Biomedical Careers and Gender Bias

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

A seminal study published in 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that academic scientists are, on average, biased against women. To carry out the study, researchers asked science faculty from research-intensive universities to rate a student’s application materials for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants were given identical applications. However, the student’s name was different. Half of the participants were given applications with a female name, and the other half applications with a male name. The researchers found that faculty participants not only rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the female applicant, but also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The researchers also found that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.


Photo credit: Todd Dailey, CC BY-SA 2.0

The study—for the first time—experimentally demonstrated that gender bias permeates the science academic environment. This phenomenon was already considered to be one of the barriers to success that women face in every field of science and engineering. Indeed, back in 2007, a report by the Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering pointed out that “Women face barriers to success in every field of science and engineering; obstacles that deprive the country of an important source of talent. Without a transformation of academic institutions to tackle such barriers, the future vitality of the U.S. research base and economy are in jeopardy.” The report (Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering) also explained that “Eliminating gender bias in academia requires immediate overarching reform, including decisive action by university administrators, professional societies, federal funding agencies and foundations, government agencies, and Congress.”

In 2008, the National Institutes of Health launched an initiative that funded fourteen R01 grants for the study of the causal factors that promote and support the careers of women in biomedical science. A collection of research studies published a few days ago as a result of this initiative highlights a variety of factors that affect the careers of women in the biomedical field and provide further evidence that gender bias plays a significant role in success achievement.

In one of the studies, researchers analyzed qualitative interviews with women in PhD programs to assess how these women described and interpreted gender issues at early stages in their training. Of 22 women, 19 acknowledged systemic gender inequities in science and/or reported instances of bias.

In another study, researchers analyzed 739 critiques of R01 applications, both funded and unfunded, and compared priority scores, criteria scores, and text analysis results by the sex of the principal investigators for both new or renewal R01 applications. For renewal applications, reviewers assigned significantly worse scores to women than men despite using more positive adjectives, as for example “outstanding,” and “excellent”, for women. The researchers concluded that RO1 application reviewers implicitly (unconsciously) hold male and female applicants to different standards of evaluation, particularly for R01 renewals. Critiques and resulting scores are the decisive factor for RO1 grant awards, which in turn determine the level of research success for biomedical scientists.

Further studies are needed to identify the specific effects of gender bias on the different components necessary for success in the biomedical field. In addition, it is imperative to continue raising awareness while designing programs that bring about systemic organizational change, so to mitigate and eventually eliminate gender biases.

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  1. It is shameful that many believe base a person’s potential off of their gender. Gender doesn’t define the type of person you are and what you’re capable of. It makes me think that companies should change the way that they review candidates. Instead of knowing the candidate’s name and gender, the resume would just have the person’s qualifications and experience. That way we can eliminate gender bias. It’s sad that you have to think of extreme methods to allow everyone to receive equal treatment. It feels horrible knowing that people don’t want to hire you due to your gender. It not only limits you, but the company itself. Narrow-minded thinking doesn’t lead to a diversity and innovation. Open-mindedness does.

  2. As a woman going into the STEM field, the idea of significant gender bias makes me very nervous. At the same time, it makes me realize how much harder I need to work. I am glad I am aware that obstacles are going to be set up on my path to success so that I am not going in with some idealistic idea that everyone is treated the same simply based on merit vs. merit. The quote, “The researchers concluded that RO1 application reviewers implicitly (unconsciously) hold male and female applicants to different standards of evaluation, particularly for R01 renewals” also shows how it is not even a conscious mechanism for many people to be biased against women, which means it would be especially hard to correct. In the end, it is stated that further study will be needed to see the effects of this gender bias. I believe an immediate effect that can be seen and one that was mentioned early on in the post was that it deprives the country of a very important source of talent. In many ways, I believe women have something to bring to the medical field and honestly most fields that men are just unable to, because of the difference in how society treats the two. These talents and traits will never be utilized as long as women are held to a nearly unattainable standard, so it is imperative to allow women to work in a broader range of fields without them having to go through the hassle of having to pass an “unconsciously biased” test.

  3. The beginning of this post brought up a similar exercise mentioned in another post and by Sheryl Sandberg in her book, Lean In, which tests the potential for hire using an individual’s qualifications on paper when assigned to a man’s name and a woman’s name. The end result is the same everywhere, which is that the man is regarded as highly qualified and the woman is not. This type of gender bias is the most significant in the workforce and very disheartening when women are judging another woman’s ability to do her job on the same level that men are. This is where we need improvement and what many women in higher positions are now learning: women need to support each other.

    One of the biggest ways to change this perspective and outlook is to start early, such as on the college level. This is where, I believe, courses can serve as a great opportunity for women wanting to enter the STEM fields. This course provides a place for women to network each other, gain insight into how the world works, and to learn the expectations of a woman entering a man’s world in biomedical sciences. Women must support each other.

    It is so terribly sad to hear that women will belittle other women working on rising in their career. This topic was one discussed in Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. She says that women feel that because of the struggle for women to reach the top, that there is only room for one. That is why, when there is a woman who has made it to a high position in her career, she feels the need to defend it and to do that, she cannot support another woman’s career. The threat for her hard work outweighs helping another, but as Sheryl Sandberg mentioned, if women support each other, then the rights for women will be recognized and more women will be welcomed and, there after, achieve positions at the top.

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