Sarah Banchefsky had a simple question for the people participating in her study.
The University of Colorado psychologist asked a diverse group of adults to rate a series of photos of various professionals on how feminine they were and how likely the person was a scientist or an early childhood educator. Perhaps not surprisingly, the women rated as more feminine were viewed as less likely to be a scientist. What the study participants didn’t know, however, was that all of the individuals in the photos, male and female, were professors in STEM fields at major universities.
The idea for Banchefsky’s study in Sex Roles came on the heels of a 2015 ad by tech company OneLogic, which featured several of the company’s engineers. On social media, however, some called out the photo of one engineer as being fake, presumably because the woman was viewed as “too attractive” to be a “real” engineer. Women engineers fought back, tagging their selfies #ILookLikeAnEngineer, a project that quickly went viral.
Despite this and other attempts to show that science isn’t solely the domain of older white males, the stereotype persists. Several new studies show that the anti-women, anti-minority stereotypes about scientists play a significant role in affecting who ultimately pursues a career in the sciences.
While the stereotypes may be subtle, the actions they fuel are anything but. Several high-profile sexual harassment cases at UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago show that these prejudices have real-world consequences—consequences that, unless directly challenged, continue to favor the good old boys club in science.
Women have always been scientists and engineers, even if those professional doors weren’t open to them until much more recently. From developing new methods of manufacturing to pioneering the field of paleontology to simply devising new ways of producing and cooking, women have experimented and tinkered and innovated for millennia.
Our cultural image of the wild-haired, older white male in white lab coat as the penultimate researcher has helped to obscure the contributions of countless women, while simultaneously discouraging them from entering STEM fields. In some science fields, females now outnumber males not just at the undergraduate level, but even at the Ph.D. level. Still, data from the National Science Foundation reveals that the higher you go in the ranks, the fewer women you find.
Last year, University of Illinois psychologist Andrei Cimpian began investigating the assumptions that underlie our broader cultural assumptions on what makes a person successful in science and engineering. In a 2015 Science study, Cimpian and colleagues surveyed nearly 2,000 faculty, graduate students, and postdocs from 30 different fields across the sciences and humanities, asking them the extent to which “raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success.”
Since women are generally believed to be less inherently talented at science, Cimpian hypothesized that fields where professionals agreed that talent equals success would have proportionally fewer women. He and his team were right. Fields like math, physics, and philosophy had the fewest women and the highest endorsement of raw talent as being the primary determinant of success.
However, since Cimpian and colleagues were asking individuals directly, he couldn’t exclude the chance that his results were somehow biased, since people might have subtly altered their responses because someone was watching.
In a new study in PLOS ONE, Cimpian mined data from the site RateMyProfessors.com to determine how frequently professors were described using words like “brilliant” or “genius.” Students used these words to describe male professors two to three times more frequently than females, across all disciplines. They found a similar bias against African-American professors.
“A simple word count was able to predict the representation of women and minorities in a variety of different fields,” Cimpian said.
Since teaching evaluations are frequently used in decisions about hiring, promotion, and tenure, they further reinforce the movement of white men up the career ladder at the expense of women and minorities.
“We need information about the quality of their teaching, but it seems that we need to find other ways of doing this,” rather than just relying on student reports and their potential bias, he said.
Anthropologist Rachel Morgain started out as a physics student but ultimately decided to leave the field and instead go into anthropology to take a critical look at science as a field. In a new study in Sex Roles, Morgain teamed with science communicator and fellow Doctor Who fan Lindy Orthia to examine gender stereotypes about scientists throughout the show’s 50-year run.
They were surprised to learn that the gender distribution of scientists on the show was fairly equitable over the decades. However, as they dug deeper, they discovered that incompetent scientists on the show were portrayed as being more effeminate, pacifist, and collectivist, regardless of gender. The findings aren’t just relevant to those individuals who yearn to ride in the Tardis.
“If and when we even out the numbers of women in science, we have to look at what kinds of men and women succeed. Science is still thought to require a certain level of hardness and competitiveness,” Morgain said. “This pervasive culture of masculinity creates the expectation that men are more likely to succeed.”
The work of Elizabeth Stearns, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, builds on these findings. In a new study in Social Problems, Stearns and her team analyzed longitudinal data from across the state and found that young women who had more female science and math teachers were more likely to show interest in STEM fields and graduate from college with a STEM degree. The gender distribution of high school teachers had no effect on whether young men pursued STEM careers, likely because they didn’t need additional support to think that these careers were acceptable and possible for them.
“These teachers got girls thinking about themselves as potential scientists,” Stearns said.
Stearns also conducted qualitative interviews with more than 300 college seniors about their decisions to go into STEM. Whereas the young women reported high levels of microaggressions in classes and labs, nearly all of the white males Stearns interviewed were oblivious to their challenges. Only males that were part of a minority group, identified as gay, or were part of a non-traditional college student group showed any awareness that the culture of STEM might be more difficult for females. She hasn’t completed analyzing the data, but she believes it plays into why so many harassers get away with their behaviors and simultaneously climb the ranks in academia. They and their colleagues are essentially blind to the problem.
“The belief that science is a meritocratic field denies the experience of women that the field permits a great deal of harassment and discrimination simply by turning a blind eye,” Stearns said.
The result of this harassment and feeling a need to continually prove oneself is that women leave STEM. Increasing interest in STEM in women and minorities is important, but it’s far from the whole problem.
“It’s not about interest. It’s about systematic behaviors that promote some people at the expense of others,” Morgain concluded.