Some sexism is obvious, blatant, and/or deliberate. Fortunately, my understanding is that this kind of sexism is mostly a thing of the past.

However, female colleagues have told me that more "benign", but still harmful, sexism is still very prevalent in academia. In particular, I've heard that implicit assumptions that women are less capable, or more inclined to be teachers than researchers, are distressingly common. As a mathematician, the results are distressingly obvious: most math departments are overwhelmingly male.

What are some ways in which sexism is unknowingly perpetrated by well-meaning people, in academia in particular? And how can those of us who are well-meaning make sure to avoid doing so?

  • 31
    I am not sure the fact that generally more male math professors exist than female math professors is the result of sexism. Because everyday I am witnessing some job announcements which encourage female applicants (and other minorities) to apply. So it is hard to believe there is a serious formal barrier for hiring female professors. But it is a good idea to ask why there are less female mathematicians than male mathematicians.
    – user4511
    Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 13:45
  • 2
    I am curious if this is a duplicate of either academia.stackexchange.com/questions/7430/… or academia.stackexchange.com/questions/1363/women-in-academia
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 13:53
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    @VahidShirbisheh I'm sure that one reason why they are encouraging female and other minorities to apply is because they want to encourage diversity. This does imply that there is some kind of imbalance in diversity currently.
    – Irwin
    Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 17:35
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    most math departments are overwhelmingly male may be true. How about other departments?
    – Nobody
    Commented Jun 14, 2013 at 5:29
  • 2
    @scaaahu Good question. I do see many science/math-oriented departments to have more male faculty but my department (business/economics) is quite evenly balanced.
    – earthling
    Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 6:20

11 Answers 11


And how can those of us who are well-meaning make sure to avoid doing so?

If you see something, say something.

You're correct that blatant sexism is mostly gone. I'm a female computer engineer, and I have never been told that I can't do the job because I'm female. What remains is "death by a thousand paper cuts" sexism. For example, I was recently at a conference, and the small group I was in was discussing one of the presentations. An older professor in the group remarked that the presentation was particularly good because the presenter was beautiful and wearing tight clothes. Nobody called him on it: after all, he was trying to give her a compliment, mentioning it would be rude, he's older and things were different then, and so on. And it's hard to blame them, because if that were the only sexist comment I heard that day, it wouldn't be such a big deal. But shortly after that, someone jokingly said I should marry my PhD supervisor. Then someone said a new tool is so user friendly that "even your mother could use it".

Each of these incidents on its own is fairly mild: most people probably don't even realize they're saying something exclusionary. Unfortunately, if you're a woman, each one reminds you that you don't belong, so the cumulative effect is very discouraging. However, if you correct every person who says something mildly sexist, you get a reputation as a bra-burning feminazi. As a result, most women keep quiet, or only point out the particularly insensitive comments. It would make an enormous difference if other men would call out the ones who make inappropriate comments. You don't have to be dramatic or rude about it, but a quiet "I don't think that's appropriate" would take a lot of the burden off women. And naturally, you can try to be more aware of the things you say to make sure you aren't accidentally discouraging women. A lot of sexist ideas are so deeply ingrained that otherwise fair and open minded people will say them without a second thought (like the "even your mother" comment).

I don't want to downplay the other valuable things you can do, such as volunteering at math/science camps for girls, but if enough men followed this rule -- even part time -- 80% of the sexism I encounter would disappear. To modify Edmund Burke's quote a bit,

All that is necessary for sexism to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

June 27, 2014: After a year of comment trolls, I think it's time to add a point about men's rights activists. The key mistake that MRAs make is treating rights as a zero-sum game. The fact is, gender stereotypes hurt everyone. They hurt women who want to be engineers; they hurt men who want to be nurses. They hurt women who don't want to have children; they hurt men who want to be stay-at-home dads.

