Yale study shows pervasive sexism in hiring practices among professors
Published: Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 12:10
A recent study by Yale researchers shows the pervasive sexist tendencies of science professors in the United States. Professors at six prominent research universities were sent resumes from a recent graduate seeking a position as a lab manager. The resumes were identical, except for the names; some were submitted under the name John, some under the name Jennifer. On a scale of 1 to 7, professors ranked John a 4 and Jennifer a 3.3. Professors looked more favorably on a John as a candidate for hire and mentorship. When Jennifer was offered a job, she was offered an average salary of $26,508, noticeably lower than John’s average offered salary of $30,328.
Yale professor, Dr. Jo Handelson, noted that the researchers were “a little bit surprised at how powerful the results were.” She had been told by colleagues, before beginning the study, that it was unlikely scientists would present such obvious bias—after all, scientists are supposed to be rational and objective.
The study went viral shortly after its release. The abstract was posted on Reddit, a New York Times article was written about the results, and it became a relatively popular “like” on Facebook for a day or two. People seemed to address the article with a mixture of disappointment and outrage. They had held the same beliefs as Dr. Handelson’s colleagues; scientists are too rational for sexism, especially in our day and age. But, of course, that’s not true and there are a couple important implications of the study’s findings.
The study presents one potential reason for a lack of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. If science professors consider female students less competent than their male counterparts, they aren’t just less likely to hire them after they graduate. This subtle sexism likely affects many other aspects of a woman’s education in the sciences. Professors who aren’t confident in women’s capabilities are less likely to mentor their female students. That means women won’t be chosen to participate in research projects, their work won’t get the same encouraging feedback as the work of male students, they may not receive equal recognition from their department in the form of awards or scholarships, and they may be less likely to get recommendations for internship and job opportunities.
The study also exemplifies the potential for subtle sexism to have a large impact. These professors probably don’t think of themselves as sexist. Most of their students and colleagues probably wouldn’t identify them as sexist. Yet, their responses to the study, in aggregate, are irrefutably sexist. It will be difficult to address this type of discrimination because it is difficult to identify and easy to overlook. Anecdotally, female students may feel they don’t quite receive the same level of recognition from their professors. But proving a feeling is nearly impossible and, if proven, even harder to address effectively. How are professors supposed to change a fundamental predisposition to sexist behavior?
Perhaps the easiest way to address a deficit of women in the sciences would be to establish affirmative action programs in undergraduate and graduate institutions and research programs. This would at least address the surface issue posed by the article; an affirmative action program would allow women to access the same opportunities as men, in greater numbers, in spite of any underlying sexism during the application review process. This would allow professors to see and experience firsthand that women, given the chance, can be just as successful as men and would raise awareness of discriminatory hiring practices.