Sunday, November 5, 2017

When the enemy is invisible... Implicit biases against women in hiring

Photo by NASA on Unsplash
We live in a #HeForShe world of #WonderWoman and #girlpower. Today, more women hold positions of leadership and power than ever before in U.S. history and society is the direct recipient of those changes. Yet, there are still industries where women with the same qualifications as their male colleagues are not given the same opportunities. You could support that statement with factoids, such as the fact that more than 825 men have won a Nobel Prize compared to only 47 women. Or, you could support this statement with science. 

In 2013, Dr. Corinne Moss-Racusin and her colleagues at Yale University published a study testing the question: 

Are scientists biased against female applicants to jobs? 

If so, this may explain the imbalance of male and female scientists. To test this question, they recruited  127 professors in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics at 6 research-intensive universities; 3 were public and 3 were private. These professors were asked to provide feedback on the application materials of an undergraduate science student who wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in their field. What's important is that each faculty member believed that they were providing feedback on a real student who wanted to pursue their career path, and that the student would receive this feedback in order to aid them in reaching this goal. 

The professors were then randomly assigned to receive one of two sets of application materials. These two sets of application materials were identical, in that they included the same exact details of a highly competitive student with some ambiguity with regard to their competence to do independent research. This is by far the most common type of application we get as professors, and is also the type of student whose eventual success will depend largely upon whether a professor is willing to mentor and train them. The difference between the two applications was that one of the applicants was named Jennifer, or a presumably female applicant, and the other was named John, a presumably male applicant. 

The professors were asked to rate the applicant's competence, the likelihood that they would be interested in hiring the student, estimate an annual starting salary of the applicant, and report the amount of mentoring they would provide to the applicant. At the end of the study, these professors were debriefed about the study and none of them knew that the application materials they reviewed were not of a real student. 

From this data, they wanted to test several hypotheses, including the following:  

1) That applications with the name John would be rated as more competent and more likely to be mentored and hired, at higher salaries than the applications with the name Jennifer. 

2) That #1 would not depend on whether the professor rating the applicant was male or female. 

They found that applications for John were rated as significantly more competent,and professors indicated that they were more likely to hire and provide more mentoring to John. Professors also indicated that the starting salary for John should be between $29,000 and $31,000 per year whereas Jennifer's should be between $25,500 and $27,500. This pattern did not vary based on whether the professor rating the applications was male or female, whether they were old or young, nor whether the professor already had tenure. 

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash
The conclusion from the study was that there is an implicit bias against women applying to positions in science that keeps very competent women from getting entry-level positions. In general, this comes down to the question of whether our society cultivates the perception that women are inherently less competent that men, despite having the same experiences and accomplishments. If so, how to we cultivate a different perception? 

In psychology, we like to drill down into problems like this to determine where they come from and how we can fix them. One way to do this is to test whether and to what degree individuals have an automatic, or implicit bias to associate women with positions of subordinance. It's possible that just knowing that you have such a bias is enough to change your behavior enough to make a difference. 

This is important because there are many ways that a social narrative that women are better suited for positions of subordinance can lead women to behave subordinately and men to treat women as subordinants. The ways women perpetuate this review is expertly outlined in books like Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In

If you're interested in knowing whether you are implicitly biased in this particular way, spend just a few minutes to take this test. Knowledge is power people!  If you find that you do, there may be some small ways you can combat these types of bias, especially if you ever operate as a gatekeeper to opportunities for training and jobs. The truth is, only we suffer by biases like this. If we want to solve the problems of the universe, we need the best minds to do it. 

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. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(41), 16474-16479.

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