Gender Bias in Science

Gender bias in Science has two manifestations: (1) How “scientific studies” have contributed to systemic barriers to equality, and (2) how women have been pushed away from STEM roles. 

These two issues are not mutually exclusive …

1. Biases masquerading as “scientific truths”

Science has never been neutral in the way it studies, experiments on, analyses, and reports on females – whether human or animal.  

Science is:

  • Done by fallible human beings who have interests, beliefs, biases, and blind spots which affect their judgment and lead them to promote their own beliefs and values.
  • Paid-for by governments and organizations which have agendas, policies, and beliefs. These institutions are too often committed to preserving the status quo in favour of the elites who maintain, lobby, and fund them. 
  • Completed within social structures which rely upon historical assumptions and which have defined ideas about ‘proper’ areas for investigation, as well as expectations about ‘appropriate’ results and outcomes. 

Most importantly, the individuals / institutions doing science have, for too long, had few checks and balances on their prejudices.  For most of history, women were deliberately excluded from the field – as were minorities. As a rule, when you exclude a group of people from the studies being conducted on them, then those in charge of the research can let their own, and their culture’s, assumptions run wild. This biases the kind of research that they do, what data they collect, how they analyse that data, and the theories they devise based on their analysis.  Those in charge then get to misrepresent the objects of their study – largely without fear of being gainsaid by a powerless minority. 

The consequence: Science is not as objective as it likes to pretend and it has a sorry history of repeatedly confirming the prejudices of the time. Indeed, looking back on even recent history, Science and scientists have eagerly subscribed to some very obviously foolish beliefs about our sex:

  • Women are just small men, with men the “gold standard” and women, as a rule, seen as an inferior variant from the male template. 

    To cite just one example, in the field of medicine, where the male body/masculinity has been considered the norm, the result of this belief has too often been fatal: Women’s symptoms have been dismissed, trivialized, or ignored – leading to unnecessary suffering and death. Until very recently, women were generally not included in clinical trials, meaning drugs were tested only on males, with no thought given to how they might act in a female body. As a result, accepted drugs and treatments designed for a male body can be hazardous for females – and that is true even in drugs pulled due to adverse reactions: In ten drugs which were recently recalled, eight of them were found to harm women more than men. 

  • That “masculine” activities, such as sports, certain fields of work, and voting, would so stress the female reproductive system as to leave her sterile and incapable of bearing children. 

    Don’t laugh – this concept was used as recently as 2010, “when Gian-Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation, commented on ESPN’s Outside the Lines that the female uterus might burst during landing from a ski jump, reiterating a statement he made in a 2005 NPR interview that ski jumping is “not appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”

    With respect to the obvious idiocy of this concept, it should be noted that ‘the ladies’ have done the most backbreaking labor for millennia – women have washed tons of laundry in rivers, in sinks in basements, or at the back of the house, by hand, and trundling heavy loads; even as small children, they have been expected to haul enormous burdens in the form of jugs of water and firewood; they have cared-for / carried-around / moved heavy children and the elderly / sick; they have sweated in mines, pulled ploughs like dray horses, done the most taxing of agricultural and house work, given birth (repeatedly) without medical assistance, as well as toiling on factory floors. However, as long as an activity was defined as “woman’s work”, no male scientist ever worried about female wombs being adversely affected. But define an activity as “male” and immediately scientists are lining-up to prove the poor little woman to be incapable of dealing with it.

  • That differences in the size, proportion, and type of brain matter in the female brain as versus the male one provides proof of the latter’s superiority.

    This conclusion is reached using the following tortured logic:  Cherry-pick studies which favour the male – make a really big deal of them; minimize all contrary evidence, or relegate it to the round filing cabinet. 

    For example: Males, on average, have larger brains than females.  This proves their superiority. QED. 