Sometimes, these stereotypes result in a disadvantage for men. For example, Doug Spoonwood points out that American men have to register with the selective service system to get student loans, while American women do not. MRAs point to these cases and try to claim that feminism oppresses men. This is, at best, willfully ignorant: all these inequalities come from the same outdated beliefs and stereotypes, which feminism opposes by definition. The fact that these cases exist just indicates that gender equality is not a solved problem. (Women in the American military were not allowed to be in units tasked with direct combat until 2013.)

My answer discusses a woman's point of view because that's what I know and that's what the question asked about. I would be thrilled if a man in a predominantly female field added an answer discussing his experience.

  • 18
    Exactly. Very well put. Doesn't take too many hints that "one doesn't belong" to get a bad feeling... and spend a lot of mental energy on it, too. Yes, that particular riff to directly or indirectly say "she doesn't look like a mathematician", with the understanding that mathematicians look like, are, nerdy guys? Conceivably meant as a compliment, etc., but emphasizes "differentness" with great force. And that idea that "your mother" can't do what? "Guy stuff?" Hm. Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 23:21
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    @T.F. It may not have been clear from my post that I'm currently a PhD student. So the person making the joke was essentially pretending to be surprised that I'm not already in a relationship with my supervisor. This implies some unsavoury things about female grad students, and I doubt he would have said it to a male student.
    – user6782
    Commented Jun 14, 2013 at 15:41
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    @lmi This is a great answer. Comments such as "you don't look like a scientist/engineer/statistician", while intended as compliments, very much convey the sense of not belonging. I also can't help but note that of all the comments/answers on this post, only you and the OP have account names that are not clearly male. I think this highlights the discomfort that women often face when discussing sexism in academic-type spheres. I know I thought twice before using a feminine name when setting up my account, but women can't be seen as belonging in science or academia until we can be seen.
    – Ellie
    Commented Jun 21, 2013 at 19:01
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    @Doug Spoonwood: you are aggressively trying to explain that there is no problem where Imi sees one, and most importantly feels one. If one wants to understand why there are few female scientists and engineers and whether it is an issue, the first thing would be to listen to female scientists and engineers when they tell what discourage and distresses them. Just saying that they should see no harm is actively wanting not to see the problem. Commented Jun 21, 2013 at 19:19
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    @AzulaR. Thanks! I did feel a bit uncomfortable posting this, to be honest, but I've been trying to speak up about these issues more often. It's important to be seen, like you said.
    – user6782
    Commented Jun 22, 2013 at 5:38

What are some ways in which sexism is unknowingly perpetrated by well-meaning people, in academia in particular?

I'm not qualified to answer this question myself, but I'll point you to some excellent blogs that detail this, and a tumblr that explores the more general idea of 'mansplaining' (not limited to academia alone)


One issue I've often heard cited involves having a family.

For students on a traditional timeline in academia, the years from age 22 to 36 or so are critical: you go to grad school, get a PhD, perhaps do a postdoc or two, search for and land a permanent job, and finally get tenure. You have to be constantly advancing and publishing your research, traveling to conferences and seminars, and generally impressing the community in your field. Odds are you'll have to make at least one long-distance or international move, perhaps several. Any delay or gap during this time could permanently derail your career.

Coincidentally, the years from age 22 to 36 are also the best time (biologically) for a woman to have children (assuming she wants to do so, and most do). And bearing and raising a child can certainly put a major crimp in your ability to keep doing the things listed above.

It's pretty clear that this system was designed for men: men with wives who didn't work and could take care of children full-time. It's very hard on anyone who wants to be an involved parent, and doubly so for the woman: pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and so on can't very well be delegated or shared!

Universities do tend to have standard-to-generous maternity and family leave policies, which certainly help with this in the immediate term. What's less clear is whether (possibly male or male-dominated) advisors, hiring committees, chairs, deans, and tenure committees are as understanding in the long run. If a candidate has a six-month or one-year gap in her research output, and then a slow period afterward as she gets back up to speed and learns to balance her work and family, it's hard to imagine that won't hurt her career, no matter what explanation is attached in her file. And God forbid she should want to have two children!

So this is a kind of sexism that's not based on any one person's behavior, but on the structure and norms of the community.

