Field of Science

Addressing the Gender Issue

***Spoiler Alert***
This post may contain plot details and quotes from The Signature of All Things

It may seem unsurprising that a female bryologist in the early 1800's would disguise her gender on her initial publications. At the time women were not welcomed into scientific circles. Thus Alma's first publications were authored A. Whittaker. Later in the book, with age and time she publishes under her full name, Alma Whittaker. 
"No initials were appended to the name - no evidence of degrees, no membership in distinguished gentlemanly scientific organizations. Nor was she even a "Mrs.," with the dignity that such a title affords a lady. By now, quite obviously, everyone knew she was a woman. It mattered little." 
The reason she says it mattered little is that the world of bryophytes is not a competitive domain and thus she had been allowed to enter with little resistance. This is not just a casual statement. It is supported by the data (Special Report on Women as Academic Authors, 1665-2010 - Chronicle of Higher Education). From 1665-1970 only 8.4% of Ecology and Evolution articles were published by women, whereas in the field of Bryology almost twice as many female authors published (16.3%). Unfortunately disparities in publication rates between the sexes still remain (see the report's data from 1991-2010). 

Why do these disparities still exist? Could it be that our innate biases against women in the sciences negatively impacts women's publication rates? It has been shown that both male and female scientists are significantly biased against female applicants for research positions (Moss-Racusin et al. 2012). This article is behind a paywall. If you do not have access and are interested in reading the full study drop me an email. I could see this spilling over into the realm of scientific publication. It is often easy to tell whether someone is male or female by their first name, opening the door to inherent biases, which could influence both editors and reviewers. 

Inspired by the research of Moss-Racusin and others, professors in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Connecticut are carrying out a gender-blind faculty search. Both applicants and reviewers are requested to use initials or refer to the person applying as 'the candidate'. In an earlier experiment, they attempted to redact all gender-identifying information from applications, but one committee member was able to guess the applicant's gender by the difference in space he vs. she takes up in a sentence (Jones and Urban 2013). They outline and give detailed examples to guide the removal of gender-identifying content. 

Even with these detailed guidelines, there is seemingly no way to address the potential issue that recommendation letter writers typically use different words when describing men vs. women (Madera et al. 2009) [HT to M.T-T. for bringing this point up at lunch]. An example might be using action words such as "independent" and "confident" to describe a man and communal words such as "nurturing" and "helpful" to describe a woman. Hopefully letter writers that are writing for a gender-neutral application will be more aware of gender-biases and thus some of these language differences will disappear. I wonder if they could use this gender-blind search to study that? They could address the question: Do recommendation letter writers use less gender-biased language when they are writing for a gender-neutral job search, compared to a job search where gender-neutrality was not explicitly mentioned in the job advertisement? I would be really interested to know if a gender-neutral job search could also influence recommendation letter language. 

Overall I think that this gender-blind faculty search is a progressive undertaking that will help raise awareness about gender-biases that still exist in the sciences and I am really interested to hear how the process goes. I feel positive that the steps they are taking will decrease bias. What I still wonder is whether this type of job search will result in an increase in the number of female faculty hired? Unfortunately this job search only gives us a sample size of one. Similar efforts are needed nation-wide before we will see if decreasing gender-bias results in more women faculty in the sciences. 

1 comment:

  1. Pretty cool that they wrote up and published their efforts to be gender blind! Now if we can only deal with those implicit biases...


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