    This conclusion is confirmed by ignoring, or downplaying, the facts which favour the female: First, that females are, on average, smaller than males, and if one adjusts for size, then the brains of men and women of the same proportions are also of the same size. Second, brain size does not define intelligence – many animals have larger brains than humans, yet we do not consider them more intelligent. What is critical in intelligence is brain size relative to body size, and the complexity of its connections – all of which the female of our species wins hands-down as versus her brothers.  

Biases like the above, masquerading as “scientific truths”, have been used to “prove” that women are weaker than men; less intelligent, capable, reliable, and mentally stable; and more emotional and irrational. (Yet, ironically, these sub-standard, unstable, and mentally inferior creatures are the ones Society puts entirely in charge of the health, safety, upbringing, and education of the young – you have to wonder about anyone allowing such dangerously defective creatures to come near a child, let alone a helpless baby!)

Biases like these have also contributed significantly to justifying the inferior treatment of women and to seeing females in all species as submissive, lesser creatures, which are deficient copies of the male version.   

And, yes, Science works – from vaccines to moon-shots, from antibiotics to transfusions, from sanitation to refrigeration – Science has saved lives, improved our health, increased our lifespan, and opened doors to a better future. However, that does not let it off the hook for the enormous damage it has wrought based on its questionable use of gender, sex, and race to handicap and to limit the potential of more than half the human race. 

It is time to call Science to task for bad science – for being a support for discrimination while allowing itself to be fashioned by prejudice. 

2. Women’s role in STEM (or lack thereof)

Women have historically been barred from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Math) fields. And once the fields did open to them, they were discouraged from going into them by family, friends, peers, their guidance counsellors; the prejudice, harassment and abuse they have endured at the hands of their professors and brother scientists; and Society’s stereotypical belief that good girls, pretty girls, desirable girls don’t do math or science.

Happily ignoring these facts, the resulting difference in the numbers of boys as versus girls choosing a STEM career has long been used as “proof” of a biological difference between the sexes. It is not that females faced, and still cope with, enormous hurdles to entering, and then working-in, these fields. No, it’s that their sex makes them less interested in well-paid and interesting jobs, or if interested, less capable than their brothers. And, finally, if interested and capable, then they can’t handle the workload, either never entering the field, or quitting once they do.

As with medicine above – the result of this exclusion of females was predictable: When women do not participate in a field, their needs, desires, and safety are overlooked.  As but just one example, the adult male body – the gold standard! – was used to design the original air bags. This led to unnecessary deaths of women and children. 

Oh my, but what a totally undreamed-of surprise, and we males who designed such murderous products definitely couldn’t ever, possibly have been reasonably expected to foresee that amazing, and in our brilliant opinion, entirely unpredictable result!

Bull crap … never forget: Diversity in a STEM field means that products and services will be better designed to represent all users, thus increasing safety and health.   

NOTE: This is the resource we primarily used in the following analysis of how gender bias affects women’s role in the STEM fields.

WHY SO FEW WOMEN IN SCIENCE?

The response from masculinists is entirely predictable:  

  1. Girls are inferior to boys in math and logical/scientific thinking. 
  2. Girls aren’t interested in STEM subjects. 
  3. Girls just can’t hack the STEM workplace.  

Let’s examine each of these postulates as to their accuracy. 

1. Girls are inferior to boys in math and logical/scientific thinking: UNTRUE. 

In the years up to entering post-secondary training, girls and boys are now taking math and science courses in approximately equal numbers. A difference in average math performance between boys and girls in the general school population no longer exists.  

One of the few areas where boys, on average, still continued to outperformed girls had been in tasks using spatial orientation and visualization, and quantitative tasks based on those skills.  This result was long used to support the argument that males and females have biologically different brains, thus explaining male dominance in the STEM fields. 

Flash News! That difference has recently been eliminated.  It was realized that this “superiority” reflected cultural differences: From birth, girls are discouraged from activities which would help them to develop spatial skills. Their play (dolls) vs. boys (Lego, building blocks, and computer games), and the generally negative response as versus their brothers to their wandering far from home, means boys get more practice in developing this skill.  