(Disclaimer: I am a childless man and have no personal experience with this issue, but I thought someone should mention it.)

  • 13
    Yes, exactly. Further, there would be the anticipation that a women might/will take time "off" to bear children, even if she's not done so yet, ... giving ammunition to people who'll consciously or subliminally discount her future professional output... on the basis of events which have not yet occurred. Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 11:16
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    This reminds me of one of the 'best' internet comments I have ever read, which went something like 'if women get time off to go have children and be able to come back to work while facing no consequences, I should be able to go live in a shack on the beach playing the guitar and then come back to work with no consequences' - perhaps indicating that understanding regarding maternity leave isn't as widespread as one might like.
    – Aru Ray
    Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 15:44
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    This problem also appears in many other career professions, I understand. Is academia special in this regard? (I frankly have no idea). Commented Oct 11, 2013 at 21:45
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    @Blaisorblade - Academia is particularly demanding of time at crucial periods and particularly insensitive to reasons for of lack of output. Admissions committees are drawn, for example, to "rising stars" who show high and increasing output throughout their career. Spots of apparently low productivity are black marks that need to be explained, and even good explanations are not as powerful as not needing to explain at all. The system is equally unkind to others who have transient decrease in output (divorce, lengthy family illness, even working too long on a difficult problem).
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 15:30
  • 3
    Fortunately, in some countries both men and women have the same rights of parental leave, and this is slowly expanding. Then, there is no real difference between hiring a mother or a father.
    – Davidmh
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 22:29

One of the first thing to do is to realize how we are biased, even when we don't know it. See in particular this reference; the abstract alone is informative:

Despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science. Abundant research has demonstrated gender bias in many demographic groups, but has yet to experimentally investigate whether science faculty exhibit a bias against female students that could contribute to the gender disparity in academic science. In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student. Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent. We also assessed faculty participants’ preexisting subtle bias against women using a standard instrument and found that preexisting subtle bias against women played a moderating role, such that subtle bias against women was associated with less support for the female student, but was unrelated to reactions to the male student. These results suggest that interventions addressing faculty gender bias might advance the goal of increasing the participation of women in science.

Moss-Racusin et al., 2012 Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students PNAS 2012 109 (41) 16474-16479; published ahead of print September 17, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1211286109

  • 1
    There exist two answers more upvoted to this question which have no citations at all, one of which the author told us comes largely from her personal experience. On the other hand this answer cites published experimental research of a moderate sample size and has a lower rating. At a glance at least, this state of affairs makes little sense, and for that reason alone I'm upvoting it. Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 3:12
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    Here's a larger study which indicates female candidates as preferred for academic tenure positions by a 2:1 ratio. pnas.org/content/early/2015/04/08/1418878112 Also, in one of the experiments, mothers who took parental leave were preferred over mothers who didn't take parental leave by male faculty members, but fathers who took parental leave were not preferred over father who did not take parental leave by male faculty members. Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 6:01

This is a shaky ground, as a bizzare negative rating of Doug Spoonwood's answer shows. A entirely positive (in the sense of only trying to come up with a meaningful psychological theory; an economics term here) speech by Larry Summers, then President of Harvard, at NBER conference that promoted gender equality, costed him his presidency... not because he was biased, but simply because the bloody journalists highlighting the event had no clue about math. His argument was very simple: if we look at IQ curves, we see that females have an average IQ about the same or higher than males, and about 20% lower standard deviation. Mother Nature plays conservatively with females while experimenting on males throwing their abilities around. Whichever of these experimental traits the females find attractive in males are worth retaining through natural selection. So if we look at IQ>80 or IQ>100, we see more females; but at top 5% of the IQ distribution (115 or 120-ish on IQ scale), the ratio is roughly 2 males : 1 female. University professors are likely to be even higher on the IQ scales, probably circa 140+, at which point the ratio may be 5:1 (although of course the quality of the normal approximation in the tails becomes VERY questionable). Other examples Summers gave were underrepresentation of Jews in farming and agriculture, and of whites in the National Basketball Association (which may have to do with biological differences in genetic makeup for height, as well as how the proteins are being processed and muscles are built, between races).

