A new study published in PNAS by a Cornell-based research team examined the gender bias in faculty hiring for STEM fields, and discovered a surprising preference for female faculty members among both genders in certain STEM fields. The researchers found that, when presented with applications for an assistant professorship, both male and female faculty overwhelmingly preferred female applicants over male applicants with identical qualifications and family situations. These findings are striking in their contradiction to the large body of existing literature on gender bias in STEM fields, and should be approached with caution; in examination of this paper, some concerns arise regarding study design, and the causal pathways suggested in the authors’ conclusions.
To conduct this study, researchers surveyed a total of 873 tenure-track faculty members from 371 colleges and universities. Surveys were distributed via e-mail, with a response rate of approximately 34 percent. Participants were current faculty members in the fields of biology, engineering, economics, and psychology.
Participants were asked to make selections between identically qualified male and female applicants with matching lifestyles. Six lifestyles conditions were studied: being single without children, married without children, married with children and a stay-at-home spouse, married with children and spouse working outside the home, married with children and the spouse working inside the home, and divorced with children. The children in each situation were described as two preschoolers.
A randomized stratified sampling procedure revealed a strong preference for female applicants over male applicants This preference was present in institutions of all sizes, across all four fields and across participant genders; the sole exception was male economists, who showed no significant preference for either gender. Overall, when the data were pooled, female applicants were preferred by 67.3 percent of the faculty, which represented a two-to-one preference for female applicants.
This finding held true for applications with narrative summaries of work history, and for applications with formal CVs. Though six types of lifestyles were examined, no lifestyle effects were found. These findings also held constant even when participants were asked to simply numerically evaluate potential candidates instead of comparing them.
The results are remarkable, because they go against some of the conventional wisdom regarding bias in faculty hiring.
In the field of economics, the only field with aberrant data, the female participants preferred female candidates two to one, just as the other participants did, but the male participants in economics were gender neutral in their preference for applicants. Here, it’s worth noting that the majority of economics faculty are male, so their preferences may carry more weight in an overall hiring process.
A second experiment was conducted to examine historically alleged biases, for example a bias against divorced women with children or for married men with children. In this experiment, the two-to one-preference for women that was seen in the first experiment was disrupted, and the researchers found that female faculty significantly preferred divorced women over identically qualified married men, whereas male faculty showed a slight preference for married men over divorced women. However, again, since women a very under-represented in faculty for STEM fields, their preference for women may be limited in its effect on hiring decisions, since the majority of those involved in the decision making process are men.
These researchers conducted an additional experiment, probing the effects of potential applicants having taken parental leave during their graduate education. Conventional wisdom would state that women who take maternity leave during their graduate education are less likely to be selected for faculty positions in comparison to men and women who did not take maternity leave – the researchers wanted to see if this was in fact the case.
Faculty participants were asked to select between identically qualified male and female candidates who either took parental leave or did not take parental leave. The researchers found that male faculty members had a preference for women who had taken parental leave over women who had children but did not take leave, and did not show any preference for parental leave status among men. Female faculty members also showed no preference regarding parental leave status among men; however, they showed a non-significant preference for women with children who had not taken parental leave over those who had done so.
This finding suggests that both male and female faculty may also harbor some biases regarding parental roles in applicants for professorships. Male faculty preferred applicants who take more traditional gender roles in terms of balancing family and career, whereas female faculty preferred applicants who eschewed traditional gender roles in favor of focusing on career.
Beyond the data
The findings of this study are significant because they are in direct conflict with the normalized expectation of gender bias against female faculty members in STEM fields. The authors hypothesize their results show that efforts to combat sexism in hiring may have succeeded. They suggest that the perception that STEM fields will be unwelcoming may be causing the continued gender imbalance for faculty in these areas, as women may be less inclined to apply, fearing that the environment may be biased once they join the faculty. Additionally, the authors suggest that this preference for female applicants to professorships is may be due to existing faculty having internalized societal or institutional goals to reduce the gender imbalance in their fields.
Needless to say, the conclusions of this paper aren’t consistent with the experience of many in the academic community, which has prompted a large number of critiques of the study by academics. Meanwhile, the authors of the paper, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, went well beyond conclusions in the paper when publishing an Op/Ed they entitled “The myth about women in science,” in which they argue that the low number of women in several fields of science is definitively not a result of sexist hiring practices.