Gender gap: Selection bias snubs scholarly achievements of female scientists

Women scientists must confront sexism when competing for awards that recognize their research, according to a new analysis.

Research funded by the National Science Foundation and sponsored by the Association for Women in Science found that female scientists win service or teaching awards in proportion to the number of women in the PhD pool for their discipline, says sociologist Anne Lincoln at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. That’s not the case, however, for awards for their research, says Lincoln, one of three authors on the research, which was reported in Nature.

The number of women who win scholarly awards is far fewer, the authors report.

“Using data in the public domain on 13 disciplinary societies, we found that the proportion of female prizewinners in 10 of these was much lower than the proportion of female full professors in each discipline,” the authors write.

Why the gap? Lincoln, an assistant professor in the SMU Sociology Department, and her co-authors point to the award selection process.

An analysis of selection practices found that selection committees carry out their duties with few guidelines, minimal oversight and little attention to conflict-of-interest issues, the authors write. The researchers’ investigation found that the chances a woman will win an award for her research improve if a woman is serving on the committee.

The analysis found, however, that many committees don’t have female members, that there are few female chairs and that female nominees are few, said the authors.

Nomination letters for women typically include personal details and contain stereotypically female adjectives, such as “cooperative” and “dependable,” the authors report in the article.

“Notices soliciting nominations, by contrast, tend to use language that fosters male images, such as ‘decisive’ or ‘confident,'” they report.

Co-authors were Stephanie H. Pincus, founder of the RAISE Project, sponsored by the Society for Women’s Health Research; and biochemist Phoebe S. Leboy at the University of Pennsylvania and the Association for Women in Science.

Seven U.S. science societies are working now with the Association for Women in Science on the basis of the findings to change selection committee practices, say the authors.

SMU is a private university in Dallas where nearly 11,000 students benefit from the national opportunities and international reach of SMU’s seven degree-granting schools. For more information see www.smu.edu.

SMU has an uplink facility on campus for live TV, radio or online interviews. To speak with Dr. Lincoln or to book her in the SMU studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650.

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