In all likelihood, conditional on having received a Ph.D. (probability theory term here), there is little difference between males and females in ability to produce meaningful research. Success in academia is dictated by other personal traits. They are correlated with gender, although again conditioning on high IQ/having finished a Ph.D. may change that correlation structure a lot.

Economists argue for distinguishing between the equality of outcomes and equality of opportunities. Do Nordic countries show greater equality of income because they redistribute more, or because they provide better equality of opportunities? Read here. Is stunning income inequality in Brazil the result of discrimination, differential "circumstances", or what? Read here. Academia, as any other walk of life, should strive to create equality of opportunities; equality of outcomes may or may not follow, depending on whether the individual traits are correlated with whatever we are trying to equate (gender, hair color, height, language spoken at home, etc.). Forcing equality of outcomes will aggravate those who have benign better abilities and make people of lesser abilities lose incentives to strive to do better. (Been there in the Soviet Union, done that, trust me.)

If one claims that "women are better teachers than researchers", just ask: "Hm. That's an interesting observation. We are both scientists; can you give me some references to any peer-reviewed literature on this?" (note that I gave mine above :) ). If they can't, that's a biased accusation you can go with to your superiors (chair, dean, university president). Just like drivers found guilty driving under influence, and undergoing humiliating driving clinics, whoever makes such claims should be made to go the literature on the cross of psychology, sociology, gender studies and labor markets to dig into the issue -- who cares if they are good in math, if they have big mouth, they should learn to control it. Join your local committee on women in faculty, or whatever the name of that could be in your university to make sure you know the ways that the university can protect you against sexism, and make good use of what you learn there.

  • 16
    There is a serious flaw in your argument: if "the ratio may be 5:1" at the university professor level, why don't we see that ratio in all academic departments? At my undergraduate institution, chemical engineering was over 50% female, but computer engineering was about 20% female. Presumably, chemical engineers and computer engineers have similar intelligence levels, and the entrance requirements were the same, so how do you explain the difference? I'm not opposed to the idea of biological differences, but the "lower variance" theory does not explain the observable facts.
    – user6782
    Commented Jun 22, 2013 at 4:05
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    @StasK You raise so good points, some less, but unfortunately (except for the last paragraph) it is not an answer to this question. If you like, you can ask question e.g. "Explanations of gender imbalance in academia, except for discrimination". Commented Jun 22, 2013 at 16:21
  • 4
    @PiotrMigdal StasK's argument has three parts: (A) Most people with extremely high IQ scores are men, (B) a high IQ is necessary and sufficient to get an academic job, and (C) given A and B we should expect to see more men than women in academia. I took issue with C, because if A and B are true, we would expect more men than women in all academic departments. You're taking issue with B, and I completely agree with you: intellectual skills are not a single number. So we are both saying that the "lower variance" theory is inadequate, just in different ways.
    – user6782
    Commented Jun 23, 2013 at 6:38
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    This is the first time I've heard that feminists are well-known for attacking logic. Perhaps the appropriate response is [citation needed].
    – Aru Ray
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 3:38
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    If Summers' argument had been logically and factually valid, then it would have been wrong for him to suffer for it professionally. But his argument was factually and logically bogus. The most serious problem with his argument is that it takes as an assumption an idea that modern psychometricians mostly reject: that "IQ scores" are a valid measure of some innate quality that can be interpreted as intelligence. Furthermore, he assumes the validity of the tests at the tails of the bell curve, which is in fact where they're least valid.
    – user1482
    Commented Nov 13, 2013 at 0:29

I'm in a Computer Science program at a school that has a heavy focus on engineering fields. There are only a couple of girls in the program, but they are both excellent students. I've spent a bit of time studying with both of them, and one in particular has been able to help me with understanding some difficult concepts.

