Sexism in STEM is alive and well, a new study shows, and women of color are disproportionately affected by it.
The “The 5 Biases Pushing Women Out Of STEM” study — published in the Harvard Business Review — surveyed 557 female scientists and interviewed 60 of them. As the title suggests, the researchers found five biases that alienate women in the industry. According to the study, “women find themselves walking a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent, and too masculine to be likable.”
One of the study’s most significant findings was that for women scientists of color, their race counts against them in different ways. Asian women, for example, are the most susceptible to biases reflecting gender role conflict. Forty-one percent of Asian women reported playing a stereotypically female role in the office, like the “dutiful daughter” or “office mother,” as opposed to just 8 percent of black women.
Black women, meanwhile, were more likely to face negative assumptions about their competence and had to work harder to prove their abilities to skeptical colleagues. “People just assume you’re not going to be able to cut it,” a female statistician told the researchers, in what they describe as a typical comment. “It’s challenging because you don’t know if you’re working twice as hard because you’re a woman or if you’re working twice as hard because I’m African American,” said a mathematician. Seventy-seven percent of black women reported this kind of bias, in contrast to around 65 percent of Latina, Asian and white women.
Isolation and exclusion are also major hurdles for women of color in STEM careers, the study found. Black and Latina women told researchers that their colleagues didn’t invite them to social events, and that they feared sharing information about their lives would undermine their authority. Despite feeling alienated, they said they censored their feelings to avoid seeming too “angry, aggressive, or rude.” One cancer biologist said that she refrained from getting too animated in lab meetings, fearing it would trigger the “angry black woman” stereotype.
“These five major patterns of bias mainly function as implicit biases, reflecting stereotypes people may not realize they have. But we also found plenty of evidence that old-fashioned, explicit racial stereotypes are alive and well,” the researchers said. For example, one black biologist told them about a former advisor who turned to her and asked, “Hey, do you have any family on drugs or in jail?” Another black scientist recalled a comment a professor made about how she would know all about rats because she came from an urban area. “Everyone laughed,” she said, and no one understood why she was offended.
Across racial groups and fields of study, women described their experiences with bias as draining and demoralizing. One participant, an Asian-American astrophysicist, found the bias she encountered “tiring and exhausting because it’s a constant.” Another participant, an African American biostatistician, described “this under-the-surface feeling of uneasiness that you can never quite identify as being overtly…racially discriminatory, but, man, it certainly feels that way.” What’s most draining, she noted, were “those little micro kinds of situations, I think that, in some ways, they’re probably a little bit worse in that they linger the longest.”
These findings are part of a growing line of research documenting the ongoing effects of sexism in science- and math-related fields. Despite claims that gender inequality in STEM is linked to career choices rather than bias and discrimination, mounting evidence suggests otherwise. For example, in a 2013 study, researchers at the University of Texas-Austin and Cornell University found that gender barriers — not the choice to have a family — account for the lack of women in STEM jobs. In contrast to the widespread perception that family factors account for dearth of females in STEM-related careers, the researchers said that characteristics of the STEM field seem to drive away even highly skilled women.
Even when women do enter STEM careers, research shows that they do not advance as far as men — and it’s not due to a difference in skills, motivation, or work ethic. According to one recent study, which looked at women’s experiences in academic medicine careers, gender stereotypes influence people’s judgments and negatively affect women in work-related social interactions, causing them to be in the ‘out-group’ and lose out on opportunities for professional advancement. And research published just last month found that women are paid less than their male counterparts in even the highest-ranking positions in academia. These problems affect minority women the most, which likely explains why black women are more likely than anyone else to leave the STEM field.
“It’s so tempting to attribute the paucity of women in STEM to pipeline problems or personal choices,” the researchers write. “But it’s time to listen to women scientists: they think the issue’s gender bias, and an increasing amount of research supports that view.”
“If organizations are truly interested in retaining and advancing women,” they add, “they will approach the issue of gender bias the same way they do other business issues: develop objective metrics and hold themselves to meeting them.”