The myth about women in science

Story highlights

  • Wendy Williams, Stephen J. Ceci: Received wisdom is that sexism keeps women from getting ahead in sciences
  • Their new research shows that female scientists have a significantly higher chance of being interviewed and hired than men
  • They interpret findings: Anti-female bias in academic hiring has ended and now is a good time for young women to seek science jobs

Wendy M. Williams is a psychologist and professor of human development at Cornell University, where she founded and co-directs the Cornell Institute for Women in Science. Stephen J. Ceci is the Helen L. Carr professor of developmental psychology at Cornell. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN)The prevailing wisdom is that sexist hiring in academic science roadblocks women's careers before they even start. The American Association of University Professors and blue-ribbon commissions attest to this. An influential report by the National Academy of Sciences in 2006 concluded that "on the average, people are less likely to hire a woman than a man with identical qualifications," and noted that scientists and engineers "are not exempt."

Wendy M. Williams
Stephen J. Ceci
Many female graduate students worry that hiring bias is inevitable. A walk through the science departments of any college or university could convince us that the scarcity of female faculty (20% or less) in fields like engineering, computer science, physics, economics and mathematics must reflect sexism in hiring.
But the facts tell a different story. National hiring audits, some dating back to the 1980s, reveal that female scientists have had a significantly higher chance of being interviewed and hired than men. Although women were less likely to apply for jobs, if they did apply, their chances of getting the job were usually better. The typical explanation for this seeming contradiction has been that the women who survived the intense sexism and winnowing process of graduate training were unusually talented, and thus deserved to be hired at a higher rate than men.
But is there evidence for this assertion?
When we searched the literature, we could not find one empirical study of sexism in faculty hiring using actual faculty members as evaluators and focusing on fields in which women are most underrepresented. So we did the study ourselves (published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), testing 873 faculty members at 371 institutions in 50 states. To tease out sex bias, we created fictional candidate profiles identical in every respect except for sex, and asked faculty to rank these candidates for a tenure-track job.
We ran five national experiments with these otherwise-identical female and male candidates, systematically varying their personal attributes and lifestyles in a counterbalanced design. Every time we sent a given slate of candidates to a male faculty member, we sent the same slate with sexes reversed to another male faculty member, as well as sending both slates to two female faculty members. Then we compared the faculty members' rankings to see how hirable each candidate was, overall.
What we found shocked us. Women had an overall 2-to-1 advantage in being ranked first for the job in all fields studied. This preference for women was expressed equally by male and female faculty members, with the single exception of male economists, who were gender neutral in their preferences.
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In some conditions, women's advantage reached 4-to-1. When women were compared with men who shared the same lifestyle, advantages accrued to women in all demographic groups—including single or married women without children, married women with preschoolers, and divorced mothers.
To ensure that socially desirable responding was not driving our findings, in one of the five experiments we sent faculty just one candidate to evaluate, rather than a slate of three shortlisted candidates. Even with no frame of reference provided by a comparison with other candidates, women were rated higher and seen as more hirable than identically qualified men.
We interpreted our findings to mean that anti-female bias in academic hiring has ended. Changing cultural values, gender-awareness training and trends such as the retirement of older faculty members have brought us to a time when women in academic science are seen as more desirable hires than equally competent men.
When we looked at the effects of lifestyles on hiring, some traditional values emerged. In a competition between a married father with a stay-at-home spouse and an equivalently qualified divorced mother of two preschoolers, female faculty members preferred 4-to-1 to hire the divorced mother, but men felt the opposite. (Note, however, that both genders preferred a divorced mother when she competed against a divorced father.)
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In another comparison examining the effect of taking a one-year parental leave in graduate school, we found that male faculty members preferred mothers who took lengthy parental leaves, whereas female faculty members did not. Perhaps the men preferred women they perceived as good mothers rather than as stereotypical aggressive careerists. Neither female nor male faculty cared about fathers' parental leaves.
Our results, coupled with actuarial data on real-world academic hiring showing a female advantage, suggest this is a propitious time for women beginning careers in academic science. The low numbers of women in math-based fields of science do not result from sexist hiring, but rather from women's lower rates of choosing to enter math-based fields in the first place, due to sex differences in preferred careers and perhaps to lack of female role models and mentors.
While women may encounter sexism before and during graduate training and after becoming professors, the only sexism they face in the hiring process is bias in their favor.