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Science, sexism and solutions

According to a study released in September by researchers at Yale University, both male and female science professors consider female undergraduates less capable than their male counterparts, even when students of both sexes exhibit the exact same accomplishments and skills. The study asked biology, chemistry and physics professors from six large, unnamed research universities—half public, half private—to evaluate undergraduate applications for a laboratory manager position. When identical applications were submitted, except for a gendered name change, professors were less likely to offer a job and career mentoring to “Jennifer,” the hypothetical female applicant. If they indeed offered her a job, it was at a significantly lower salary, almost $4,000 less on average. The discrimination persisted even when the professor’s age, sex, field or tenure status was controlled. Although these findings were likely the result of unconscious bias rather than deliberate sexism, this study is alarming and has serious implications for college women studying science.

These findings are clearly problematic. If women are being subconsciously discriminated against, this will have hurtful consequences for both women and society at large. Not only do these persistent unconscious biases systematically limit women’s potential for professional advancement and fulfillment, they can also instill in women an internal sense of inadequacy. Aside from the fairness issue, there are also dramatic implications for society, namely placing dangerous limitations on the pool of scientific brainpower when American dominance in the field is being questioned at home and abroad.

If anyone was indulging in optimistic notions of a post-sexist society before, this study assures us this is not the case. Although the sciences pride themselves on their objectivity, this Yale study indicates there are other unjust forces at play. Even at Duke, science majors tout that their departments have a clear-cut and thus seemingly fair grading, especially compared to the humanities. However, a woman’s advancement in scientific fields is clearly still hindered if she is less likely to be offered a job, mentoring or a fair salary solely based on her gender. Therefore, any assumption of full gender equality is ignorant and dangerous.

As a large research university with robust science departments, Duke fits the description of the unnamed universities that appeared in the Yale study. It seems reasonable to assume that similar unconscious biases operate at Duke as well. Certainly, Duke has a myriad of science-related application processes for laboratory and research assistantships, programs such as Pratt Engineering Undergraduate Fellows and other opportunities, many of which can lead to the mentorship critical to applying to graduate schools. Duke should collect data to investigate whether sexism exists within its own science departments, in either academics or extracurricular opportunities. If such an investigation yielded results similar to the Yale study—and Duke may not be exempt from the well-documented phenomenon of unconscious gender bias—perhaps this would strengthen a case for gender-based affirmative action. We need a Duke-specific review before making concrete policy prescriptions. The stakes are very high, and we encourage Duke to begin its inquiry as soon as possible. So long as female science students are being discriminated against, neither they nor the societies they live in will be able to realize their full potential.

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