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Are Science Faculty Biased against Female Students?

September 21, 2012

By Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, Yale University

Imagine that you are a science professor at a research university, responsible for conducting cutting-edge research, teaching several classes, and supervising a large group of undergraduate and graduate students. Like many professors, you decide to hire a lab manager to help run your experiments and ensure that you keep track of your busy schedule. When your first applicant arrives for her interview, you glance over her resume. Though she has an impressive record of involvement in research, supportive letters of recommendation from two of your colleagues, and solid GRE scores, her GPA is only slightly above average. The fact and that she withdrew from a class concerns you, and in the end, you suspect that she will not turn out to be a competent lab manager. You decide not to hire her.

Now imagine that the applicant was identical in every way, except male instead of female. Would your responses change at all? Would you view the male applicant as more competent? Do you think you might be willing to take a chance and hire him?

Most of us would probably guess that our reactions to these identical male and female applicants would be just that—identical. But new research suggests that students’ gender actually has a powerful effect on how they are perceived and treated by science faculty members. These results are particularly important in light of the stubborn gender gap in academic science, especially at the faculty level (Handelsman et al., 2005). For example, women comprise only 32.7% of Ph.D.’s employed full time at academic institutions across the U.S. (National Science Foundation, 2008).

Some researchers have argued that gender discrimination does not play a role in the modern-day science gender gap. Rather, these researchers propose that there are fewer women than men in science because women prefer other non-science fields (like the arts or humanities), and/or because women’s choices to have children and care for aging family members do not leave enough time for extremely competitive, demanding careers in science (e.g., Ceci & Williams, 2010; 2011). This argument has received substantial attention and generated significant debate among the scientific community, leading some to conclude that gender discrimination indeed does not exist nor contribute to the gender disparity within academic science (with headlines proclaiming, “Gender Discrimination in Science is a Myth!”).

However, the evidence used to argue against the role of potential gender discrimination is largely correlational, because researchers have yet to conduct controlled experimental tests to determine whether science faculty members may be subtly biased against female students. Simply put, until we know whether faculty perceive and treat a male student differently than an identical female student (whether they do so intentionally or unintentionally), we cannot conclude that gender discrimination is a “myth” that has no impact on women’s representation in academic science.

New research published in in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by me and colleagues sets out to provide just such an experimental test of faculty gender bias against female students. Following the general format of the thought experiment described at the beginning of this post, a representative nationwide sample of biology, chemistry and physics professors (N = 127) were asked to evaluate the application materials of a student who had ostensibly applied for a lab manager position. All professors received identical applications, but they were randomly attributed to either a male or a female student. Of importance, the gender of the student’s name was the only thing that differed across conditions—otherwise, the student that each faculty participant read about was identical.

Results indicated that when the student was described as male, he was more likely to be hired and offered mentoring, was rated as more competent, and was offered a higher salary than when the identical student was described as female. This bias against the female student was independent of the faculty participants’ gender, scientific discipline, age, and tenure status, suggesting that the faculty members’ bias may be unintentional, stemming from widespread cultural stereotypes about women’s competence in science. Additional  analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because respondents assumed she was  less competent relative to the male student. Faculty members’ levels of modern sexism (i.e., subtle bias against women) undermined their perceptions and treatment of the female applicant, but were unrelated (or marginally positively related) to their perceptions and treatment of the male applicant.

These experimental findings suggest that, contrary to some assertions, gender discrimination in science is not a myth. Specifically, when presented with identical applicants who differed only by their gender, science faculty members evaluated the male student as superior, were more likely to hire him, paid him more money, and offered him more career mentoring. Keep in mind that this bias was exhibited by actual faculty members, who reported mentoring students on a regular basis. As a result, it is important to consider how faculty’s biased perceptions and treatment could influence female students’ immediate decisions to leave science fields, as well as their persistence in science over time. Indeed, small initial differences in mentoring and rewards could translate into large gaps in success and achievement over the course of a women’s vs. men’s careers.

So, what can we do about faculty gender bias? Our results suggest several avenues for change:

  • Educate faculty and students about the existence and impact of bias within academia.
  • Modify academic policies and create mentoring interventions designed to reduce faculty member’s gender biases.
  • Establish objective, transparent student evaluation and admissions criteria to guard against faculty’s tendency to unintentionally use different standards when assessing women relative to men.

Without these types of actions, faculty members may continue to inadvertently favor male students, potentially contributing to the shortage of women in academic science.

Dr. Moss-Racusin

Author information: Dr. Moss-Racusin is a Postdoctoral Associate at Yale University, working with Dr. John Dovidio in the Yale Intergroup Relations Lab, and Dr. Jo Handelsman in the Center for Scientific Teaching. She completed her Ph.D. in March of 2011 at Rutgers University, working primarily with Dr. Laurie Rudman, and also with Dr. Diana Sanchez. Her work focuses on understanding and ameliorating inequality within institutions.

Web Link for the Published Report at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for the United States of America (PNAS): Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Ceci, S. J., Williams, W. M. (2010). Gender differences in math-intensive fields. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 275279.

Ceci, S. J., & Williams, W. M. (2011). Understanding current causes of womens underrepresentation in science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 31573162.

Handelsman, J., Cantor, N., Carnes, M., Denton, D., Fine, E., Grosz, B., Hinshaw, V., Marrett, C., Rosser, S., Shalala, D., & Sheridan, J. (2005). More women in science. Science, 309, 1190-1191.

Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI:

National Science Foundation. (2008). Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering: 2009. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2012 2:00 am

    This strikes me as an important topic and problem. But also consider: What if it turned out that the optimal prediction of future performance from available indicators was different for men and women (ie perhaps future performance as a function of test scores is somewhat differently shaped, on average)? Would this still be bias? (Depends on the definition of ‘bias’ of course, but on a the statistical definition: I’d say no.)

  2. September 27, 2012 3:36 pm

    It looks like female faculty had more discriminatory responses than male faculty (not sure of the significance) as to the hireability question. Any speculations about why this would be?

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