A recent Yale study has revealed that employers who fail to establish pre-fixed hiring criteria before evaluating prospective employees tend to discriminate against female applicants. Employers who allowed their hiring criteria to shift after learning the gender of applicants, the study found, were biased in favor of men—a bias that persisted regardless of the age, gender and educational level of the hirer. Interestingly, the employers who reported being least sexist expressed the greatest subconscious bias. Bias diminished when employers applied pre-fixed criteria for applicants, indicating the importance of employing fixed, pre-determined criteria when evaluating candidates for jobs and other positions.

As a major research institution with a premier engineering school, Duke has an interest in promoting both scientific achievement and gender equality. The University is currently seeking to address the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics by investigating the ways female students negotiate the collegiate academic environment. These projects include the Gender Task Force and the Global Women’s Health Technology Center, a partnership between the Pratt School of Engineering and the Duke Global Health Initiative. These programs represent Duke’s efforts to retain women majoring and pursuing careers in science and engineering.

Although gender bias is not the sole reason for gender imbalances in STEM, the University should continue to investigate and address the subtle gender discrimination that impacts female students’ long-term opportunities in these fields. Engineering students at Duke are mostly male, and the rate at which female students transfer out of Pratt is 10 to 20 percent higher than the average. This phenomenon is not unique to Duke, but remains problematic nonetheless.

We cannot dismiss gender imbalances in the school or workplace as merely the result of personal preferences or biological differences. Possible social and cultural causes are, at the very least, worth exploring. Moreover, personal choices, informed by a variety of factors, and gender discrimination are not mutually exclusive explanations for a female students' decision not to pursue STEM. Positive feedback loops driven by cultural attitudes produce particular, gendered academic identities. Students, believing their gender makes them more or less suited for a particular field, select areas of study in which they feel likely to succeed, reproducing gender imbalances within academic fields.

Furthermore, if subconscious biases infiltrate some hiring practices, as the Yale study suggests, we must entertain the possibility that similar biases affect how Duke evaluates prospective students and faculty. Prolonged examinations into questions like these help not only to reduce the gender gap, but also to improve the academic culture at Duke. It remains imperative that the University seek to root out subconscious biases in hiring practices. As A Harvard Business School report notes, training sessions designed to educate employees about subconscious bias can help to eradicate it.

Women have made historic inroads into science and technology over the last fifty years as cultural attitudes have become more accepting of female professional success. These fields possess tremendous importance and are sites of power and influence in the modern economy. Addressing subconscious biases in hiring processes could help Duke craft policy solutions to the problem of gender imbalance in STEM fields.