Can Science Ever Get Over Its Male Hiring Bias?

In a recent experiment, even women were less likely to hire female candidates.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
June 25, 2014, 1:15 a.m.

In a lot of ways, it doesn’t make sense that wo­men are dis­pro­por­tion­ately left out of the STEM work­force. Con­sider the fol­low­ing: Only about one in sev­en en­gin­eers is a wo­man, yet wo­men earn 50 per­cent of all sci­ence and en­gin­eer­ing bach­el­or’s de­grees. In high school, wo­men take math and sci­ence classes in sim­il­ar num­bers as men. And his­tor­ic­ally, throughout all levels of edu­ca­tion, girls per­form the same or bet­ter than boys in math and sci­ence.

So what counts for the ex­treme lack of gender par­ity? A large part of that might be dis­crim­in­a­tion in the work­force.

Re­search­ers at Columbia Busi­ness School re­cently pub­lished a pa­per that shows a clear bi­as against wo­men in math­em­at­ics, but also sug­gests the vari­ables that can lessen the im­pact of that bi­as.

“In our set­ting” the au­thors write, “wo­men were only half as likely to be hired as men, be­cause they were (er­ro­neously) per­ceived as less tal­en­ted” on a math test. “Both men and wo­men ex­pec­ted wo­men to per­form worse.”

Here’s how they found it out.

The re­search­ers had study par­ti­cipants take a math test, and then ran­domly chose two of the par­ti­cipants to play the role of a job “can­did­ate.” The rest of the par­ti­cipants then ac­ted as “em­ploy­ers.” From there, the task was simple: The em­ploy­ers were asked to choose the can­did­ate who would be the best for fu­ture math tests. If they chose cor­rectly — that is, ac­tu­ally chose the per­son with the bet­ter score — they’d re­ceive in­creased com­pens­a­tion for the study.

Out­right, with no more in­form­a­tion than gender, the em­ploy­ers were more than twice as likely to choose a male.

This ef­fect was not eas­ily weakened with more in­form­a­tion. “When we al­lowed can­did­ates to self-re­port their [ex­pec­ted test] per­form­ance,” as one might do in a real-world in­ter­view, “wo­men were chosen at equally low rates,” the au­thors found. The only time the gap in hir­ing was re­duced “but not elim­in­ated” was when the em­ploy­ers were provided with the can­did­ates’ ac­tu­al scores on the math test. But even in that con­di­tion, fe­males were only chosen 43 per­cent of the time. Keep in mind, the wo­men in the study per­formed no bet­ter or worse on the math test than the men.

And it didn’t mat­ter if the em­ploy­er was male or fe­male — the male hir­ing bi­as per­sisted all the same.

Sure, this was a con­trived lab scen­ario (these were not ac­tu­al job seekers or people who work as hir­ing man­agers). But the labor­at­ory set­ting means that the re­search­ers can come to a caus­al con­clu­sions, and dial up or down the vari­ables to see how the out­comes change. At the very least, the study in­dic­ates re­search par­ti­cipants dis­crim­in­ate against their fe­male peers when it comes to math abil­it­ies.

It also adds to a body of re­search that finds a per­sist­ent and ma­lig­nant bi­as against wo­men in sci­ence. In 2012, Yale pro­duced a pa­per that asked ac­tu­al sci­ent­ists, both male and fe­male, from mul­tiple uni­versit­ies to rate an ap­plic­a­tion for a lab-man­ager po­s­i­tion. Everything about the ap­plic­a­tions was the same aside for the name on top — half of the sci­ent­ists re­viewed a male can­did­ate (John) and the oth­er half, a fe­male (Jen­nifer). The sci­ent­ists rated the fe­male ap­plic­a­tion as be­ing less com­pet­ent, less hire­able. The sci­ent­ists even in­dic­ated they were less will­ing to ment­or the fe­male ap­plic­a­tions.

(From: “Sci­ence fac­ulty’s subtle gender bi­ases fa­vor male stu­dents” )

Fur­ther­more — and per­haps most im­port­antly — when the sci­ent­ists were asked to state a start­ing salary for the ap­plic­ants, they (hy­po­thet­ic­ally) offered $4,000 less to the fe­males. Like the cur­rent ex­per­i­ment, both male and fe­males presen­ted this bi­as.

This bi­as is a huge hurdle for the sci­ences, but the cur­rent re­search also gives clues on how to erase the hir­ing bi­as. The more ob­ject­ive in­form­a­tion for qual­i­fied fe­male can­did­ates, the bet­ter. Self-re­por­ted in­form­a­tion doesn’t help as much, the re­search­ers find, be­cause “men tend to be more self-pro­mot­ing than wo­men in these re­ports,” the au­thor’s write, “but em­ploy­ers … do not fully ap­pre­ci­ate the ex­tent of this dif­fer­ence.” Ob­ject­ive in­form­a­tion is bet­ter. It’s harder to turn down a wo­man for a job when she presents a near-per­fect tran­script. But even then, as these stud­ies show, there are still hurdles to over­come.

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