Stories abound of women lagging behind men: in pay, status, promotion and air-time on serious TV programs, to name but a few areas. Yet statistics show that girls are outperforming boys at school; for instance, twin 18-year-old girls Ameeta and Aneeta Kumar have recently won the UK Young Scientist of the Year award. Increasingly, that story of outperformance is also the case at Britain’s universities today, and in just about every subject.
How can both be true? The answer is down to us — our own behavior.
Each and every one of us is likely to believe that we can judge people fairly on their merits, regardless of gender, and yet the reality, as evidenced by study after study, is that we are really rather bad at it.
We carry all kinds of baggage around in our heads that can defeat even the best-intentioned individual, whether they are male or female.
In line with this, a recent study of about 1,000 alumnae of Murray Edwards College (an all-female college in the University of Cambridge) concluded that a lack of workplace fairness and support outweighed all other factors — more even than the delicate juggling act of work and family life — when it came to the effect on their progression at work.
Many of the women felt convinced that merit was not the overriding factor about getting on at work.
Another study, released last week, looked at how men and women fared in simulations of employment, for a role involving maths.
Given absolutely no information about someone’s maths skills, you might think men and women would be equally likely to be hired. Not so: Men were twice as likely to be taken on as women. Based on an absence of facts, the presumption was that men were more numerate.
This discrepancy was reduced but did not disappear with the appearance of actual evidence.
The title of this particular study says it all: “How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science.” Simplistic stereotyping has effects across the board, but is particularly noticeable in the sciences. This being so, it does not matter if girls outperform boys in exams: Their subsequent job opportunities and career progression are still likely to be affected.
Of course, that is just one study, but there are plenty more like it. What is the likelihood, for instance, of an applicant being hired as a lab manager, based on their CV alone?
When tested, using identical CVs, and just switching between male and female names, the “male” candidate was significantly more likely to be hired, paid more and offered more support thereafter by men and women alike, a type of behavior that is called unconscious bias.
Last month’s British House of Commons science and technology select committee report on women in scientific careers took evidence from many sources and explored the barriers for women progressing — or not — in these professions.
The problem of unconscious bias was cited by many. The tendency of panels (too often still all male) to prefer people “like them,” however unconsciously, means that women in general have to outperform men just to be regarded as their equal.
And when applying for funding from all the UK Research Councils, overall, the data show that women are less successful in winning grants.
Perhaps all the female staff are genuinely less original and innovative than their male colleagues, but I doubt it.
Nevertheless, one could probably come up with plausible explanations for the women’s comparative lack of success that the headline figures do not reveal.
Perhaps the women are less well mentored in writing their grant applications early on. Perhaps they have more teaching and pastoral tasks assigned to them and consequently have less time to expend on writing the applications.
Their style of writing could be less expansive, more risk-averse than their male counterparts. Or, if they are asked to describe their track record, their upbringing may make them disinclined to talk up their previous work.
Any of these are plausible explanations, tying in with the realities that were described in the select committee report, or that are consistent with societal expectations of women.
However, unconscious bias during evaluation should also be considered as potentially playing a substantial part in the discrepancy.
Grant income and other metrics should not be all it takes to progress and be successful. My university (Cambridge) has just published a book, The Meaning of Success, exploring what success can look like to the individual, demonstrating that for women it is about a lot more than such numbers, something I suspect that many men would go along with, too.
We need to rethink what the 21st-century success story looks like by taking into account that the default professor is not necessarily male (with a stay-at-home partner) and broadening ideas of what is “ideal” for men and women and what counts as success.
This will also help to ensure that merit is the true driver of progression.
The select committee report was very short on recommendations about how to reduce the loss of talented women from our scientific workforce.
Indeed, in a rather self-defeating way, it commented that perhaps the significant drop-out of women from scientific careers meant that less, rather than more, effort should be expended in attracting girls into science in the first place.
That is unlikely to be helpful if we want to have a healthy diversity of talented and innovative people working in science and doing their bit for the British economy.
Eliminating a significant fraction of the population from ever entering science cannot be a smart thing to do.
So let me offer a new recommendation to add to that made by the MPs.
I propose that every MBA course in the country should have an unconscious bias element included, and taking some relevant training should be an expectation of anyone involved in recruitment of any kind.
I would also like to see it included as a topic in the school curriculum, a place to start a dialogue among children so that they can identify their own propensities to gender-stereotyping.
In fact, let’s just stop making lazy gendered assumptions and start looking at the individual for what they are and what they offer. And if you think you are uniquely free from such simplistic gendered thinking, let me encourage you to try the tests at Harvard’s Project Implicit Web site. You may be shocked by the results.
Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and the university’s gender equality champion.