2 barriers to women in science and what you can do about them

Recently four prominent female Dutch professors launched their campaign to improve career opportunities and working climate for women in academia. Athena’s Angels 4 Women in Academia are getting a lot of media attention. Rightly so, because the gender situation in the Netherlands is very problematic with almost the lowest number of women in tenured academic posts in the EU. Read more below about two persisting barriers to women in science and what you can do about them.

Implicit bias

Implicit bias addresses the fact that we all unconsciously hold beliefs about people, jobs, and disciplines, e.g. on women, professors, and mathematics. Terms we implicitly associate with science include rational, objective, life of the mind, rigorous, original, ambitious. Terms we associate with women include nice, friendly, attention to detail, emotional, service, etc. We all share these implicit biases. Even people who are aware of the phenomenon.

Science, and the academic world in general are to a large degree male stereotyped, especially in the Netherlands (cf. Gender-science stereotypes study from Northwestern University). That is to say, when people say ‘researcher’, ‘professor’, or ‘scientist’, the ideal image that jumps to mind is often that of a man. So when important jobs, responsibilities, grants have to be assigned, people tend to come up with male candidates and women often have to prove their capacities and qualities more explicitly in cases where their male counterparts would receive the benefit of the doubt. Subconscious beliefs influence our evaluations of aspiring, female scientists in profound and far-reaching ways. Consider their effects on reviewing submitted papers, hiring decisions, grant and tenure evaluations, etc. I have written before about implicit bias against women in science here. See also this blog note by Curt Rice on a Dutch magazine article on women in science in the Netherlands, or the lack of them. Furthermore, discussions about these topics are often muddled by personal stories and anecdotal evidence. You find scientific facts and figures about inequality in academia via Athena’s Angels 4 Women in Academia.

In short, implicit bias is a modern form of discrimination that is often not intentional and hard to recognize. But it is very damaging for the well-being, motivation and functioning of those confronted with it. Oh, and it is not just men who are implicitly biased against the idea of women in science.

What could you do to minimize the effects of implicit bias? Some ideas below from a 2011 report “Women in Philosophy in the UK” by Helen Beebee and Jenny Saul, pdf). Please share your suggestion in the comments!

  • ensure truly anonymous procedures for grading, editing, reviewing, funding and hiring decisions, with transparent criteria
  • consciously attempt to notice women’s contributions to a discussion and call on them explicitly
  • intentionally include women as conference speakers, contributors to anthologies, as role-models at open days and in reading lists… Realize that one of the effects of implicit bias is that women often need to do more than men to get the same recognition. You might subconsciously set the bar higher for women: consider inviting sub-top women. Invite them well in advance and think about offering childcare at your conference
  • double check women’s applications for having been downgraded due to implicit bias, including letters of recommendation. (For women, letters of reference are more likely to focus on sociability rather than on prestige and ambition.)
  • protect female staff from taking on a disproportionate teaching and pastoral care load
  • be careful to not overlook gender unbalance in smaller disciplines within larger faculties. The humanities are often more balanced towards women, but this certainly does not apply to all subfields. Consider e.g. philosophy, which is extremely male-dominated globally.
  • investigate and use university policy and procedures for diversity, find and use resources such as special post-maternity research kick-starter funds
  • don’t wait for others to act: what can you do to improve the climate for women?

Stereotype threat

While implicit bias is about perception and evaluation, stereotype threat affects actual performance. In this case, it means that women in stereotypically male environments such as academia constantly experience measurable extra stress (higher heart rates and blood pressure) because of their fear to confirm negative stereotypes about women. Mostly unaware of their anxiety and preoccupation they actually underperform. Being the subject of stereotype threat makes your job more stressful. Consider for example being the only female speaker at a conference, member of a departmental committee. Also many academic discussions use stereotypically male expressions and imagery (“winning an argument”, “taking down a hypothesis”, etc.). As Helen Beebee and Jenny Saul indicate in the report mentioned above (p. 13), the point is not that women are softies and incapable of dealing with aggressive behavior. It is that women feel like they do not belong in their working environment, especially when its masculine nature is reinforced. One of the disastrous effects of this is that women are more likely to leave academia.

Some excellent suggestions from the 2011 report above (p. 23) to counter the effects of stereotype threat include:

  • becoming aware of the phenomenon and how it might work in your situation
  • reflect on counter stereotypical exemplars
  • write about your personal core values, especially when you are (about to be in) a threat provoking situation. Reconnecting to what is important to you, to your values and your mission is vital for your personal integrity and sense of wholeness

I would add power posing to that list. What is that and why would it help? Amy Cuddy explains the effects of and the science behind power posing in this YouTube video. Share your recipe against stereotype threat in the comments!



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