The introduction of a simple 15-hour training course erased the performance gap between men and women.

In other words, this much ballyhooed gender difference was not indicative of a difference in cognitive abilities, but of a social problem which needed a solution. 

And yes, boys generally still outperform girls on high-level math tests (SAT and ACT); however, these differences are small and declining rapidly. In addition, it should be noted that there are countries without a sex difference in mathematical performance, and in some countries, girls score higher than boys.

If there were indeed genetic difference between girls and boys in their ability to do math, then you would expect the performance of girls to be lower in all countries.  But, instead, there is a strong relationship between a country’s attitudes towards sexual equality and the size of the gap in performance between males and females.  In countries, such as Sweden and Norway, where women are viewed as equal to men, the gap basically disappears. 

Most importantly, there has been a huge increase in the numbers of girls entering the ranks of the highest achievers in math tests.  For example, since the 1980s, the ratio of boys to girls in the select group of seventh and eighth graders who score greater than 700 on the SAT math section (the top 0.01 percent or 1 in 10,000 students) has dramatically declined from 13:1 to around 3:1.

Furthermore, it has been found that:

  • Negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math measurably lowers their test performance. Researchers also believe that these stereotypes lower girls’ aspirations for science and engineering careers over time. In simple terms, telling girls they are poor at math is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • When teachers and parents nay-say the negative stereotypes about women’s ability to do math, when they tell them that their intelligence will expand with experience, girls do better on math tests and are more likely to continue to study the subject in the future.

  • When test administrators tell students that girls and boys are equally capable in math, any difference in their performance essentially disappears. 

All of the above, combined with the enormous increase in the number of girls identified as “mathematically gifted”, tells us that when we change social beliefs, when we alter our attitudes about what girls are capable of, when we institute improvements in the educational environment designed to encourage and nurture girls’ STEM capabilities, there is no real difference between male and female abilities.  

2. Girls just aren’t interested in STEM subjects: UNTRUE 

No gender differences have ever been found which would explain why males would be more drawn to the STEM fields than females.  However, an abundance of sociocultural influences have been identified. 

In their early years, boys and girls express a similar interest in the natural world and how it operates. Studies show that by age 11, boys see science as a masculine subject; while girls see it as neutral subject. However, by the end of high school girls see achievement in science / math as a male domain and as a threat to their perceived femininity. Even girls who excel in mathematics often fail to pursue STEM fields. For example, in studies of high math achievers, females are more likely to secure degrees in the humanities, life sciences, and social sciences, while males tend to pursue ones in math, computer science, engineering, or the physical sciences.

It should be noted that these differences are much reduced in all girl schools: Being around boys, not hormones, leads to these changes in attitude.  

The evidence is that females are reacting to a number of factors:

  • Peer pressure and negative stereotypes. Studies have found that pressure to conform to the expectations of your peers about appropriate behaviour and interests can overwhelm one’s true desires. They also show that children readily accept as true that one cannot enter particular types of occupations if they are inappropriate for your gender: Desirable girls don’t do math; real men don’t become nurses.

  • Poor confidence. Their lack of experience with tools, manipulating equipment, and taking things apart leaves girls feeling inadequate to handle technical subjects. Other research shows girls assess their mathematical ability as lower than boys with equivalent ability. Girls also hold themselves to higher standards of performance than boys do when considering a male dominated field. One result of these factors is that, even in the face of outstanding grades and test scores, girls are less confident that they will succeed in a STEM field, and therefore fewer girls than boys aspire to STEM careers.

  • Beliefs. Girls who believe that they can learn what they need to know in STEM subjects, as opposed to believing that people are born with math / sciences abilities, are more likely to succeed in a STEM field.

