A less palatable reaction was one of irritation, and dismissal of the findings. Despite the fact that hard data is difficult to argue with, many scientists managed it. My own explanation for this reaction is that on a subconscious level, data like this support the implication that men in science didn’t necessarily get there on merit alone, but also because their female competitors were being discriminated against. That must be quite threatening and hence provoked a defensive response.
What are we going to do about it? Here’s where it gets tricky. The outcome of the study suggests that simply increasing the numbers of women on hiring panels is unlikely to solve the problem as the bias exists in all of us. The authors suggest educating scientists to be more aware of the potential biases that exist.
We should go further than this. Since this study shows that the discrimination occurs, at least in part, at the stage of the evaluation of the paper application, I would insist that hiring committees shortlist the “best” female applicants. Such positive discrimination is controversial. However, if 100 candidates apply, and six are shortlisted, how hard would it be to ensure the top two female candidates are also shortlisted? It would certainly allow the next step of the evaluation to be done in person, where many of the subconscious influences are no longer invoked.
On a final note, the persistent lack of women in the higher echelons of science is a constant source of lively debate. Several elder colleagues of mine have insisted that it is only a matter of time before things even out. However, I think this study shows that the discrimination occurs against women at the outset of their careers, and that it is systemic. Without a proactive approach to address the problem, we will be stuck at the current numbers for the next 100 years. This is not something I want to have to explain to either my son or my daughter.