Dear Professor…

Another study found evidence of gender and ethnicity biases in academia. This time, the authors looked at the discriminations that might occur upon entry into academia, by studying the rejection rate of emails from fictional students asking for a “mentoring” opportunity. Here’s the abstract (highlighted by me) :

Little is known about how discrimination against women and minorities manifests before individuals formally apply to organizations or how it varies within and between organizations. We address this knowledge gap through an audit study in academia of over 6,500 professors at top U.S. universities drawn from 89 disciplines and 259 institutions. We hypothesized that discrimination would appear at the informal “pathway” preceding entry to academia and would vary by discipline and university as a function of faculty representation and pay. In our experiment, professors were contacted by fictional prospective students seeking to discuss research opportunities prior to applying to a doctoral program. Names of students were randomly assigned to signal gender and race (Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese), but messages were otherwise identical. We found that faculty ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from Caucasian males, particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions. Counterintuitively, the representation of women and minorities and discrimination were uncorrelated, suggesting that greater representation cannot be assumed to reduce discrimination. This research highlights the importance of studying what happens before formal entry points into organizations and reveals that discrimination is not evenly distributed within and between organizations.

I find particularly interesting  (but somehow not surprising)  that 1) the effect is more pronounced in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions and that 2) there is no correlation between the representativity of women and minorities in the institution and the discrimination.

It shows once again (after the Moss-Racusin paper) how deeply stereotypes are engrained in our minds. Those studies are incredibly important to have people realize and accept that we’re all biased, so that we can start actively questioning each of our choices or judgements to try and deconstruct them. Or, as explained by one of the authors in this Podcast, find ways to systematize our answers in order to leave less space for unconscious discriminations. The comments section of this NPR broadcast is also very interesting to read, with people fighting against the idea that they might be biased by pointing out reasons such as “profs are busy, they won’t answer all their emails” showing a clear misunderstanding of the methods, but others raising interesting methodological questions.

This study is also discussed here, here and there, for example.

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Do babies matter?

The biggest drop in the proportion of women in academia occurs at the post-doc level, e.g. when society says our biological clocks should be screaming “babies”. So naturally the first explanation that comes to mind for the leaky pipeline phenomenon is the difficulties and discriminations brought about by having children in academia.


Mary Ann Mason and her colleagues Nicolas Wolfinger and Marc Goulden wrote a whole book on the subject : Do babies matter? Gender and family and the ivory tower. It gives a close look, data included, at how family issues affect men and women at different stages of the academic career. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion is that while -spoiler alert- both men and women have babies, women’s careers are disproportionately affected by their choices in regard to couple and baby-making compared to men. The book also offers “Concrete strategies […] for transforming the university into a family-friendly environment at every career stage.”

Good news for those of us who’d like to read the book but already have hundreds of titles on their must-read list, M. A. Mason wrote a piece in the Chronicles of Higher Education that summarizes some finding of the books, and the suggestions offered to reduce the “Maternal wall” in academia : How to Level the Playing Field for Women in Science.

Here’s a summary of the summary of the solutions :

  1. Better and more affordable child-care options.
  2. Effective dual-career policies (female scientists are more likely to have a scientist-partner)
  3. Childbirth accommodations. (this ones sounds unbelievable for a frenchy who’s used to consider a 3 month fully-paid maternity leave as normal.)
  4. Compliance with Title IX.

Everything on this list seems to be very common sense, but there’s still a long way to go before we can tick them off, laughing at those archaic times when women somehow had to chose between career and family.

Finally, if motherhood is a very important aspect of the problem, we shouldn’t forget about all the other factors creating holes in the pipeline, say, the impostor syndrome, the Matilda effect, the lack of role models, the double standards, the unconscious bias, the salary gap… As stated in this Nature podcast that I recommend listening to, “Motherhood is the easy answer, but it’s only part of a very complicated landscape. […] Families are a complication. But it’s not the only issue, and  it’s simplistic to think that if you sort that out, then there will be not further problems.” That said, yeah, let’s sort the maternity problem out.



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