Prominent science advocate Richard Dawkins once claimed “Science replaces personal prejudice with publically verifiable evidence.” This is a beautiful and encouraging statement, however, we now know that there is a serious problem in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects (STEM). In the United States, 81% of STEM faculty positions are held by men despite women being equally qualified.
However, recent research has uncovered a potentially important pipeline for preventing implicit gender bias in STEM faculty hiring practices. A multi-disciplinary team from the Montana State University, led by Jessie L. Smith, have found that using an intervention-based hiring practice can increase the number of women being offered faculty positions by 6.3 times, and these candidates are 5.8 times more likely to accept the position if offered, or put another way, 40.5% of short-listed candidates were women compared to 14.2% in a control group.
Search committees responsible for hiring faculty members were given a “faculty search toolkit” which provided instructions for carrying out a broad search for applicants. They were also instructed on how to overcome implicit gender biases. Finally, committee members were assigned a peer to help them in their search. This 3 step process aimed to meet three psychological needs, competence, autonomy and social relatedness which are purported to improve performance according to self-determination theory.
The authors also state that this ground-breaking study can be applied outside the world of STEM, and across many different diversity axis. It is an important step in overcoming, as Richard Dawkins put it, our own “private prejudice.”
However, as is often the case, the picture isn’t always as clear as it first appears. University of Cornell researchers have previously carried out research into hiring practices for faculty positions nationwide and found that, all else being equal, highly qualified women are chosen more often than highly qualified men. They have also recently carried out a follow up study asking if this female positive bias allows women to outcompete slightly better qualified men. They found that this wasn’t the case, and that nationwide, quality of the candidate is the most important factor considered by search committees.
These conflicting results are problematic if we want to encourage equality, as it confuses the issue of where barriers to gender equality lie in regards to STEM fields. The authors of the Cornell study suggest that the greater number of men holding faculty positions may in fact be due to the gender ratio of those who enter STEM fields at university, but that this bias disappears once candidates have reached PhD level. This is why campaigns such as “This Girl Can” are so important. They promote what was previously a male dominated arena – sport, to women across the world. STEM currently lacks such a high profile campaign, one that might address the current gender imbalance in STEM fields, that might encourage more women to enter STEM fields at university and pursue it to PhD level.
This girl can? This girl can STEM!