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Academic Research on Gender Bias

Casey Mazzotti

April 25, 2021

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While the "Matilda Effect" and the "Matthew Effect" have both been well-documented and cited by colleagues since their respective inceptions, continued research seeks to find just how pervasive gender bias can be in the sciences, across industries.

Several studies have determined that female authors are less likely than their male counterparts to receive slots in notable publications; they often receive fewer grants and when they do receive grants, they receive fewer funds, and they receive awards less often, which plays an important role in career trajectory. One particularly intriguing phenomenon is that male colleagues tend to cite other male colleagues more often in their own research, and, when controlling for gender, both men and women tend to view work of male colleagues as more favorable than those of female colleagues.

Anecdotal Evidence

An interesting story is that of Ben Barres, who was previously known and researched under the name 'Barbara', a female neurobiologist, prior to his gender transition. Ben noted that male colleagues viewed the work of his "sister," Barbara, as weaker than his own - a stark example of the perception of female scientists and researchers compared to their male counterparts, even by other female colleagues.

In 2001, the journal, Behavioral Ecology, switched from a single-blind review process, in which reviewers saw the names of the authors of potential publications, to a double-blind review process, in which author names were hidden from reviewers. In the year during the switch, the journal noted a 7.9% increase in the rate of accepted publications wherein the first authors were women.

These stories provide insights into the perception of male-authored works compared to female-authored works, and while they certainly inform our societal views of women and men in science, there is also academic research that is looking to quantify this phenomenon.

Academic Research

One study¹ sought to understand and quantify the gender bias in scientific publications - they looked at both perceptions of quality of work and interest in future collaboration with first-authors.

With a sample of 243 graduate students, 70% of whom were female, researchers asked participants to evaluate abstracts taken from an international conference. Authors were either female-typed, male-typed, or gender-neutral, and participants were also asked to complete a survey regarding attitudes on gender roles.

When content was controlled, respondents consistently perceived the work of male authors to be of higher quality. Another interesting finding was that, to compound the first finding, male-typed authors' works were found to be particularly high in quality when their work was associated with male-typed topics, such as political communications or communication technologies.

In addition, respondents noted higher interest in personally connecting with male authors when their work was more traditionally male-dominated, such as the examples noted above. Similarly, female authors garnered more interest in collaboration when their work was related to more traditionally female-dominated domains.

Awards

Another study² reviewed the rates of female scientists receiving awards for their work in comparison to the composition of the honoring committee.

When the awards committees were chaired by men, they awarded other male colleagues about 95% of the time, even though women comprised about 20% of the nomination pool. They also determined that when women were represented on the committee, women's odds improved in receiving awards; however, when a male was the chair of the committee, those odds were significantly decreased ("trumped" is the word the study used).

In contrast, when a committee was chaired by women, women received awards about 23% of the time, and women comprised about a third of the nomination pool. In addition, with the available data, it appeared that men were much more likely to be the chair of a committee for scholarly or academic awards rather than service or teaching awards.

Final Thoughts

These findings are consistent with theories that women have a more difficult path to achieve scientific recognition and success. On a positive note, between 1990 and 2010, the rate of women being recipients of awards nearly doubled; it appears that while women are certainly becoming more represented and recognized at higher levels of the scientific community, there is still a ways to go in understanding the pervasive gender biases and role congruity theories that can contribute to the lack of female representation and recognition in the sciences.

Resources:

Lincoln AE, Pincus S, Koster JB, Leboy PS. The matilda effect in science: awards and prizes in the US, 1990s and 2000s. Soc Stud Sci. 2012 Apr;42(2):307-20. doi: 10.1177/0306312711435830. PMID: 22849001.

Knobloch-Westerwick Silvia, Glynn CJ, Huge Michael. The Matilda Effect in Science Communication: An Experiment on Gender Bias in Publication Quality Perceptions and Collaboration Interest. Science Communication. 2013 Feb; 35(603). Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547012472684


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