There was certainly serious gender bias in science in the past. But what about now?
There is, however, evidence that contradicts the notion of omnipresent gender bias, although it doesn’t attract anywhere near the same amount of press coverage. So, what is the truth? Are modern academic institutions hubs for sexism, bastions for equality, or somewhere in between? To find out, a trio of researchers on opposing sides of the debate did something inspiring in this era of rampant polarization: They teamed up.
Rather than battle it out through separate studies in the scientific literature — effectively arguing past each other — the three academics instead chose to meld their opposing perspectives and collaborate on a sweeping review of the published data on gender bias in STEM academia, seeking to settle whether or not sexism remains a significant barrier for female researchers. The completed work, published late last month in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest , was the result of a 4.5-year effort, one filled with disagreements and debates, but always driven by a desire to discover the truth.
We synthesized the vast, contradictory scholarly literature on gender bias in academic science from 2000 to 2020. In the most prestigious journals and media outlets, which influence many people’s opinions about sexism, bias is frequently portrayed as an omnipresent factor limiting women’s progress in the tenure-track academy. Claims and counterclaims regarding the presence or absence of sexism span a range of evaluation contexts. Our approach relied on a combination of meta-analysis and analytic dissection. We evaluated the empirical evidence for gender bias in six key contexts in the tenure-track academy: (a) tenure-track hiring, (b) grant funding, (c) teaching ratings, (d) journal acceptances, (e) salaries, and (f) recommendation letters. We also explored the gender gap in a seventh area, journal productivity, because it can moderate bias in other contexts. We focused on these specific domains, in which sexism has most often been alleged to be pervasive, because they represent important types of evaluation, and the extensive research corpus within these domains provides sufficient quantitative data for comprehensive analysis. Contrary to the omnipresent claims of sexism in these domains appearing in top journals and the media, our findings show that tenure-track women are at parity with tenure-track men in three domains (grant funding, journal acceptances, and recommendation letters) and are advantaged over men in a fourth domain (hiring). For teaching ratings and salaries, we found evidence of bias against women; although gender gaps in salary were much smaller than often claimed, they were nevertheless concerning. Even in the four domains in which we failed to find evidence of sexism disadvantaging women, we nevertheless acknowledge that broad societal structural factors may still impede women’s advancement in academic science. Given the substantial resources directed toward reducing gender bias in academic science, it is imperative to develop a clear understanding of when and where such efforts are justified and of how resources can best be directed to mitigate sexism when and where it exists.