A study by Montana State University psychology professors published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that men, including male faculty members in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, were reluctant to accept hard evidence of gender bias in their field.
Elizabeth R. Brown, a former post-doctoral research associate at MSU who is now on the faculty of University of North Florida, was also an author of the paper that examined the receptivity of scientific and public communities to evidence demonstrating a gender bias. Psychologist Corinne A. Moss-Racusin of Skidmore College, whose research on gender bias in STEM fields inspired Handley and Smith’s experiments and who ultimately joined in the research, is also an author of the paper.
The paper reports three experiments in which men and women read about research that demonstrated a gender bias against women in STEM. All three demonstrated that men, especially faculty men within STEM, were reluctant to accept the evidence of gender biases in STEM fields.
“This finding is problematic because broadening the participation of underrepresented people in STEM, including women, necessarily requires a widespread willingness (particularly by those in the majority) to acknowledge that bias exists before transformation can occur,” the scientists wrote.
Smith said the idea for the research began shortly after MSU received a $3.4 million ADVANCE grant from the National Science Foundation in 2012 to increase the number and broaden the participation of women faculty in STEM and underrepresented areas of social and behavioral science on the university’s campus. Smith is the principal investigator of the ADVANCE grant.
Smith said she realized through discussions with colleagues in 2012 that there was much skepticism on MSU’s campus about a paper she had read by Moss-Racusin that found gender bias by both male and female science professors.
To test the depth of that skepticism, Handley, Smith and Brown devised questions about the Moss-Racusin study that were added to a baseline survey administered soon after MSU received the ADVANCE grant. Smith said “even a quick initial analysis showed that men did not think the Moss-Racusin abstract represented good science as much as the women did.”
The researchers conducted additional experiments to further examine reactions about gender bias to include a control group as well as reactions by non-faculty participants from across the United States. Ultimately, Moss-Racusin joined the MSU group’s research.
The scientists said that results from the experiments, which used both general-public and university faculty samples, demonstrated that “men evaluate the quality of research unveiling bias as less meritorious than do women.”
“There is a lot of evidence, scientific evidence, demonstrating a systematic bias placing women at a disadvantage—or men at an advantage—in STEM fields,” Handley said. “Yet, our research points out that the majority of people in STEM fields and the political system—men—are less receptive to that evidence. Change does not come easily.”
Smith and Handley both view the paper’s publication, as well as early interest in the results, as positive steps in promoting objectivity about gender bias in STEM, and ultimately enhancing it.
“We hope that our findings help inform and fuel self-correction efforts within STEM to reduce this bias, bolster objectivity, and diversify STEM workforces. After all, the success of these efforts can translate into greater STEM discovery, education, and achievement,” the scientists wrote.
Handley and Smith said they both suspect that the climate at MSU, where the first initial inspiration for the study surfaced, has shifted so much that the bias they uncovered among faculty in 2012 might be vastly reduced now.
“We conducted our research on faculty at the very beginning of our NSF ADVANCE—Institutional Transformation grant,” Smith said. “Since then, we have enacted three initiatives to enhance research capacity, address work-life integration and overall enhance awareness of equity issues and gender bias among our faculty, staff and administration. We have basically had three years of an intense, large-scale intervention to transform the university. It takes hard work, but it can be done. ”
Ian Handley (406) 994-6508, firstname.lastname@example.org