Science, still a man's world

Discrimination against women in science continues to be a problem, even in fields dominated by female researchers. UC Davis found a startling gender disparity in who is chosen to speak at scientific conferences.

Discrimination against women in science continues to be a problem, even in fields dominated by female researchers, suggests a new study from the University of California, Davis, that found a startling gender disparity in who is chosen to speak at scientific conferences. The study is being published today (Nov. 21) in the journal PLOS ONE.

Lead author Lynne Isbell, a professor of anthropology at UC Davis, initiated the study after being struck by the scarcity of female speakers at the annual meeting in April of the American Association of Physical Anthropology.

"I started wondering if this was a fluke, or something we hadn't noticed before," Isbell said. To answer the question, Isbell and two UC Davis colleagues -- fellow anthropology professor Alexander Harcourt and Truman Young, a professor of plant sciences -- went through programs from 21 annual meetings of the association, focusing on sessions on Isbell's own field, primatology.

They tallied the genders of speakers at symposia; those giving shorter oral presentations; and those presenting posters. (Symposium talks are generally seen as being more prestigious than short oral presentations, with posters -- often given by junior researchers and graduate students -- being seen as the least prestigious.)

The team found that symposia organized by men had half the number of female speakers, 29 percent, as those organized by women, 64 percent, or by men and women, 58 percent. Women were far more likely to make poster presentations than give talks, while men presented more talks than posters.

It's especially surprising, Isbell said, because primatology -- the study of lemurs, monkeys and apes -- is dominated by women, and there are many senior women, following pioneers like Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall, with long and distinguished careers.

"If it can happen in primatology, what's happening in other fields with fewer women?" Isbell said.

Other recent studies have found persistent gender gaps in science. For example, Yale researchers recently asked professors to rate resumes of graduate students applying for a job as lab manager. Both men and women consistently rated "male" candidates more highly, even when the resumes were identical.

"It's a cultural phenomenon we have, to see men as more 'competent' and women as more 'likeable,'" Isbell said. "I doubt that people know that they are doing this."

While overt gender or racial discrimination is becoming less common, Kim Shauman, an associate professor of sociology at UC Davis who studies gender inequality in education and employment, said that men and women are equally likely to display implicit bias.

"I think it's very interesting," Shauman said of Isbell's study. "We know that social networks are very important for access to career opportunities, and these social networks are segregated by gender, ethnicity and class."

Isbell and Shauman both said that the first step to tackling implicit biases is to recognize that they exist. For scientists especially, data-driven studies like Isbell's help promote awareness.

"The good news is that when people become aware of these biases they can take steps to counteract them," Shauman said.

For example, Isbell suggested that conference organizers can encourage both women and men to apply to give symposium talks. If posters are a style of communication that attracts more women, perhaps the scientific community should take steps to raise posters' status, such as by requiring senior researchers to present them, she said.

Shauman is the interim faculty director for UC Davis ADVANCE, a National Science Foundation-funded program that aims to boost opportunities for women, especially Latinas, in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM fields. The project's principal investigator is UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, who is a professor in the departments of Electrical Engineering, and Women and Gender Studies.

Media contact(s):
* Lynne Isbell, Anthropology, (530) 752-0745,
(Note: Isbell is traveling until Nov. 25 with intermittent access to e-mail.)
* Kimberlee Shauman, Sociology, (530) 220-3408,
* Andy Fell, UC Davis News Service, (530) 752-4533,