    Next, it must be remembered that interest in a field of employment reflects many factors, including a belief that one can succeed in it. Belief is likely to be damaged when one is exposed only to male role models in sciences / math, and deprived of learning about the many successful female role models in the STEM field; when one is subjected to not too subtle signals that girls are not expected to succeed in science / math from teachers and peers; when one is repeatedly told that boys are better than girls at STEM topics; and when one sees that classrooms for STEM subjects have few girls.

  • Value systems. A person’s career choice reflects their values. And yes, there is debate as to whether values are a result of gender or socialization, but regardless of the answer, STEM careers are generally not seen as providing a direct benefit to society.  Thus, they tend not to appeal to people, male or female, who prefer to work in a field which has a clear social purpose.  Women, especially, tend to seek jobs which makes a social contribution, meaning they may be expected to be less attracted to STEM fields.

    That having been said, STEM disciplines such as medicine; biological and agricultural sciences; and earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences, which have a clear social purpose, have proven to be very attractive to women: In 1966, women earned 12% of the doctorates in the biological and agricultural sciences – in 2019 they earned over half of them. For the earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences, 3% of doctorates were earned by women in 1966, versus 43% in 2017. And, as of 2019, women now outnumber men in US medical schools.

    Studies have shown that, as with the course described in the previous section which eliminated the spatial gap, training girls to manipulate, build, and deconstruct objects / machines makes a huge difference to female beliefs they can succeed in technical fields.  Girls’ interest in STEM fields is also significantly increased by emphasizing that girls and boys achieve equally well in math and science, by helping them to assess their skills more accurately, by exposing them to information on the lives of successful female scientists / mathematicians, and by explaining to them the social / people-benefiting aspects of the STEM fields. 

3. Girls can’t hack the STEM workplace: UNTRUE 

Despite grades and other academic attainments equal to or surpassing those of the men who remain in STEM fields, more women than men leave science and engineering. 

Does that mean they can’t hack it – or are other factors at work?

When asked why they left STEM careers in industry, women responded with a list of the challenges they face: Isolation, an unsupportive work environment, extreme work schedules, and unclear rules for their advancement. Women working as STEM faculty cite dissatisfaction with departmental culture, advancement opportunities, faculty leadership, and research support.

Studies have shown that gender bias adversely affects both female progress and participation.  When women are successful in what are considered “male” fields, they are less well liked and are perceived more negatively; they are judged to be less competent than a male of similar ability, and are more likely to be to be personally disparaged than men with comparable success. Such antipathy harms career outcomes by leading to lower evaluations, meaning fewer promotions and less access to resources. And this is all true, despite a woman having demonstrated her competence and proving herself more successful than her male peers.

The “family penalty” falls disproportionately on women – they are expected to do the majority of the care-giving and housework, while men get a pass. Even today, when both the man and the woman work a demanding schedule, the man’s career is usually given priority. 

Women with children are particularly disadvantaged on salaries, advancement, and even their ability to continue with their paid employment. Women who want a successful career are more likely than men to report foregoing marriage or children or delaying having children. A recent retention study found that most women and men who left engineering said that interest in another career was a reason, but women were also more likely to cite time and family-related issues. 

Looking at just the academic arena we find:

  • Systematic underrating of female applicants.  An old chestnut states that a woman has to be twice as smart, and work twice as hard, to do half as well as a male. Turns out it’s not so far off the mark: A female postdoctoral applicant must be significantly more productive than a male one to receive the same peer review score. To be considered as valuable as male applicant, she either had to publish at least three more papers in a prestigious science journal or an additional 20 papers in lesser-known specialty journals. This handicapping of female applicants helps to explain why women don’t get hired and why the proportion of women achieving high academic rank is less than for males.

  • Women’s research is less likely to be cited than a male peer’s research. This has important implications for hiring, tenure, promotion, salaries, awards, invitations to give talks, etc.

