Women candidates twice as likely to get selected for STEM jobs in universities

Wendy M Williams - Cornell University

Careers after PhD in the academic field can be very rewarding, both professionally and financially. According to Payscale.com, professor salaries in USA can range between $100,000 to over $150,000 at the elite universities.

However, there has been a perception that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields are male bastions and do not welcome women applicants [here’s a list of STEM degree programs in USA]. Several studies done by experts in the field have concluded that there is a visible scarcity of female faculty in science departments.

Wendy M. Williams and Stephen Ceci as Co-Directors of the Cornell Institute For Women In Science, have spent lot of time in the past seven years researching sexism in STEM fields.

According to their latest study, they say women are no longer at a disadvantage when applying for tenure-track positions in university science departments.

They in fact add that the bias has now flipped: Female candidates are now twice as likely to be chosen as equally qualified men. So our question is:

Are STEM jobs finally becoming friendlier to women?

Wendy and Stephen say a big ‘Yes’.

In this exclusive interview for MBA Crystal Ball, Wendy M. Williams (here’s her full bio) shares insights about the subject with Sharmila Chand.

Wendy reiterates the fact that women candidates should not feel sidelined at all and consider this a good time to start an academic career.

Q: Is there gender bias with science faculty preferring to hire the male candidate vis-à-vis female for STEM careers?

Wendy: In a series of five national experiments, we reported that when 873 faculty–scientifically-sampled from 371 different institutions in 50 U.S. states, and belonging to four disciplines–were confronted with a choice between equally-qualified hypothetical male and female applicants for a tenure-track assistant professor position, they strongly preferred to hire the woman, on average by a 2-to-1 ratio (source).

We found this preference for hiring women in all four fields we examined — engineering, psychology, economics, and biology.

And, with the exception of male economists, who exhibited no gender bias, the preference for female applicants was exhibited both by male and female faculty in all other fields and ranks and it was fairly consistent across the various lifestyles of the hypothetical female and male applicants (regarding marital status, presence of children, etc.).

Lest one imagine that the experiments do not reflect reality, real-world hiring data also demonstrate that faculty prefer to hire women, however, as with most non-experimental evidence, the causes were unclear, which is why we conducted the five experiments.

Together these experimental and real-world findings are quite compelling: while there may be gender biases in the academy, it is certainly NOT at the point of hiring professors. If anything, this seems to favor women over equally competent men.
Q: Do they rank ‘him’ higher than ‘her’ in competency, and willing to pay him more than the woman?

Wendy: For competency, they do not rank ‘him’ higher than ‘her’, but the reverse. In one of our experiments we asked faculty to rate the strength of just a single candidate, either a man or a woman and as was the case in our other experiments, faculty rated the woman applicant stronger than the same applicant when given a man’s name.

As far as salary goes, we, along with two economists, published extensive analyses in 2014 on remuneration for men and women in eight STEM fields.

Although there were some exceptions where women in a certain field or at a certain rank were paid less than men, these were exceptions and the rule was that there were no significant gender differences in salary.
Q: Are they also more willing to provide mentoring to the male than to the female candidate?

Wendy: Others have examined this question and so have we, although our findings are as yet unpublished. (We expect to submit them for peer review soon.)

The usual finding, including from our unpublished study, is that faculty give different advice and mentoring to men and women.

We hesitate to press this finding terribly hard, however, because despite any mentoring differences, women and men appear to be faring equally well in the academy in terms of hiring, salary, promotion, and job satisfaction.

The evidence for this claim can be found in the hundreds of analyses we reported here.
Q: What are the challenges women candidates go through because of this bias? How can they face them?

Wendy: Elsewhere, we argued that the biggest challenge women face is in trying to balance a career in the academy with forming a family.

The biological clock collides with the tenure clock, both requiring absorption of a woman’s time and energy at the same period in their thirties.

We and others have proposed many interventions to help women balance career and family, such as periods of part-time employment during the most intensive time of child-rearing that revert to full-time employment when the woman is ready.
Q: Gazing into the crystal ball, what does the future look like for this subject?

Wendy: Women’s plight in the academy has improved enormously since the 1980s. Our research shows that if women apply for professorial posts they are actually MORE, not less likely to be offered the job.

However, women with PhDs are less likely to apply for professorial posts, so the key is to encourage them to do so and at the same encourage colleges and universities to provide greater flexibility to them so they can balance career and family aspirations.
Q: Anything else you would like to say on the subject?

Wendy: All in all, our research shows that it is a propitious time for talented young women to launch academic careers, as both experimental evidence and real-world hiring data demonstrate that faculty prefer to hire women over identically-qualified men.

Thus, our experimental findings ratify the real-world data after we control for applicant strength. We cannot be positive as to the causes of this pro-female hiring advantage (perhaps it is due to male faculty internalizing the value of having female colleague sot help mentor female students and serve as role models).

Having stated this conclusion, we nevertheless would caution young women (and men) to expect the academy to be a challenging place, regardless of how welcoming it may be at the point of hiring.

In our decade-long program of research on this topic while we have found that academia is mostly gender-fair (salaries, job satisfaction, promotion are mainly equivalent for men and women), there are corners where sexism persists (e.g., it is somewhat harder for women to get tenure in biology and psychology; teaching ratings of women are biased downward compared to the same lecture given by a man), but these are the exceptions, not the rule.

So, we would tell them that this is a good time to start an academic career and that they can look forward to a fulfilling and well-remunerated life, but that it is also challenging—for both sexes.

Nothing is easy about it and there are far fewer tenure-track jobs available than there are qualified applicants, so even if women are preferred the majority of them might still not get jobs.

Sharmila Chand is a senior freelance journalist who has been writing for various national and international publications. Her areas of interest include Education, Careers, Travel, Food, Health & Lifestyle.

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1 Comment

  1. The data, as per the article, does still maintain a disparity when it comes to achieving seniority in research. Most women in research, as according to UNESCO’s (http://www.uis.unesco.org/_LAYOUTS/UNESCO/women-in-science/),are still lost along the way. They either drop out of tenure, or compromise on family. Plus there are some numbers there indicating that women generally tend to take up more teaching-less research like positions to balance out the two, professional and personal, sectors.
    I am glad to hear though that the study found the balance tipping in favor of women in US.

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