In a programming class that we took, the professor noted that she was an excellent student. When she went to his office after a test to discuss her grade, he began to preach on women in computer science. He told her how supportive he was, and relayed a story about sexism, which he condemned.

She expressed to me how uncomfortable it made her to be singled out like that. She has told me several times that the professors want her to be a "poster-child" and "become a leader". This is all well meaning, but she simply wants to be a (very good) student, and fit in with the rest.

I am of the opinion that when a woman is in a mostly male field of study, she can have undue pressure put on her by well-meaning staff and peers. It's almost as if they are told that if they are not a leader, then they are letting other women in their field down.

Until we stop treating women like a rarity in certain fields (even if they are), they will not feel comfortable there.

  • I think this is an interesting perspective, and useful to consider. But I am not sure what parts of the professors' approach is detrimental. Should he encourage her to strive for normalcy? I think it is important (and a common desire of teachers) to push exceptional students and make them aware of their potential; at the same time to work on making all current and potential female students feel respected Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 9:24
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    @David I'd think, but by no means know, that she wants to get treated as a programming student, not a female programming student. That is by no means encouraging a "strive for normalcy", since she can still rise to the top like any other programming student. A female programming student gets singled out because she is female, while a programming student gets singled out because of his or her programming. Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 2:51

NCWIT (National Center for Women & Information Technology) has an article specifically about stereotype threat in computing.

While that resource is student-oriented, it illustrates some examples of how even well-intentioned comments are indications of stereotyping.


I can't spot a link to this article posted yet:


Someone else showed me the article, but I think the point is worth mentioning here. The original paper is available here, but the report gives the gist:

Students gave significantly lower ratings to the same people (in online teaching where their identity was entirely concealed) where the only distinction was the gender they told the students.

  • 1
    I don't see any indication that the behaviors of the online professors were sufficient similarly with respect to what they said and did in the abstract. The way the abstract is written it suggests that the instructors knew which gender they were operating under. Marcotte's article says that they sampled TWO online instructors. Gender is often very hard to disguise in face to face interactions and it seems dubious that studies like this conducted on people in the abstract tell us that much about how people interact in face-to-face interactions. And what fields got studied? Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 0:00
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    @DougSpoonwood There were two online TAs (plus a professor, but that's not important), one female and one male, and each taught one class under their own persona and one class under the other TAs persona. The students being taught did not know whether they were being taught by a male or female, but thought they did. The two TAs also attempted to make their teaching similar to each other, as far as possible. They returned assessment marks at exactly the same times/intervals, but the 'male' classes ranked this as significantly better than the 'female' classes did.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 9:14

Sexism can get perpetuated unknowingly in all sorts of was via the law. I suggest studying the book Legalizing Misandry by Katherine Young and Paul Nathanson to see how this can happen. The law also has all sorts of effects on what happens on college campuses and how sexism either gets continued or abated.

We know that at present there exist programs for woman to get ahead in academia, because of their gender, but extremely few, if any, in comparison for men. Have you ever heard of a scholarship program that specifically targets boys in the humanities where they are a minority now and have historically come as a minority also?

There exist only three non-religious male colleges in the U. S. There exist many more women's colleges.

There exist women's studies programs, but male studies programs have trouble getting a foothold in academia. Ryerson makes for an interesting example. Sexism, in the form of misandry, has popped up before when a men's group formed.

Women make up the majority of graduates in the U. S. in terms of high school degrees, associates degrees, bachelors degrees, masters degrees, and doctoral degrees. Trends also come as revealing.

Also, some campuses have a standard of "preponderance of the evidence" for rape cases, which in effect eliminates due process mostly for men, but not for women, and such a standard thus effectively consists of a sexist policy against men. Some other policies can unintentionally end up sexist against men as a study of Daphne Patai's Heterophobia makes clear.

Male sports teams getting cut also comes as another way in which a policy has ended up sexist unknowingly.

If you want to avoid sexism in academia and elsewhere you need to care about men in general just as much as you care about women in general.

Sexism can perpetrated by people by having policies that require different standards for people of different sexes.