  • Letters of recommendation for faculty positions engage in gender profiling. Those for males focus on their achievements, research and abilities, while letters for women tend to refer to their compassion, teaching, and effort. The former characteristics are more highly valued, and hence more likely to result in a job-offer, and if appointed, a higher salary.

  • If they can even get hired, other areas of inequity include: lower pay, less funding / support, less mentoring, dubious peer reviewing, fewer invites to participate in journal articles, and poorer student feedback despite superior teaching performance as versus male colleagues. 

Two recent studies of bias in faculty found significant discrimination: 

  • Against women when rating the application materials for a laboratory manager position of a student who was randomly assigned either a male or female name:
    • Faculty participants rated the male applicant as substantially more competent and hirable than the (identical) female applicant.
    • The female student was deemed less hirable because she was viewed as less competent, despite having the same application materials.
    • The male received a higher starting salary ($30,238.10 as versus $26,507.94). He also received more offers of career mentoring.

  • Against non-Caucasians and females when evaluating a request for assistance. 

    This study involved over 6,500 professors at top U.S. universities, drawn from 89 disciplines and 259 institutions. The subjects were approached by fictional prospective students seeking to discuss research opportunities prior to applying to a doctoral program. The names of the students were randomly assigned to indicate gender and race (Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese), however, their messages were identical.

    The results were extremely disturbing for institutions supposedly devoted to dispassionate, rational thinking and the search for excellence:
    • When considering requests from prospective students seeking mentoring in the future, faculty were significantly more responsive to Caucasian males than to all other categories of students, collectively, and this was particularly so in higher-paying disciplines and in private institutions. 

Sadly, in both of these studies, the gender / minority status of the faculty participant did not affect the responses.  Which shows very clearly just how brainwashed we all are when it comes to our beliefs about the inferiority of certain classes of people – including those who look just like us.  

We can all, both oppressors and victims, be guilty of perpetuating inequity. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: Research has shown that the most effective way to reduce discrimination in a process is to ensure that the participants receive training in unconscious bias.

Studies of employment in the STEM fields outside of academia display the same problems: a disinclination to hire female applicants, regardless of their ability; discrimination, harassment, abuse, and failure to recognize female competency, with women being seen as less capable than males with inferior abilities; failure to promote, lower salaries, access to fewer resources … the list goes on and on … 

So, let’s speak the honest truth: It’s not that women can’t hack the STEM workplace – it’s that STEM fields can’t hack women.  Indeed, far too many of those in the STEM fields have done their damnedest to avoid letting women through the door; to stifle their ability to succeed if they do get hired; and to drive them out, if they survive the attempts to curb their careers.

Conclusions

Studies have tried to find a biological cause for the historic edge that boys have had in the STEM subjects. However, no evidence has been found for sex / hormonal differences in cognitive abilities.  Instead, the evidence points very clearly to social / cultural factors as the explanation for the differences.  

Give girls the tools, the environment, the training, the encouragement, and they blossom into brilliant mathematicians and scientists. 

And while we have in the past century progressed leaps and bounds as the percentage of women employed in scientific positions increases, Society is still plagued by centuries of inequity that need to be unraveled before women are made whole.

Books on Gender Bias in Science

If you would like to explore Gender Biases in Science further, several important books are:

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story
What science has gotten so shamefully wrong about women, and the fight, by both female and male scientists, to rewrite what we thought we knew.
View on Amazon

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men 
Data is fundamental to the modern world. From economic development, to healthcare, to education and public policy, we rely on numbers to allocate resources and make crucial decisions. But because so much data fails to take into account gender, because it treats men as the default and women as atypical, bias and discrimination are baked into our systems. And women pay tremendous costs for this bias, in time, money, and often with their lives.
View on Amazon

Has Feminism Changed Science? 
This book is a history of women in science and a frank assessment of the role of gender in shaping scientific knowledge. Science is both a profession and a body of knowledge, and Londa Schiebinger looks at how women have fared and performed in both instances.
View on Amazon