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It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of women in science, and the higher on the totem pole you look, the fewer women you will find. Many hypotheses have been advanced to explain this disappointing truth—psychological differences between men and women, family demands, other factors—but the role of gender bias in women’s underrepresentation in STEM is controversial.

A new study examined the effect of bias on promotion decisions by directly observing the hiring process as it played out in real life at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) (Nat. Hum. Behav., doi: 10.1038/s41562-019-0686-3). The CNRS and University of British Columbia, Canada, team found that hiring committees are less likely to promote women when their members deny that implicit gender bias is a problem.

Explicit versus implicit

It’s well documented that society as a whole tends to associate “science” and “masculine” in semantic memory, and such implicit associations can lead to unconscious discrimination. Many studies have also examined explicit gender bias in the hiring process through questionnaires and hypothetical scenarios.

Armed with this knowledge, the CNRS/UBC team wanted to push further and look at how such implicit and explicit biases might influence real-world hiring decisions. So the team compared the outcomes of 40 hiring committees representing the entire scientific spectrum, from physics to political science, over a two-year period as those committees sought to fill elite research positions in France. The very real implications of these hiring decisions on scientists’ lives and careers, the team believes, raise the stakes and sets this study apart.

It’s all semantics

Evaluating each decision-maker’s semantic associations was the first step. The researchers measured how strongly the individual members of the evaluation committees linked “science” with “masculinity” with the Implicit Association Test. As words flashed across a computer screen, the subjects would assign them to a certain category—people who reacted more slowly when faced with pairing female-related words with scientific concepts demonstrated stronger implicit bias. Both men and women tended to link science with men, according to the team’s results.

The next step was to record each individual’s explicit beliefs about women in science. The researchers surveyed the hiring committees to understand whether they believed that women in scientific careers face external barriers, and whether or not such barriers constrain women’s ability to succeed.

On a six-point scale, the subjects were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements. For example, “Whatever their scientific abilities, women are often discriminated against,” and “On average, women are forced to invest more than men in their family/private lives, possibly to the detriment of their working lives.” Some hiring committees acknowledged such barriers while others minimized their impact.

Guarding against bias

Finally, the researchers compared their results from the implicit- and explicit-bias surveys with the actual hiring outcomes of the 40 committees. They found that the groups that denied or minimized that implicit gender bias exists tended to promote fewer women. This trend was stronger in the second year of the study, likely because the committees were not as hyper-aware that their decisions were being studied. On the other hand, groups that acknowledged gender bias in their surveys were more likely to overcome their implicit “science is masculine” associations during the hiring process.

While these finding may not be altogether surprising, it’s notable that across the scientific spectrum and across genders, most scientists possess implicit gender stereotypes. Yet, it seems that decision-makers are more likely to act on their implicit biases if, at an explicit level, they do not strongly believe that systemic discrimination is a problem.

These results suggest that acknowledging implicit gender bias exists could be the key to ensuring it doesn’t unintentionally sway hiring decisions. Given the evidence that gender bias is still prevalent in science, at least at the implicit level, the CNRS/UBC group recommends educating hiring committees about implicit bias and how to guard against it.