Gender equality in science: if the numbers are unequal, is it unfair?

An article published recently in Nature [1] said that about one-fifth of jobs in senior science and research at Aarhus University were not advertised openly, a practice which we are told reduced the number of female applicants from 23% to 12%. The author, Mathias Nielsen, suggests that “unconscious gender biases” at institutions are to blame for the low numbers of women in senior posts.

There are three problems with this narrative on women in science:

(a) The presumption that unequal representation of women demonstrates unfairness. This presumption ignores women’s choices of how far up the career ladder they want to climb in a given field. The narrative also seems to presume no unfairness in certain jobs (e.g. midwifery and garbage collection) in which there are unequal numbers of men and women.

(b) Mixed evidence regarding ‘unconscious bias’. A study often cited as proof that ‘unconscious bias’ holds women back found that when academic staff are given job application forms containing identical information, they favor male candidates over women.[2] However a larger replication found that the ‘unconscious bias’ was 2:1 against men.[3]

(c) Double standards in our thinking about gender equality. Nielsen says that “rising in the ranks is not a question merely of what you know, but of who you know”. To be fair, this reasoning should apply equally to the women-only career networks of the kind promoted by the Athena SWAN gender equality scheme.

Flaws in the narrative about gender equality are common in academia and elsewhere. Also there is a lack of transparency, for example, many people are not aware that funding in the UK for institutions involved in STEMM will, probably from 2017, depend on compliance with gender equality schemes.[4] Perhaps it’s time to a more open and less inhibited discussion of what we mean by gender equality.


References

1. Neilsen, MW (201. 5). Make academic job advertisements fair to all. Nature, 525, 427. Accessed online 14th Nov 2015 http://www.nature.com/news/make-academic-job-advertisements-fair-to-all-1.18401

2. Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, GrahamMJ, Handelsman J. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109, 16474–16479 (2012)

3. Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, 5360-5365 (2015)

4. Davies, SC. Letter from Dame Sally Davies re Women in Science (2011). Accessed online 5th November 2015 at http://www.medschools.ac.uk/SiteCollectionDocuments/Letter_from_Dame_Sally_Davies_-_Women_in_Science.pdf