had a fellowship my first two years of graduate school, one designed to get more women to study in STEM fields.  It was open only to women, and I had another student in my class call it “pink money”.  While I couldn’t argue with him about that, it made it feel like it was less of an achievement to have it.  That I had faced years of discrimination and toughed my way through it to earn that fellowship wasn’t part of the equation, although I think it should have been.

As it turned out, the funding issue came back again later in graduate school.  The University of Chicago faced some budget cuts, and graduate student support was impacted.  At the time there were four female graduate students in theoretical computer science, and three of us lost our funding.  The funding cuts for men weren’t anywhere near 75%.  Fortunately by then, in no small way thanks to the “pink money” I’d had early on, I was too stubborn to quit, with or without funding.

The author then makes another crucial point:

When scientists judged the female applicants more harshly, they did not use sexist reasoning to do so. Instead, they drew upon ostensibly sound reasons to justify why they would not want to hire her: she is not competent enough … Practically, this fact makes it all the more easy for women to internalize unfair criticisms as valid.

I think this ideas is strongly tied to women’s lack of confidence in their work.  Yes, in general, women are less confident than men.  They are more willing to accept personal blame for failures whereas men, again in general, are more willing to assign blame to external sources.  But the point made by the author above is that this tendency is only enhanced when women are more often judged to be incompetent.  Competence is a qualitative thing, a judgement call if you will, making it difficult to argue that the person making that call is doing it for the wrong reasons.  When they cut the funding for graduate students they had solid, non-sexist reasons for each situation.  But that 75% of the women lost their funding whereas many fewer men did seems a bit suspect, both now and at the time.

What I find interesting is that this gender bias is clear in other disciplines once you’re aware of it.  I’m a fan of Project Runway, and we were (belatedly) watching the finale of the tenth season recently.  Somewhat ironically fashion is a very male-dominated area, and in the final competition there were 3 men and 1 woman remaining.  The woman had a meltdown early on because she unfavorably compared herself to the collections put together by the men.  I started shouting at the screen about it, causing my partner, who is also in computer science, to look sideways at me.  I paused the TiVo to point out that this was exactly what women in computing do to themselves all the time.  And interestingly the judges were harshest about her collection, citing that she was “designing for a woman like herself” and giving her almost no praise.

What I find most helpful about this study and clearest about the blog post is that they point out that discrimination in science (and I believe STEM in general) exists.  We’re not overly sensitive.  We’re not making this up.  It’s not just in our heads.  And that’s a powerful message, and one that can hopefully lead to improvements in the situation.