Reality Check – Academia still has a easy to find gender bias – @US_Conversation

Let’s face it: gender bias in academia is for real

Cynthia Leifer, Cornell University; Hadas Kress-Gazit, Cornell University; Kim Weeden, Cornell University; Marjolein C H van der Meulen, Cornell University; Paulette Clancy, Cornell University, and Sharon Sassler, Cornell University

Cornell Professor Sara Pritchard recently made the argument in The Conversation that female professors should receive bonus points on their student evaluations because of the severe negative bias students have toward their female professors.

Commentators on FOX News attempted to discredit her argument as “insane,” ridiculed the idea that gender plays a role in evaluations and repeatedly mentioned a lack of data to support her claims. But the reality is women faculty are at a disadvantage.

Unfortunately, as we well know, for many women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the path to academia ends long before they obtain a faculty position and are the “lucky” recipient of biased student evaluations.

We represent the success stories – women with careers at Ivy League universities. And yes, while we agree that there are more women in STEM fields today than ever before, bias still affects women in STEM, and not just in student evaluations.

Letters of recommendation and teaching evaluations

It starts right from the hiring process.

In the first stage of the hiring process, a candidate for an academic position must be selected from a pool of hundreds to give a job talk and on-site interview.

The decision of who to invite for a job talk is based on materials about the candidate including CVs, letters of recommendation from prominent figures in the field, samples of research, “buzz” about who’s a rising star and teaching evaluations.

A large body of research shows that many of these materials, and how they are evaluated by search committees, reflect bias in favor of male candidates.

Letters of recommendation, for example, tend to have a very different character for women than for men, and their tone and word choice can affect the impression that the hiring committee forms about candidates.

For example a 2008 study of 886 letters of recommendations for faculty positions in chemistry showed that these letters tended to include descriptors of ability for male applicants, such as “standout,” but refer to the work ethic of the women, rather than their ability, by using words such as “grindstone.”

A similar study showed that female, but not male, students applying for a research grant had letters of recommendation emphasizing the wrong skills, such as the applicants’ ability to care for an elderly parent or to balance the demands of parenting and research.

Furthermore, a 2009 analysis of 194 applicants to research faculty positions in psychology found that letters of recommendation for women used more “communal” adjectives (like helpful, kind, warm and tactful), and letters of recommendation for men used more decisive adjectives (like confident, ambitious, daring and independent), even after statistically controlling for different measures of performance.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a follow-up experiment in the same paper found that these subtle differences in the language can result in female candidates being rated as less hireable than men.

Unfortunately, even when the same language is used to describe candidates or when the key objective criteria of productivity are used, evaluators rated female candidates lower than male candidates.

Teaching evaluations, as our colleague already pointed out, are also known to be biased.

Historian Benjamin Schmidt’s recent text analysis of 14 million rankings on the website ratemyprofessor.com showed substantial differences in the words students used to describe men and women faculty in the same field: men were more likely to be described as “knowledgeable” and “brilliant,” women as “bossy” or, if they were lucky, “helpful.”

If a female candidate makes it through the “on paper” process and is invited for an interview, the bias does not end.

What makes a ‘fit’?

Once a field of candidates is narrowed down from hundreds to a handful, very little distinguishes the top candidates, male or female. Final decisions often come down to intangible qualities and “fit.”

Although “fit” can mean many things to many people, it boils down to guesses about future trajectories, judgments about which hole in a department’s research profile or curriculum is most important to fill, and assessments about whether a person is going to be a colleague who contributes to mentoring, departmental service, and congeniality.

Research in social psychology and management shows that women are seen as competent or likable, but not both. The very traits that make them competent and successful (eg, being strong leaders) violate gender stereotypes about how women are “supposed to” act. Conversely, likable women are often perceived as being less likely to succeed in stereotypically male careers.

Despite all this information, FOX News isn’t alone in its view that women candidates for academic positions are not at a disadvantage.

In fact, one of the commentators in that segment cited a study from other researchers at Cornell that concluded the employment prospects for women seeking faculty positions in STEM disciplines have never been better.

The authors of that study go so far as to blame women’s underrepresentation in the sciences on “self-handicapping and opting out” of the hiring process.

Women doing better, but not better than men

The fact is at the current rate of increase in women faculty in tenure-track positions in STEM fields, it may be 2050 before women reach parity in hiring and, worse, 2115 before women constitute 50% of STEM faculty of all ranks.

This is supported by faculty data at Cornell itself. Between 2010 and 2014, there was only a modest 3%-4% increase in women tenure-line STEM faculty.

In contrast to these data, the study cited by FOX News argued women are preferred to men for tenure-track STEM academic positions. The authors of that study used a research method common in social sciences in which true randomized experiments are impossible to carry out in real-life contexts called an audit study.

In an audit study, people who make the relevant decisions, such as faculty or human resource managers, are sent information about two or more fake applicants for a position. The information is equivalent, except for a hint about the question of interest: for example, one CV may have a male name at the top, the other CV a female name.

Although the audit study design can be very useful, in the case of STEM faculty hiring it oversimplifies the complex hiring process, which typically involves many people, many stages and many pieces of information.

