The tightrope

About those low numbers of women in STEM fields. It’s a pipeline problem, right – more recruiting will fix it? Or it’s not a problem at all, it’s just what women choose, because they want to Spend More Time With The Kids. Right?

Not according to Joan C. Williams.

Several new studies add to the growing body of evidence that documents the role of gender bias in driving women out of science careers. A 2012 randomized, double-blind study gave science faculty at research-intensive universities the application materials of a fictitious student randomly assigned a male or female name, and found that both male and female faculty rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hirable than the woman with identical application materials. A 2014 study found that both men and women were twice as likely to hire a man for a job that required math.

That can’t be right, because that’s political correctness run mad. All sane people know that there is no gender bias any more. Just ask Christina Hoff Sommers, she’ll tell you.

We conducted in-depth interviews with 60 female scientists and surveyed 557 female scientists, both with help from the Association for Women in Science. These studies provide an important picture of how gender bias plays out in everyday workplace interactions. My previous research has shown that there are four major patterns of bias women face at work. This new study emphasizes that women of color experience these to different degrees, and in different ways. Black women also face a fifth type of bias.

Pattern 1: Prove-it-Again. Two-thirds of the women interviewed, and two-thirds of the women surveyed, reported having to prove themselves over and over again – their successes discounted, their expertise questioned. “People just assume you’re not going to be able to cut it,” a statistician told us, in a typical comment. Black women were considerably more likely than other women to report having to deal with this type of bias; three-fourths of black women did. (And few Asian-American women felt that the stereotype of Asian-Americans as good at science helped them; that stereotype may well chiefly benefit Asian-American men.)

Guess what the next one is. We were just talking about it. It’s that too quiet-too loud thing. That you can’t win; that you’re too girly and too ungirly both at once.

Pattern 2: The Tightrope. Women need to behave in masculine ways in order to be seen as competent—but women are expected to be feminine. So women find themselves walking a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent, and too masculine to be likable. More than a third (34.1%) of scientists surveyed reported feeling pressure to play a traditionally feminine role, with Asian Americans (40.9%) more likely than other groups of women to report this. About half of the scientists we surveyed (53.0%) reported backlash for displaying stereotypically “masculine” behaviors like speaking their minds directly or being decisive.

“I’ve gotten remarks like, ‘I didn’t expect someone Indian…and female to be like this,” said a micro-biologist. An astrophysicist told us she’d had to “damp down” her ambition and “become as amiable as possible,” going as far as to hide prizes and media attention. On the other hand, if women are assertive, direct, outspoken, or competitive, they may face dislike or even ostracism. “I’m pretty aggressive,” said a Latina bioengineer. “I find that both men and women…are going to immediately call [you a] witch. I’d use another word but it would be rude.”

I get that a lot.

And there are other patterns, including ones that especially affect women of color.

It’s so tempting the attribute the paucity of women in STEM to pipeline problems or personal choices. But it’s time to listen to women scientists: they think the issue’s gender bias, and an increasing amount of research supports that view.

Or, they could just listen to Christina Hoff Sommers.


  1. bajotopulli says

    Interesting stuff. The results of the random-gender application studies are not surprising, are they? I thought such effects had been well known for quite some time now.

    The interview and survey results are more dubious. I feel that it is really terribly important for such interview and survey studies to ask the same questions (or, perhaps, gender-reversed questions) to a comparable sample of male scientists. As it stands, this study does not demostrate that the feelings of needing to repeatedly prove oneself, and needing to carefully balance assertiveness and amiability are more common for female scientists. These may well be experiences shared by all scientists, but this study only finds them for females, because they only interviewed females.

  2. Bluntnose says

    All of this runs into the obvious problem though of what is different about medicine? Why have women managed in a few years to go from near zero presence to domination in that one STEM field?

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Two-thirds of the women interviewed, and two-thirds of the women surveyed, reported having to prove themselves over and over again – their successes discounted, their expertise questioned.

    Just one question: how many men were interviewed or surveyed? (As in: what is the control group for these “findings”? Is it just what the women interviewed *think* their life would be like if they were men? Or what they think their male colleagues’ experiences are? It would seem so.)

    I ask because “successes discounted, expertise questioned” is business as usual in my profession (chemical engineering), and has been for longer than the more than twenty years I’ve been at it. Anecdotal evidence from engineers of my acquaintance in other fields (and just my best friends cover automotive, aerospace, mechanical and software engineering) suggests my own field is not unusual. This kind of constant denigration of output is common. Not for women – for everyone. It’s not that you’re only as good as your last project – if your last project was a success, that was down to someone else.