In order for a male to get student loans in the United States he has to register with the selective service system (which is still a real entity). No female has such a requirement placed upon them in order to obtain such a loan.

Sexism can get unknowingly perpetrated by believing that an educational equity for one sex can qualify as sufficient for both sexes. The Women's Educational Equity Act is one example of this.

Lifestyle, knowledge of one's educational opportunities, and health in general can all effect academic achievement as well as one's ability to achieve academically. I can't speak to the extent of things here, but one person had the following to say:

"As I have said here before, I have worked in higher education for thirty-one years and have never seen a poster or service announcement on any campus aimed at promoting positive lifestyles, health, educational opportunities, etc., for boys and young men. I have seen numerous ones for girls and young women."

Sexism can also get perpetrated in academia via "equity hiring" as Janice Fiamengo makes clear...

"Next came the creation of a shortlist of three or four candidates for interview; some members of the department were keen to stack the list with members of the diversity groups. To this end, there was much sophistry about why a (white) male candidate’s book with a prestigious university press was really no better than — was actually perhaps a bit inferior to — a female candidate’s single article with an academic journal of no repute; or about why a (white) male candidate’s expertise in highly competitive Shakespeare studies was no better than — was actually far less original than — a female candidate’s untested, largely speculative work on an obscure seventeenth-century woman playwright. Thus were well-qualified white men kept out of the competition. Moments of levity occasionally occurred when we were forced into elaborate interpretative dances to determine if a male candidate might be black or Asian or gay, though usually the savvy candidate made that clear in his cover letter.

At the hiring stage, there was the same special pleading. Poor presentations by women candidates were praised as “provocatively unorthodox” or “strategically unconventional” while polished ones by men were criticized as “safe” or “unoriginal.” Women’s mistakes could be overlooked or seen as strengths (“I like that she was courageous enough to present on material that she is still working through”) while men’s mistakes were definitive (“I’m shocked that he could be finishing a PhD and still not know that [minor detail”]). One male candidate who had given the best demonstration class I’d ever seen was criticized by our leading feminist professor — presumably because she could find no other faults — for having never visited England to do archival work, a criticism the poverty-conscious lady would almost certainly never have made of a struggling single-mother candidate. That a man might have life circumstances preventing him from travel seemed not to have occurred to her."

That hiring practices may more often than not, favor the hiring of female candidates over male candidates gets further suggested by this experimental research.

The number of answers which only address sexism against women here, without also addressing sexism against men makes it very clear that you can NOT eliminate or reduce sexism by focusing exclusively on the needs or interests of just one sex. In fact, that comes as a way to perpetuate sexism.

This document starting at about 532 suggests things goes even deeper than this answer has merely outlined.

The University of York recently withdrew it's intention to mark International Men's Day.

The key to avoiding sexism lies in fully understanding the plight of all sexes and acting accordingly.

And no discussion of sexism in academia is complete without at least some indication of the issues of trans-people in academia.

  • 12
    I am a male, in academia and are treated just fine. My rights are upheld just as much as my female colleagues.
    – user7130
    Commented Jun 14, 2013 at 7:04
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    I've downvoted this response as this comment does not address the issue of whether sexism is unintentionally conveyed.
    – Irwin
    Commented Jun 20, 2013 at 23:45
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    This response shows that the issue is very complicated. But I don't see why this should go to negative infinity.
    – StasK
    Commented Jun 21, 2013 at 14:47
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    It's shocking that out of all of the answers, all automatically assume females are the ones on the receiving end of sexism, and the only post to provide actual evidence and not just feel-good emotions is the lowest rated.
    – Keith
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 14:12
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    It perfectly exemplifies the rampant sexism against males that permeates all aspect of modern western society, @user111187 - You're not allowed to voice concerns about males, whether you're make or female. Hence why in all aspects of life, school, college, work, government, etc., females are treated special and given special privileges, ironically why claiming that females are victims.
    – Keith
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 18:07

There is a bias — against men — in the recruitment process for tenure-tracked positions.

