How to improve gender equality in science

How to improve gender equality in science

In in the wake of the latter Following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively ended admissions on racial grounds, many universities and other institutions are looking for new ways to ensure their campuses and workplaces are diverse, equitable, and inclusive. These efforts remain essential—particularly in scientific fields—where women, especially women of color, experience bias, discrimination, and harassment at multiple stages of their careers. Closing this gender gap has taken longer than expected given the gains in equal rights over the past several decades. Ironically, science itself is underutilized in finding effective solutions.

Too often, institutions make well-intentioned efforts to achieve justice but are not evidence-based. But decades of social science research have begun to show what works, what sometimes works, and what doesn’t when it comes to interventions aimed at promoting gender equality in science. As I learned by writing a book on the subject, scientists point the way to solutions, creating a research path for organizations to follow.

Many challenges in science and engineering fields start right in your first introductory class in college, where professors might say something like, “A lot of you won’t make it.” Although the intent here may be to set realistic expectations, such statements can discourage students, especially those who wonder whether they belong in the first place. Even if not everyone ultimately commits to a major, such “disposal” statements run counter to a large body of social science evidence about the power of signaling belonging.

During a 2021 interview for my latest book, Anita Rattan, a psychologist who studies organizational behavior at London Business School, told me that she often advises companies and organizations on the value of signaling belonging in the classroom or workplace. The work by Ratan and her colleagues has shown how powerful it can be when students believe their professors believe in their scientific abilities, especially for women and minority students. When you put the idea to private companies that they should communicate with new hires and that they all have the potential to succeed, she says there’s almost no opposition. Within the academic world, this idea may be more controversial, as traditional academic culture tends toward the model of culling the weakest, rather than nurturing potential talent.

However, study after study has shown the power of belonging across contexts. In a series of experiments beginning in the 1990s, Jeffrey Cohen and his colleagues at Stanford University studied how black and white students reacted to different types of feedback. When the same constructive feedback was provided—that is, typical matching of something positive with something negative—black students responded less positively than white students. But things changed when researchers linked protesting high standards with assurance that students could meet that standard (a phrase like “We have high standards but we know you can live up to them”).

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In both the original laboratory studies and subsequent field experiments, which were replicated in different populations, researchers found that this “wise feedback” leads to more positive outcomes for minority individuals. Therefore, wise feedback is a great example of an evidence-based approach for professors, employers, and others to provide criticism that is not only constructive, but can help motivate others to succeed, thus shifting from a mindset of eliminating talent to a mindset of growing talent.

While interventions to signal belonging show positive results in the social science literature, other equity efforts such as gender-neutral review show more mixed results.

The idea of ​​excluding gender from job application processes seems like an obvious solution in light of research on sexism. In 2012, for example, social psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin and her colleagues published important research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showing that two resumes that were identical in every respect except name were rated vastly differently by science faculty. fields. The difference was that half of the resumes had the name “John” and the other half had the name “Jennifer.” Those with a male-associated name were rated more employable and competent than those who were rated with a female-associated name.

The study, which has been replicated several times, including looking at the intersection of race and gender, has revealed widespread implicit gender bias in hiring for scientific positions. It also raised the issue of whether concealing the names of applicants during review would solve the problem. In one gender-neutral review study, Julian Coliff and colleagues looked at innovative research grant proposals submitted to the Gates Foundation from 2008 to 2017 that were anonymized to remove gender. The researchers found that proposals submitted by female applicants received significantly lower scores than those submitted by male applicants.

Insightful feedback is a great example of an evidence-based approach for professors, employers, and others to provide criticism that is not only constructive, but can help motivate others to succeed.

After controlling for proposal topics, applicant quality measures, and characteristics of proposal reviewers, they found that different types of language used by men versus women (broader terms versus narrower terms, for example) in proposals led to differences in ratings. Making the review gender blind was not enough to counter implicit gender bias.

Despite this work, others have successfully used gender-neutral review to reduce gender bias in their selection processes. For example, in 2019, NASA used a double-blind review process (where both reviewers and applicants are anonymous) to determine who would get time on their telescopes after seeing that such a process with the Hubble Space Telescope reversed a long-standing trend of men getting Longer time than women. Other agencies and laboratories followed suit.

Why do methods that do not differentiate between the sexes sometimes work and sometimes not? Psychologist Ratan suggests this is because such interventions reduce the activation of unconscious bias, rather than addressing the bias itself. As Kolev’s team suggested in their paper, training reviewers on how to evaluate different types of proposal language would have a greater impact than a gender-neutral review.

After obtaining tenures, a common difficult juncture for many women in science, especially in academia, is raising a family while trying to advance their careers. In academia, this timing often corresponds with the race for tenure, an unspecified academic appointment that comes with many protections. It may take several years to achieve tenure, depending on the institution, and this time period is often viewed as a trial period for junior-level faculty to demonstrate their track record.

Social science research has enormous potential to create work environments in which everyone can thrive.

One concern during this time is that those who take time off to care for their children will be penalized. In recent decades, many institutions have offered new parents the option of stopping the so-called tenure clock, giving assistant professors a pause in the schedule so that after taking parental leave they have time to publish, teach, and more, in order to strengthen their case for their tenure.

Although well intentioned, research has found that pausing the clock actually causes some women to fall behind. A 2016 study found that gender-neutral tenure policies actually reduced female tenure rates while increasing male tenure rates within economics departments. Likewise, a 2021 study highlighted the productivity gap between men and women hiring in business, history, and computer science departments.

Flexible child care options appear to help bridge this productivity gap. Providing funding and support for child care may still be an underutilized tool for retaining women in academia, according to a 2021 study.

Although many of these problems and solutions are limited to academia, the basic principles – belonging and equity – are universal across industries and in the private sector. Social science research holds enormous potential to create work environments in which everyone can thrive without having to arbitrarily get rid of people. No single intervention or policy can close the gender gap in science, but adopting evidence-based approaches consistently over time will undoubtedly bring us closer.


Lisa Rep. Munoz She is the author of Women in Science Now: Stories and Strategies for Equity (Columbia University Press, 2023). A journalist and former press officer, she is a science writer and founder and president of SciComm Services, a science communications consultancy.

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