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Are Women’s Scientific Achievements Being Overlooked?

By Joseph B. Castro

Despite the push in the last decade to close the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, women are still vastly underrepresented in these careers. But recent research shows the issue runs deeper than just jobs. Compared to men, women receive far fewer scientific awards and prizes than expected based on their representation in nomination pools.

This disparity, researchers found, is likely due to implicit or unconscious biases against women scientists that begin early in life. Numerous studies of school-aged children have found that when they’re asked to draw a scientist, they overwhelmingly depict an older white man working alone. Researchers have found that these biases can be curbed with education.

"I think counteracting these biases is going to be an ongoing process," says Anne Lincoln, a sociologist at Southern Methodist University in Texas. “If little boys and girls are still drawing scientists that only look like men, I think that’s an indication this is still an issue.”

In 1968, the late sociologist Robert Merton coined the “Matthew effect,” which describes how famous scientists get more credit for collaborative research than their lesser-known colleagues, even if they took the backseat on a project. Twenty-five years later, science historian Margaret Rossiter noticed a similar thing happening to women scientists, whose work was often credited to men or glossed over completely. She called this sociological phenomenon the “Matilda effect.”

"The idea is that scientists strive to be unbiased and objective," says Lincoln, who is the lead author of a study published in the April 2012 issue of the journal Social Studies of Science. “But if we’re overlooking scientific discoveries based on gender, that’s not a very scientific practice.”

And the implications matter: many female scientists aren’t getting their due recognition and, more important, girls and young women aspiring to enter science and engineering fields aren’t getting a chance to take them on as role models.

The Matilda effect in action

In the mid-2000s, study coauthor Stephanie Pincus noticed something peculiar: Though many female scientists were reaching the pinnacle of their careers, very few of them seemed to be receiving awards or fellowships for their work. Was this an example of the Matilda effect or was something else going on?

To find out, Pincus and her colleagues at the Society for Women’s Health Research developed an immense database of scientific awards and prizes, which noted the year and recipient of each prize. “And, indeed, they found that women tend to not be the winners of the awards,” Lincoln says.

Surely many female scientists were qualified to win the awards, so why were they being snubbed? And did the scientific societies that bestow the awards realize this was happening?

They decided to dig deeper.

The team collected publicly available data on awards given out by 13 STEM societies, such as the Society for Neuroscience and the American Statistical Organization, between 1991 and 2010. While awards given to female scientists increased by nearly 79 percent over the two decades, the researchers realized women weren’t actually being recognized for their scientific achievements—between 2001 and 2010, women won only 10 percent of the prestigious scholarly awards. During the same period, they earned 32 percent of service awards and 37 percent of teaching awards.

Women-only prizes further masked the skewed recognition, Lincoln says. In one society, women won 22 of the 108 awards given out in 2001-2010. But 10 of those awards were for women only. So, on the surface it appears as though women won about 20 percent of the awards, but they really only won 12 percent of those that were also open to their male colleagues.

Overall, men were more than eight times more likely than women to win a scholarly award in 2001-2010, the researchers found.

Implicit biases

Lincoln and her colleagues then looked at seven of the professional societies’ award nomination and selection process to discover which factors affected women’s chances of winning. “We asked the societies to collect more information for us — not just who’s in the award committees, but also who’s in the nomination and how they’re picking their winners,” Lincoln says. “We wanted them to paint a picture of the process for us.”

The researchers found that men chaired 94 percent of the committees, which typically had five or six members, and 42 percent of the committees had no female members whatsoever. Women comprised about 17 percent of all nominations for annual awards. They were nominated for more service and teaching awards than scholarly accolades.

Men were twice as likely to win a scholarly award as women, regardless of how many male nominees were considered for the prize. Furthermore, committees chaired by men gave women awards 5 percent of the time, even though women made up about 20 percent of the nomination pools for these particular prizes. Women won the award 23 percent of the time with committees chaired by women — their odds also increased with each woman on the committee.

Lincoln says the results suggest the committee members had implicit biases and were unconsciously subscribing to the culturally held belief that men’s scholarly efforts are more important than women’s.

Making a change

Lincoln and her team approached the presidents of the seven societies with their results. “[The presidents] were very interested and had no idea they were making these discriminatory assessments,” Lincoln says. “They just wanted the best scientific work recognized.”

In 2010, the researchers held a workshop for the societies’ leaders covering their findings. The members were floored. Soon after, the societies drafted workshop summaries for future award committee members to read.

While optimistic about the change, Lincoln would like to see another year of data to tell if the workshop is having an affect. And the next step, she notes, is to approach more STEM societies.

"Since the workshop took place, the percentage of women winning scholarly awards jumped substantially" in these professional societies, Lincoln says.

Top image: Courtesy Flickr user Argonne National Laboratory.

Joseph Castro is a science journalist based in Hawaii. His work has been featured on MSNBC, FOX News, CBS News, Yahoo News, Scientific American online, Discovery News, the Christian Science Monitor and Huffington Post. He tweets @josephbcastro.

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