Last month, I was reading a study that saddened but did not surprise me. The article appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported on a experiment designed to assess the gender biases of science professors at research intensive universities. While women are studying science in larger numbers now, and numbers of female PhDs are also on the rise, they are not joining the ranks of professors in the numbers we might expect. Most of the time, this gets attributed to the tendency of women to off-track their careers to have babies and stay home with the kids or work only part-time. This is clearly true; I, for one, am waaaay farther behind in my career development than my husband, who has never gone part-time to tend the children. I am only just now starting to think of an actual career; he’s been a full time lawyer man for about eight years.
Despite this clear disparity, the authors of the new study were interested in whether or not gender bias among college professors might be holding female students back even before graduating. In their experiment, they presented several biology, chemistry and physics faculty members with essentially identical job applications for a lab manager position. The applicants differed substantively only in their gender. The results of the study showed a subtle but definite bias toward male applicants even when all experience and qualifications were the same. Professors offered a lower salary to female applicants, tended to rate them lower in perceived competence, and offered less mentorship than males. Consistent with previous studies, the faculty members described the female students as more “likable” than the male students, but this likability did not convert to professional advantage or even parity. What was particularly striking to me, as a female instructor in biology, was that female faculty were as guilty of favoring male applicants as their male colleagues. Even in biology, where women majors outnumber men in undergraduate programs, female faculty will tend to favor the male students on the basis of their perceived superior ability. This undermines our Pollyanna faith that women entering the sciences will tend to pull still more women up and along with them.
So, do I do it too? I don’t know. That’s the nature of subtle bias; you don’t know you’re doing it. I know I have biases; I tend to judge my students mainly on how they dress (students showing up in pajamas or velour tracksuits with “Juicy” written across the ass tend to equal stupid in my knee-jerk reactions), though what role unconscious gender, racial, or ethnic bias might be playing, I just don’t know.
I was thinking about just this subject while out for a run on a local rail trail. Not many people were around, and as I rounded a bend, I saw a dude sitting on a bench in fatigues and work boots smoking a cigarette. I was wary, but smiled at him as I passed, and he just stared at me, tracking me with a wolfish, predatory sneer. I could feel all the vestigial hackles on my neck rise, and I felt my long buried African primate ancestor stir inside me, looking for a tree to scurry up. I had to pass the same dude on the way back, and was nearly sprinting by the time I got back into the safety of the downtown. I don’t know if this guy was as malevolent as he seemed to me, and it occurred to me that I judge most men to be a threat, at least when I meet them in a semi-secluded spot while running. Not all men, certainly. The tubby Indian guy on his cell phone at the other end of the trail raised no such alarms. Nor did a pair of scrawny Chinese teenagers. Nor the white gay couple walking their impeccably groomed Tibetan spaniel. So was my fear actually a warranted female guard response to something real that I was sensing? Or do I assign threat too broadly?
As I relaxed my pace up the hill into the comforting crowds, I remembered Obama’s famous “race speech,” the one where he described his white grandmother, who dearly loved her half black grandson, but would cross the street when a black man approached. I love my houseful of boys. I certainly don’t hate men; I married a really good one, after all, and I’m trying to raise a couple more. But I often get the same kind of unease when passing a man on the street that Obama’s grandmother seemed to feel about black men. That’s the similarity that troubles me. Because, after all, people who cross the street to avoid black men will tell you about the statistics on crime, and the numbers of black men in prison for murder or assault compared with white men. But it’s still racist to cross the street. And I can tell you all day long that about 100% of rapists are men (and, rape, after all, is what we women are all actually worried will happen to us, more than murder, actually). So yes, the statistics bear me out on that. But that hardly means all men are bent on assault. Not even most men. So what’s with my overactive fear trigger? I don’t know. But I’m willing to bet, you’ve got one too.