From a 2015 study :

Men and women faculty members from all four fields preferred female applicants 2:1 over identically qualified males with matching lifestyles (single, married, divorced), with the exception of male economists, who showed no gender preference. Comparing different lifestyles revealed that women preferred divorced mothers to married fathers and that men preferred mothers who took parental leaves to mothers who did not. Our findings, supported by real-world academic hiring data, suggest advantages for women launching academic science careers.

More details on this study, from The Economist :

enter image description here

Dr Williams and Dr Ceci conjured up trios of hypothetical candidates for tenure-track jobs in various fields. In each case two of the three were fantastically qualified and one, there to act as a foil, slightly less so. They sent the three candidates’ CVs, together with mocked-up interview comments about them, to 873 high-level academics in the departments of biology, economics, engineering and psychology at 371 American universities. They tweaked the particulars of each trio to match the relevant discipline, and randomised which of the two outstanding candidates was referred to as “he” and which as “she”. Respondents were asked simply to pick the best of the three.

As the chart shows, professors of biology, engineering and psychology all chose female candidates over equally qualified male ones, and did so by an overwhelming margin (as high as three to one in the case of psychology). Moreover, they made this choice regardless of whether they, themselves, were men or women. The sole exception to this pattern was economics. In this discipline male professors showed a slight preference for men, though females had a strong one for women.

When Dr Williams and Dr Ceci carried out further experiments, looking in more detail, they found that the pattern they had discovered held up regardless of whether or not hypothetical candidates were married, had children or had taken a period of parental leave. These factors, often cited as damaging to women’s academic careers, seemed to weigh little with the professors in question.

A criticism of the researchers’ method is that the professors knew they were involved in an experiment (though they did not know its purpose). They may therefore have chosen the female applicant simply because they knew they were being scrutinised and wanted to show their feminist credentials, knowing that they would not have to live with the consequences. To control for this possibility, Dr Williams and Dr Ceci also sent out 127 identical CVs—half purporting to be of women and half of men—to 127 other academics, asking them simply to rate the candidate. Their idea was that an absence of applicants for comparison would reduce any pressure to be politically correct.

In this case, too, the women triumphed. Notional female candidates scored a full point higher than male ones on a ten-point scale. Presented with identical track-records, respondents seemed simply to think more highly of women.

  • I am curious to know the extent of bias in mathematics. It is troubling that the cited article mentions STEM but fails to do the experiment for hiring bias in mathematics.
    – user21820
    Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 18:29

Laure Saint-Raymond, professor at ENS Lyon and member of the French Academy of Sciences, recently gave a speech on science and research in general (available here, in French, includes a video and a retranscription), on the occasion of the election of new members of the Academy. Here is part of what she said, translated by myself, with some context added for people not familiar with some French-specific terminology:

Creativity is stimulated by diversity. [...]

The only true efforts currently made to expand horizons are those in favor of parity [between men and women], and it must be said that they are not always successful. First among "not so good ideas" is the imposition of quotas in all [recruitment] committees (an immediate corollary being that women are called upon much more often for administrative tasks) and the ever increasing pressure for recruitment. Within our own [French Academy of Science], incentives to elect women are numerous. It is fortunate that we do not know what debates preceded our election, but for women, the doubt of having been chosen to improve statistics remains... The balance between genders, like social diversity, cannot be decreed. We must gently get rid of prejudices (still shared by part of the scientific community), recruit people through alternative paths for classes prépas and competitions, and maybe change our evaluation criteria: privileging originality and esthetics over quantity and technical brute force.

(The last sentence is more of an echo to what she had previously said in her speech. I found the whole speech very interesting and I can only recommend everyone to listen or read it, if you can speak French. I am not brave enough to translate everything – please forgive me.)

One of the key points in what I translated above is the "not so good ideas". In French we say "fausse bonne idée", "false good idea", to mean an idea that looks good on the surface, but is actually not so good, or even harmful, when you actually think about it. I wasn't sure how to translate it, so I hope it's clear now.

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