In 1940 at the age of 19, Rosalyn Sussman graduated from New York’s Hunter College as the school’s first-ever physics major. Eager to pursue physics further but lacking funding, she applied for an assistantship at Purdue University. Someone at the university wrote back to her Hunter College adviser: “She is from New York. She is Jewish. She is a woman. If you can guarantee her a job afterward, we’ll give her an assistantship.”
Hunter couldn’t make the guarantee, so Sussman spent a year as a secretary at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons—until World War II intervened. Short of manpower, the University of Illinois offered her an assistantship. A decade later, she and her collaborator Solomon Berson developed the radioimmunoassay. The technique, which revolutionized endocrinology, is used to identify hormone disorders. The pair’s discovery earned Rosalyn Sussman Yalow a share of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. (Berson died in 1972.)
The blatant, casual discrimination that Yalow faced is rarer now, in part because it’s illegal in the US and other countries. Even so, the percentage of women faculty in physics and other math-intensive fields remains well below 20%. Last year Cornell University’s Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams caused a stir when their research led them to attribute the underrepresentation of women not to discrimination but to women’s own choices.
Theodore Hill of Georgia Tech and Erika Rogers formerly of California Polytechnic State University offered a different reason: Girls are less encouraged than boys are to be curious, playful, and bold—traits, Hill and Rogers argued, that are needed for success in math-intensive fields.
Although Ceci and Williams and Hill and Rogers attributed women’s underrepresentation to different causes, the baleful influence of stereotypes could underlie their respective findings. Girls might eschew physics because their image of a physicist is a man, not a woman. Parents might dissuade girls from climbing trees because girls shouldn’t take the same risks as boys.
John and Jennifer
Stereotypes reside in our minds and are manifested by our actions. To determine whether a bias against women, unconscious or otherwise, plays a role in women’s scientific careers, Yale University’s Corinne Moss-Racusin and her colleagues devised a clever experiment. They asked a randomly chosen sample of male and female professors in three fields—biology, chemistry, and physics—to evaluate a male candidate, “John,” for a lab manager position. A different randomly chosen sample drawn from the same pool was asked to evaluate a female candidate, “Jennifer.”
Unknown to the professors, John and Jennifer were fictitious; except for their gender, their resumés were identical. Despite being equally qualified, John and Jennifer fared differently. On average, professors offered John a starting salary that was 14% higher than the one they offered Jennifer. John was considered the stronger candidate, was rated more competent, and—somewhat paradoxically—was offered more mentoring. The bias in favor of John was present across all three fields and was displayed by male and female professors alike.
What could cause such a troubling bias? In the introduction to their paper, Moss-Racusin and her colleagues are inclined to lay the blame on unconscious factors:
If faculty express gender biases, we are not suggesting that these biases are intentional or stem from a conscious desire to
impede the progress of women in science. Past studies indicate that people’s behavior is shaped by implicit or unintended biases,
stemming from repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes that portray women as less competent but simultaneously emphasize their warmth and likeability compared with men. Despite signiﬁcant decreases in overt sexism over the last few decades (particularly among highly educated people), these subtle gender biases are often still held by even the most egalitarian individuals, and are exhibited by both men and women.
Do the Yale team’s findings mean that science faculty members, male and female, are biased against female scientists? Possibly. The source of my uncertainty lies in the position that John and Jennifer ostensibly applied for, lab manager. Moss-Racusin and her coauthors do not provide a job description, so I looked for one online.
Physics Today's jobs site had no lab manager positions. I did, however, find one at Baylor College of Medicine on Nature's job site. The description and requirements are clear and detailed, but if you want to conduct original research, that job is not for you.
So it’s conceivable that the professors in the Yale study evaluated John and Jennifer not as scientific researchers but as technical administrators. Even if that were the case, the bias in favor of John exhibited by scientists for a scientific job would still be present and still be troubling.
Dispelling stereotypes that may have been acquired unwittingly and over time is doubtless a difficult goal. Moss-Racusin and her colleagues don’t offer specific solutions but they do advocate establishing objective, transparent evaluation criteria to forestall the inadvertent use of different standards for male and female candidates. “Without such actions,” the paper asserts, “faculty bias against female undergraduates may continue to undermine meritocratic advancement, to the detriment of research and education.”
To “research and education” one could also add human health. If discrimination had prevented Yalow from becoming a medical physicist, I expect someone else would have developed radioimmunoassay, but perhaps not soon enough to benefit some patients.