The myth about women in science

Editor’s Note: Wendy M. Williams is a psychologist and professor of human development at Cornell University, where she founded and co-directs the Cornell Institute for Women in Science. Stephen J. Ceci is the Helen L. Carr professor of developmental psychology at Cornell. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

Story highlights

Wendy Williams, Stephen J. Ceci: Received wisdom is that sexism keeps women from getting ahead in sciences

Their new research shows that female scientists have a significantly higher chance of being interviewed and hired than men

They interpret findings: Anti-female bias in academic hiring has ended and now is a good time for young women to seek science jobs

CNN  — 

The prevailing wisdom is that sexist hiring in academic science roadblocks women’s careers before they even start. The American Association of University Professors and blue-ribbon commissions attest to this. An influential report by the National Academy of Sciences in 2006 concluded that “on the average, people are less likely to hire a woman than a man with identical qualifications,” and noted that scientists and engineers “are not exempt.”

Wendy M. Williams
Stephen J. Ceci

Many female graduate students worry that hiring bias is inevitable. A walk through the science departments of any college or university could convince us that the scarcity of female faculty (20% or less) in fields like engineering, computer science, physics, economics and mathematics must reflect sexism in hiring.

But the facts tell a different story. National hiring audits, some dating back to the 1980s, reveal that female scientists have had a significantly higher chance of being interviewed and hired than men. Although women were less likely to apply for jobs, if they did apply, their chances of getting the job were usually better. The typical explanation for this seeming contradiction has been that the women who survived the intense sexism and winnowing process of graduate training were unusually talented, and thus deserved to be hired at a higher rate than men.

But is there evidence for this assertion?

When we searched the literature, we could not find one empirical study of sexism in faculty hiring using actual faculty members as evaluators and focusing on fields in which women are most underrepresented. So we did the study ourselves (published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), testing 873 faculty members at 371 institutions in 50 states. To tease out sex bias, we created fictional candidate profiles identical in every respect except for sex, and asked faculty to rank these candidates for a tenure-track job.