The authors sent out equivalent descriptions of “powerhouse” hypothetical male or female candidates applying for a hypothetical faculty opening to real professors. Among the respondents, more said that they would hire the woman than the man. However, the study in question “controlled for,” and thus eliminated, many of the sources of bias, including letters of recommendation and teaching evaluations that disadvantage women in the hiring process.

Furthermore, only one-third of faculty who were sent packets responded. Thus, the audit study captured only some of the voices that actually make hiring decisions. It is also hard to believe that participants didn’t guess that they were part of an audit study about hiring. Even if they didn’t know the exact research question, they may have been biased by the artificial research context.

The study by our Cornell colleagues has already generated a lot of conversation, on campus and off. The authors have entered this debate, which will undoubtedly continue. That’s how science works.

Contrary to what FOX News and some of our academic colleagues think, the battle against sexism in our fields has not been won, let alone reversed in favor of women. We must continue to educate hiring faculty, and even the society at large, about conscious and unconscious bias.


Paulette Clancy, Hadas Kress-Gazit, Cynthia Leifer, Marjolein van der Meulen, Sharon Sassler, and Kim Weeden are professors at Cornell University. Hadas Kress-Gazit, Cynthia Leifer and Kim Weeden are also Public Voices Fellows at The Op-Ed Project.

The Conversation

Cynthia Leifer is Associate Professor of Immunology, College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University.
Hadas Kress-Gazit is Associate Professor of Mechanics and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University.
Kim Weeden is Professor of Sociology at Cornell University.
Marjolein C H van der Meulen is Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Cornell University.
Paulette Clancy is Professor of Chemical Engineering at Cornell University.
Sharon Sassler is Professor of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Male bias in medical research and how it is hopefully changing! explained by Peter Rogers @ConversationUK

Equal but not the same: a male bias reigns in medical research

By Peter Rogers, University of Melbourne

Despite significant gains in gender equity over the last few decades, a bias still reigns in one area of medicine. The lack of female representation in both preclinical studies and clinical trials has put women at greater risk of adverse events from medical interventions. But there’s now light at the end of the tunnel.

Treating women equally as subjects in scientific studies may seem obvious today, when we have evidence of varied disease susceptibility and severity among the sexes. And of differences in men’s and women’s response to drugs and treatment outcomes. But this has not always been so.

So much variation

Differences between the sexes, or sexual dimorphism, is a key evolutionary adaptation in most species. It has existed in human life expectancy in almost every country for as long as records have been kept: women still live longer, on average, than men. Perhaps that’s partly because suicide rates are three times higher in men than women.

It’s not really surprising that after millions of years of evolution, fundamental differences exist in many aspects of our biology. Differences between the sexes have been documented in cardiovascular disease and stroke, chronic fatigue syndrome, asthma and several types of cancer.

Biological differences between the sexes include variation in genetic and physiological factors such as telomere attrition, mitochondrial inheritance, hormonal and cellular responses to stress, and immune function, among other things. These factors may account for at least a part of the female advantage in human life expectancy.

Research has highlighted gender differences in autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis, and psychological disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), eating disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, is approximately twice as common in females as in males. And a study found that while the relative risk of schizophrenia was greater in men up to 39 years of age, it reversed to a greater risk in women over the age of 50.

But why?

The reasons for these gender differences are varied and complex. Behavioural and social issues, such as uptake of smoking and body image, are different between men and women. This may partially explain differences in diseases such as lung cancer and eating disorders.

Normal physiological differences, such as a lower red blood cell count, may lie behind the poorer stroke outcomes in women. Women also tend, though, to suffer from stroke at an older age, which may account for some of the observed differences.

Biological differences also exist within the dopaminergic neurons of the brain and may explain varied prevalence of a number of neurological conditions. Indeed, fundamental genetic differences between the sexes may contribute to males under 20 years of age experiencing higher mortality rates from a wide array of conditions in 17 of 19 major disease categories.

What’s more, men and women differ in their response to drug treatment. Women experience a higher incidence of adverse drug reactions than men, although the reasons for this are not well understood. But we do know female response to many commonly used pharmaceutical agents can be different to males.

And we know the differences in drug responses are partly due to differences in body weight, height, body surface area, body composition, total body water, drug metabolism and drug clearance. Adult males have greater arm muscle mass, larger and stronger bones and reduced limb fat, but a similar degree of central abdominal fat.

Sex differences in body composition are primarily attributable to the actions of sex steroid hormones, which drive gender differences during pubertal development. Oestrogen, for instance, is important not only in body fat distribution but also in the female pattern of bone development, which predisposes women to a greater risk of osteoporosis in old age.

Does it really matter?

For the last two decades, the largest US funder of grants for biomedical research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has required studies involving human subjects to test both men and women. But Australia’s NIH equivalent, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) currently has no comparable policy.

Medical research in Australia is substantially funded by the taxpayer, with the unambiguous goal of improving health for all citizens. From this viewpoint, there may be a need for policy reflecting that of the NIH’s here.

But the picture changes substantially in light of recent advances in medical science. Current thinking revolves around concepts such as “precision medicine”, which recognises that variability exists not just between the sexes, but between individuals.

So, the goal now is to ensure that every patient receives the correct treatment and dose at the right time, with minimum adverse side effects. Women may have been neglected by medical research for a couple of decades but the march of technology is now bound to take them forward as individuals.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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