Is unconscious bias really affecting women in STEM?

29th June 2015

The contentious comments made by Tim Hunt about working with women in the lab has sparked fierce debate amongst journalists, academics and even Boris Johnson.

In a speech delivered at a lunch for female journalists and scientists, entitled Creative Science Only a Game?, he made the unfortunate comment: Let me tell you about my trouble with girls three things happen when they are in the lab You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.’

Since then the media furore around these comments has reignited the debate about unconscious bias towards women in workplace. This topic is particularly sensitive given the measures that universities, research councils and industry recruiters, have gone to widen their talent pipeline to encourage more female uptake in the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).

One such initiative with which we at Marshall’s are very familiar is the Athena Swan scheme, whose purpose is to address the under-representation of women in STEM research and academia. The scheme awards universities a bronze, silver or gold status in recognition of their achievements and with the longer term aim of eliminating gender inequality.

To those that query the necessity of such measures, statistics show a sad but telling picture of how unconscious bias shapes the social contours of the national landscape.

Up until A levels, the number of girls and boys taking STEM subjects is equal. This begins to change however, with the gap widening the further along the academic pathway until only around only 13% end up working in STEM. For those that choose an academic pathway, only 43% of science undergraduates are women with only 10% going on to become professors.

So why is this the case? Some may argue that boys must be naturally more gifted at scientific subjects, however this particularly 1950s view of gender differences falls apart under scrutiny. According to a recent international study by the OECD, boys in the UK showed a significant 20% grade increase over girls in STEM subjects (compared to Shanghai, where girls outperformed boys in maths within most European countries).

However once the girls were given confidence boosting and self-esteem exercises, they performed equally well as the boys. The study concludes that implicit biases shown by parents and teachers regarding gender roles, had a dramatic role to play in how girls perceive their own aptitude towards certain subjects. Once these perceptions are called into question and girls’ confidence in these subjects is raised, their performance increases dramatically.

This example and by extension, Tim Hunt’s rather ill-advised comments demonstrates that as a society we are still vulnerable to challenges of unconscious biases and so must continue to strive to correct these where we find them. These inequalities are now far more likely to be subtle and insidious, after all most right thinking individuals see themselves as immune to bigotry and obvious forms of bias.

Despite this however, micro-inequities prevail within all areas of society, manifesting as small, subconscious cues that collectively deliver the message that a particular group is perceived as having lesser value than others.

One of the great challenges of today is for society to create a fairer society. For this to happen, more education and training on these topics is vital.

For more information about our unconscious bias training courses or about our statistical tool to aid universities evaluate their Equality and Diversity performance against Athena Swan targets, please contact us.

Image: Science Careers in Search of Women (SCSW) 2014

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