This article from Inside Higher Education is worth looking at if you’re interested in the persistent gender disparity in physics and some other fields. The article describes the results of a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which scientists were asked to evaluate hypothetical job applications.
The scientists evaluating these applications (which were identical in every way except the gender of the “submitter”) rated the male student more competent, more likely to be hired, deserving of a better salary, and worth spending more time mentoring. The gaps were significant.
The fact that gender is the only variable that changed makes this a particularly clean and unambiguous result. People posit all sorts of reasons other than discrimination for the dearth of women in high-level academic jobs, from innate differences in ability (which I find implausible [1,2,3]) to differences in career choices made, on average, by men and women (e.g., women may be more likely than men to decide they don’t want the work-life balance associated with high-powered academia). But those aren’t possible explanations for this result.
One possibly surprising outcome: both male and female evaluators exhibited this bias. More from Inside Higher Ed:
On the issue of female scientists and male scientists making similarly apparently biased judgments, the authors had this to say: “It is noteworthy that female faculty members were just as likely as their male colleagues to favor the male student. The fact that faculty members’ bias was independent of their gender, scientific discipline, age and tenure status suggests that it is likely unintentional, generated from widespread cultural stereotypes rather than a conscious effort to harm women.”
That sounds right to me. I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of physicists are well-intentioned in this area: most of us genuinely believe that it would be better to have more women in physics and would never deliberately discriminate against women. The sad thing is that this may not be enough.
As our department gears up to search for a new faculty member, this is certainly something we’ll keep in mind.