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A LEGO figurine of astrophysicist Lisa Randall, by artist Maia Weinstock, aimed at highlighting the role of women in science.

A LEGO figurine of astrophysicist Lisa Randall, by artist Maia Weinstock, aimed at highlighting the role of women in science.

Maia Weinstock/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Women best men in STEM faculty hiring study

A woman applying for a tenure-track faculty position in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) at a U.S. university is twice as likely to be hired as an equally qualified man, if both candidates are highly qualified, according to a new study.

The results run counter to widely held perceptions and suggest that this is a good time for women to be pursuing academic careers. Some observers, however, say that the study—which involved actual faculty members rating hypothetical candidates—may not be relevant to real-world hiring. And they worry the results may leave the incorrect impression that universities have achieved gender parity in STEM fields.

Still, the “important” results will spark “a lot of discussion,” predicts psychologist Virginia Valian of Hunter College in New York City. “It will definitely make people think more thoroughly and more subtly” about the issue.

In previous research, the authors, psychologists Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci of Cornell University, found that men and women generally fare equally well once they are hired into tenure-track positions (although some critics have challenged those findings). For this study, the researchers focused on the hiring phase. It “is a key juncture in understanding the problem of women’s underrepresentation” on STEM faculties, they wrote in an e-mail.

To better understand hiring dynamics, the researchers invented three hypothetical candidates for an assistant professorship: an extremely well-qualified woman, an extremely well-qualified man, and a slightly less qualified man. Then, they wrote a job application summary for each candidate. It included a description of a search committee’s impression of the candidate, quotes from letters of recommendation, and an overall score for the candidate’s job talk and interview. In the last step, they asked 873 tenure-track faculty members from four fields, randomly selected from institutions across the United States, to rank the candidates. The group included an approximately equal number of men and women.

Overall, raters in most fields were twice as likely to tag the woman as the best candidate, the researchers report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The one exception was economics, where male raters showed a slight preference for the well-qualified male candidate.

Williams and Ceci say they were shocked when they saw how much better the woman fared. And although they did not investigate the potential causes of the outcome, they suspect it may be due to some combination of successful training programs about gender and hiring, a growing belief that gender balance among STEM faculty is important, and the retirement of older faculty.

The authors also investigated how a candidate’s marital and family status influenced ratings. They varied the description of the candidates, making them single or married, childless or parents. Some had working spouses, others did not. In general, these factors did not change the outcome.

Again, however, there was one exception. Rating differences did arise when they described the female candidate as having had a child during graduate school. Male raters preferred a candidate who took a 1-year parental leave, whereas female raters preferred the one who did not take a leave.

University of Mississippi, Oxford, business school management professor H. Kristl Davison found this result particularly intriguing. “I almost wonder if there’s a bit of paternalism going on” from the male raters, she says. “It also made me wonder if there’s a female bias present in terms of, ‘I struggled through grad school without taking leave; I think others should do so as well.’ ”

Some worry that the study does not sufficiently take into account the many factors at play in hiring decisions. “My major concern is really the generalizability of this, whether what they found … would translate to the real world,” Davison says. “That’s the ultimate question.”

Potential bias may arise even earlier in the hiring process, she and others note, before candidates even make it to the final selection round. Men and women can be perceived differently during preliminary interviews, for instance, based on personality traits that have nothing to do with their qualifications or potential for success. The new study, however, focuses only on “a very specific and late point in the game,” Valian says. “We need to understand the subtleties of evaluation at each stage in the process. Right now we have fragments of data that tell us about different parts of the process, but we don’t have a good picture of how it all fits together.”

Others object to the authors’ assertion that men and women fare the same after hiring. “I think it’s fair to say that the women who have run the gauntlet and gotten advanced STEM degrees will find the labor market quite welcoming if they choose to seek employment in academic STEM jobs,” writes Jennifer Glass, a sociologist at the University of Texas, Austin, in an e-mail. “What happens once they are there is another matter entirely.” She says studies suggest that women still have higher attrition rates in some STEM careers.

Despite apparent good news in the findings, “I think it’s too soon to say, ‘OK, problem solved,’ ” Valian says. “We haven’t solved the problem of underrepresentation of women in the sciences,” she says, “and I wouldn’t want people to think that this paper demonstrates that we have solved it.”