    I’m not disputing that there is an underrepresentation of women in STEM fields – how could I? I live it. Among the engineers I’ve had as colleagues over decades, I’ve found the tiny minority of women to be no different than the men. Which is to say in the main fine, a minority outstanding, and a disturbingly large number entirely incompetent and unworthy of their jobs.

    But if you’re going to have as one of your findings that “women in STEM fields find their successes discounted and their expertise questioned”, that’s only meaningful if you can say with authority that that ONLY happens to women. And, well, it doesn’t.

    Of the rest of the findings, one other springs out: “42% of black women agreed that “I feel that socially engaging with my colleagues may negatively affect perceptions of my competence,” “. How many white men felt the same way? I do.

  4. Deepak Shetty says

    The interview and survey results are more dubious.
    Your point has validity.
    However consider that the other problems are factual (women are under represented, get paid less for the same, get promoted less than equivalent males) – Hence , though men may feel the same about having to prove themselves repeatedly (anecdotally probably more) as women , the bottom line would be that it doesn’t impact them as much , even if true that this is a problem everyone faces in STEM.
    In any case I interpret the study as women think this is why they are facing issues rather than an objective evaluation of why they do.

  5. nrdo says

    There’s additional supporting data on this idea from other fields. When symphony orchestras around the world instituted blind auditions, female participation jumped more quickly than could be explained by variables like talent pool size. Looking at the statistics retrospectively clearly showed that there was a bias.

    Of course it’s harder to blind the selection of a scientist or engineer because STEM is so inherently collaborative, but perhaps anonymizing resumes and papers when candidates are initially selected would be a place to start.

  6. =8)-DX says

    @sonofrojblake #3
    You had a semblance of a point until this (emphasis mine):

    But if you’re going to have as one of your findings that “women in STEM fields find their successes discounted and their expertise questioned”, that’s only meaningful if you can say with authority that that ONLY happens to women. And, well, it doesn’t.

    No, wrong. It’s meaningful if this happens to women significantly more often or if it happens to women to a significantly greater degree. Or of course if the questioning of expertise is more likely to influence hiring/firing decisions or leadership roles. Or it’s also significant if this kind of approach interacts with other specific bias towards women (i.e. if failures are attributed to your gender rather than a specific personal failure). Yes, further, comparative studies should be done, but saying bias only exists in things that “ONLY happen to women” is bullshit and you should know better, same with the assumption that if it happens to men it happens in the same non-gendered ways to women.

  7. karmacat says

    It didn’t take just a few years for women to “dominate” in medicine. It took about 150 years. And there are still some specialities that are male dominated and are harder for women to be in those specialities.

  8. =8)-DX says

    @karmacat #7
    Yeah, and with all this “domination” of women in medicine you still get things like male nurses earning significantly more than female nurses (random article link, the studies are out there and control for workhours, experience, responsibilities, age, education etc). The same kind of thing can be seen for other female “dominated” professions such as teaching.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    @ =8)-DX, 6: you’re right of course. I overstated my point beyond reasonableness. Your formulation of it is correct – thank you.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    Bluntnose’s point was that for the majority of the modern existence of the medical profession (let’s use your figure of 150 years?), it’s been entirely male dominated until very recently, when women have gone from “near-zero presence to domination.”

    You did not dispute the original near zero presence. You did not dispute the general point about current domination (other than a few specialties).

    Your “rebuttal” seems to be based on a disagreement only about the rate and date of commencement of the change, slow, incremental progress over centuries rather than recent rapid improvement. Is that really your impression of the way the profession has changed, and are there any figures that back it up?


    Since the early 1960s (when women represented less than a quarter of medical school entrants), number of male entrants has doubled. Number of female entrants has gone up by a factor of ten. Female entrants to medical school have outnumbered males since the early 1990s.

    And: “A study in the British Medical Journal of UK medical graduates found although a smaller proportion of women than men progressed to senior posts, the career paths of women who had always worked full-time were very similar to those of men.”

    And on the point of specialty bias, Royal College of Surgeons’ President said “One of most interesting findings is that women tend to favour predictable work patterns, and human interaction over technical disciplines. Managing surgical cases is both highly unpredictable and technical, going some way to explain why there are fewer women going into surgery”.

    A crucial observation, however was this: “there may be bitterness from colleagues about flexible working, says the RCP. The growth in part-time work may also impose increasing organisational complexity if full-time doctors, female as well as male, begin to feel that their goodwill and availability are being overstretched by the demands of others who want to work flexibly”

    As I’ve said before – the sooner it is a legal right and a socially-enforced expectation-bordering-on-requirement that men and women have AND TAKE equal amounts of leave when they have a child, the better for everyone.

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