Women in academia: is the skew self-perpetuating?

It’s often said that fewer women enter STEM careers because they have fewer female role models, thus making the gender imbalance in many institutions and fields self-perpetuating [1]. But what if it’s not just about ‘role models’. What if the gender bias in itself is a barrier to application? Would you not rather work where you would have a diverse set of colleagues?

The reason I’ve started thinking about this is that there has been a little concern recently at Silwood Park: we’ve had 15 new appointments at the lecturer/senior lecturer position, all of which were male (although one female was offered the job). Now, you just need to look at the set of appointments to realise that these are huge superstars. But only 16% of those interviewed were women.

Why such a small number? I don’t believe that there was bias in the panel: Imperial College works hard to prevent this kind of thing, having achieved an Athena SWAN Silver award (but then again, a lot of research suggests that a lot of us have subconscious, including and perhaps especially women [2,3]). I certainly don’t believe that there aren’t women out there who have reached the same level of academic superstardom as the men. So what if just not enough of women applied? I don’t have access to the applications, so can’t evaluate the gender bias, but I find it an interesting thought – if you came to Silwood Park as a woman, and saw the incredibly skewed gender ratio, would you want to work here? Would the gender bias in itself be enough to put you off? Maybe because you’d have fewer female colleagues, or a less diverse set of colleagues at least? Or because it might imply some subconscious bias against women? 

So what do you think?

If the gender bias in itself is a barrier to application, quotas could be an option: they have been shown to increase the number of highly qualified female applicants to positions meaning the quality of the appointee is not diminished [4,5]. But are these worthwhile in academia? I’m not sure. It probably won’t impact the number of grants received by women, and could put more administrative obligations on those women that are in the field [3]. But maybe it could help ease the barriers against women applying for academic positions.

It’s a difficult subject. If anyone has any opinions, I’d love to hear them. And remember that there’s a select committee being held on the subject to inform Parliament about policy options – submit your evidence by September 3rd!

Also check out Kate’s blog on the gender imbalance of presenters at INTECOL 2013. She won the conference’s ‘most interesting tweet’ on this topic, so there is clearly a huge interest.

1. Newsome, J.L. (2008) The Chemistry PhD: The Impact on Women’s Retention, Royal Society of Chemistry, London, U.K.
2. Moss-Racusin, C., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J. & Handelsman, J. (2012) Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, 16474–16479
3. Vernos, I. (2013) Quotas are questionable. Nature 495, 39
4. Niederle, M., Segal, C. & Vesterlund, L. (2012) How Costly Is Diversity? Affirmative Action in Light of Gender Differences in Competitiveness. Management Science 59, 1–16.
5. Grosvold, J., Brammer, S. & Rayton, B. (2007) Board diversity in the United Kingdom and Norway: an exploratory analysis. Business Ethics: A European Review 16, 344–357.


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