California Democrat Rep. Jackie Speier took to the floor of the House in January to talk about a rash of sexual harassment cases in university science departments, including one at the University of Arizona, my home institution. She's promising legislation, meanwhile theNational Science Foundation recently announced a policy statement on “preventing harassment and to eradicate gender-based discrimination in science.”

Sexual harassment is a big problem in STEM, and I'm glad it's getting some attention. But there's another problem, very much related and possibly an underlying cause of harassment, that we're not talking about, and that's bias.

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By bias, I mean the unconscious attitudes and belief systems about gender that lead to, say, students evaluating male professors as “brilliant” and female professors as “nice.”

Or, here's one from my personal file: Six weeks into a regional geography course a student said, “I have a stupid question. Are you Dr. Mitchneck?” Clearly he had identified me as a subordinate to some off-site male professor, even though I'd been teaching the class since the beginning of the semester. I've also had students refuse to call me “Dr.” and others pat me on the head or put their arms around me. I've been asked to fetch coffee even when I was interim vice provost. I've been told: “I know that I would not be coming down on you about this if you were a man. But I’m going to anyway.”

Welcome to the life of a female STEM faculty member. There are volumes of evidence over the past 20 years that student evaluations are biased against women and minorities,and they result in lower salaries and fewer promotions, and reams of evidence that this bias extends to professors and deans. There's evidence that bias may be one of the fundamental reason women leave science.

Yet many just don’t believe that bias exists. In one study, authors analyzed online comments related to three articles that reported on science faculty members experience with gender bias. The good news is that the majority of comments did not dispute the evidence; the bad news is that most of those comments were made by women, and that close to one-third of comments that did dispute the evidence were likely to come from men. Another study, led by Montana State University psychology professor Ian Handley, shows that men, more than women, just do not believe that bias in science exists, even when presented with clear evidence. The Handley study also found that men, especially those within academic STEM, viewed research on bias as less “meritorious” than other research.

While men may be more skeptical, women can be just as biased against their own gender. An often-cited Yale study found that when men and women science professors were shown identical resumes for candidates for a laboratory position, with either a male or a female name, both men and women were more likely to rate the male candidate as more competent than the female, and more likely to hire and pay him more, even though their resumes were the same! The cards seem stacked against women in science. 

According to National Science Foundation data, more than three-quarters of the full time senior faculty members in STEM are men (these data include social sciences and psychology). Men are not only a majority in academic STEM, but also they are a supermajority among decision makers. So, how are we to admit there is a problem if the supermajority in power doubts both the evidence and its merit, while the minority women are just as biased?

I have worked for over 15 years as a faculty member and administrator to promote campus diversity and equity. I also spent two and a half years at the National Science Foundation working with dozens of universities around the country to do the same. I've heard a lot of scientists – both men and women – argue that institutional bias does not exist. But an even more distressing argument is that many disparities are not the result of bias, they happen because women actively choose to leave or to ramp down their own careers.

Women do make choices that affect the way we work and advance in science, but the institutional context in which we work affects those choices. A recent article by psychology researcher Michelle Ryan notes that women begin their careers with the same ambitions as men, but lose that ambition over time. This is not because of motherhood, but “because they get tired of the fight within the organization” and “subtle biases.” As we still do the majority of housekeeping in the home, female professors are often doing unpaid (yet very important) mentoring of undergrads and their colleagues.

Now is the time to make a national and coordinated effort to reduce bias at universities. Many universities, like University of Michigan, University of Washington, and University of Wisconsin at Madison, have made significant changes in hiring and keeping women faculty and addressing bias. In Madison, they proved that even a two and a half hour workshop can have an impact. 

We could also take a page from the European Commission’s playbook: the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 grant agreement requires institutions that accept grant funding to institute bias reducing measures like transparency in hiring and promoting and paying close attention to the climate and how new policies impact gender.

In the U.S, funding agencies like the National Science Foundation could do the same by adding gender and racial diversity to its merit review criteria and change its research contracts to require evidence of practices that include women and minorities. We could also demand that the Senate modify its America INNOVATES Act to include a provision that requires recipients of federal research awards to have diverse research teams and to make concrete and measurable progress towards the advancement of women in science.

Our mission in science is to produce knowledge and discoveries - let's not let gender get in the way.


Beth Mitchneck is an OpEd Project Fellow and a professor of geography at the University of Arizona