Racial and gender biases plague postdoc hiring

Bradley Miller is more likely to be hired than José Rodriguez. Zhang Wei (David) is more competent than Jamal Banks. And both Miller and Zhang are more competent and hirable than Maria Rodriguez or Shanice Banks.

These postdoc job candidates are fictional. But the differences in how they’re viewed based on name alone—despite identical CVs—by a sample of professors are real. That’s according to a new study that unearths evidence of racial bias in biology and a combination of gender and racial bias in physics, highlighting both the pervasive nature of various biases in science as well as important disciplinary differences.

“This is a really, really important study,” says Corinne Moss-Racusin, an associate professor of psychology at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 2012 Moss-Racusin published a similar study, which found that biology, chemistry, and physics faculty members who reviewed applications for a lab manager position favored applicants named John over otherwise identical applicants named Jennifer. The new study, published today in the journal Sex Roles, is an important advance because it manipulates race as well as gender, she says. “It certainly supports a lot of anecdotal findings, self-reports, correlational data—but to really have some hard experimental numbers … is really important.”

Asia Eaton, an assistant professor of psychology and women’s and gender studies at Florida International University in Miami and the lead author of the new study, says she and her colleagues decided to focus on the postdoc period because it is “a critical part of the pipeline”—and one “where there are almost no checks and balances.” That can make postdoc hiring more susceptible to bias, she says. Principal investigators typically review postdoc applications in isolation—unlike graduate admission or faculty hiring decisions, which are usually made by committees and in some cases include practices to combat bias.

Eaton and her colleagues asked 251 physics and biology faculty members at eight U.S. research universities to evaluate a CV, telling them it represented a hypothetical Ph.D. graduate applying for a postdoc position. The name was manipulated to indicate the applicant’s gender as well as race and ethnicity—Asian, Black, Latino, or White—based on U.S. Census Bureau data for each group.

Accurately detecting bias in these types of experiments requires that participants don’t know what they’re being tested for, so the researchers told faculty participants that they were trying to figure out what kind of CV formatting is best. “People thought that was a really believable thing to investigate: how font and spacing and writing affected perceptions of the competence and likability and hireability of candidates,” Eaton says. Ryan Jacobson—Eaton’s Ph.D. student and a co-author of the study who was named in the instructions to faculty participants—even changed the description of his research on LinkedIn and on their lab website. “I think we were really persuasive with that,” Eaton says.

Faculty members in biology viewed male and female applicants to be similarly competent and likely to be hired—a result that Eaton “was happily surprised to see.” But in physics, it was a different story: Faculty members preferred male applicants, giving them a one-point higher competence rating—on a nine-point scale—and a two-point higher hireability rating than female applicants.

Faculty members in both disciplines exhibited racial bias. In physics, Asian and White applicants were given higher competence and hireability ratings than Black and Latino applicants. In biology, Asian and White applicants were viewed as more competent than Black applicants. Asian applicants were also viewed as more hirable than Black and Latino applicants. (The ratings they gave other groups didn’t statistically differ.)

In physics, Black and Latina women were doubly disadvantaged, rated three points lower in hireability than White and Asian men. “That’s a really striking finding,” Moss-Racusin says. “For this subgroup of folks, it’s a hit for their gender and also for their race”—evidence of a “double jeopardy effect” that the scientific community needs to grapple with, she says.

“It’s papers like these that are really important” for opening scientists’ eyes to the reality of bias, says Ramón Barthelemy, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, who has studied challenges that women and LGBT people face in his discipline. In physics, the number of women has “stayed stubbornly low” despite a surge of female scientists in other disciplines, and a lack of awareness of bias may be one factor, he says. “I think that physicists do see themselves as being so objective that they couldn’t possibly be doing these things.” But presenting evidence of bias to “empirically thinking physicists” can change their perspective, he says.

“Culturally, I think physics trails biology and a lot of other scientific disciplines in acknowledging and reckoning with bias within the field,” says Alison Coil, a professor of physics and the associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion at the University of California, San Diego. She applauds the researchers for looking at disciplines independently. “A lot of times STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] gets grouped as a single monolithic entity, and it’s not; there’s a lot of variation … in terms of awareness of bias and probably level of bias.”

Some students—particularly women of color—may read the study and wonder how these kinds of biases will impact their ability to secure a postdoc position and move forward with their careers, notes Danielle Dickens, an assistant professor of psychology at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, who studies women of color. She acknowledges that these kinds of biases present real barriers and that they add to the stream of reminders that women of color often receive, giving them the impression that they don’t belong in STEM.

But Dickens also thinks that there’s power in being aware of these problems, whether through reading research studies or through personal experience. During her Ph.D., as one of two Black members of her department, she experienced a steady trickle of discrimination. That was challenging, she says, “but I think it was also motivating in the sense that I can be the one to make a difference”—to serve as a positive role model and inspire other women of color to follow a similar path. Dickens has carried through with that mindset in her faculty career and particularly enjoys mentoring students, some of whom have never before had a Black female professor.

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