Women “Equal” in STEM Hiring? Not So Fast

To all the white scientists reading this, raise your hand high if you’ve ever been mistaken for “the help” in your university or government-funded lab. A study conducted last year at the UC Hastings College of Law, “Double Jeopardy: Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science,” indicates that many black and Latina women scientists have.

It was in this climate that I co-organized last year’s “Bridging the STEM Divide” conference at the University of Southern California with the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) and other campus departments. The LPFI coordinates STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) summer immersion programs for high school students of color at prestigious competitive universities like UC Berkeley, USC, and UCLA. The conference was designed to counter institutional racial/gender barriers to STEM achievement by promoting culturally responsive approaches to college preparation and mentoring.

A key feature of the conference involved connecting South Los Angeles youth with STEM professionals and academics of color. Yet the dearth of tenured African American and Latino STEM faculty at USC posed challenges to our efforts to find faculty mentors. Disparities such as these have a negative impact on the recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of students of color in STEM. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “The gap between the percentage of black women in STEM faculty posts and the percentage of black women in the general working-age population is wider than for any other racial or ethnic group. In contrast, white men hold 58 percent of the faculty posts in STEM fields, but (are) only 35 percent of the working-age population.”

Nationwide, STEM departments at major colleges and universities are still stubbornly segregated by race and gender. While this is no major revelation to people of color in STEM, a new report from the Cornell Institute for Women in Science makes the stunning claim that gender bias in STEM hiring has all but vanished (the report does not evaluate hiring bias in reference to both race and gender). It concludes that “bias has now flipped: female candidates are now twice as likely to be chosen as equally qualified men.” The survey centered on self-reported rankings of exemplary applicants from 873 faculty members at 371 schools. Female candidates—presumably white female candidates—were consistently ranked higher for an assistant professorship in biology, engineering, economics and psychology.

Yet the findings of this single study don’t comport with the abysmal numbers of full-time female academics in STEM disciplines, especially in heavily male-dominated fields like computer science, physics, and engineering. Nor do they provide an adequate portrait of what happens after these highly-ranked women candidates are actually interviewed for tenured positions. If the academic picture were so rosy for women in the STEM hiring pipeline then the huge gender disparities evident in most STEM departments wouldn’t exist. A 2012 Yale University study found that when chemistry, physics and biology professors at six research institutions were given CVs from both a male and a female candidate with identical qualifications they were more likely to choose the male candidate. If the female candidate was chosen, she was paid $4,000 less on average.

In addition, the recent Cornell study makes an egregious “correlation equals causality” leap in its assessment of the role of student “choice” vis-à-vis college preparation courses. Indeed, it “attributes the lack of female scientists to early educational choices—like opting not to take Advanced Placement calculus and physics in high school or choosing not to declare a math-intensive major in college—rather than discrimination later on.” The myth that underrepresented students actively choose not to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes is not borne out by the data when it comes to young women of color. African-American and Latino students are often excluded from the gatekeeper AP and college prep classes that are virtually required for admission to top colleges and universities. African-American students are less likely than students of other ethnicities to be enrolled in AP classes, especially “elite” math and science courses like calculus and physics. At 14 percent of the U.S. student population, black students comprise only 3 percent of those enrolled in AP courses or taking AP exams. According to the College Board, “The vast majority of black high school graduates from the Class of 2011 who could have done well in an AP course never enrolled in one because they were either ‘left out’ or went to a school that didn’t offer the college prep courses.” Nationwide, Native-American, African-American and Latino students had the least access to AP classes (at 47 percent, 57 percent, and 67 percent, respectively). While only 30 percent of black students who were strong in math went on to take AP classes, 60 percent of Asian students did. In Silicon Valley, one of the richest communities in California, fewer than 25 percent of black and Latino students successfully complete Algebra. Moreover, only 20 percent of Latinos and 22 percent of African Americans “graduate with passing grades in the courses that are required” for admission to University of California and Cal State university campuses.

Thus, the Cornell researchers’ reliance upon the subjective driver of “choice,” in both this study and previous ones, is problematic because choice is heavily determined by social and contextual factors. In the 2014 “Double Jeopardy” study, Professor Joan Williams took aim at the Cornell researchers’ earlier claim that women “haven’t progressed” in STEM careers due to conflicts with childrearing. Williams and her colleagues identified multiple factors in women’s professional stagnation; not least of which is sociocultural messaging.

When white women and women of color continue to receive a barrage of social messages and cues that they are not fit to be scientists, tech specialists, and engineers, their tendency to “choose” non-STEM disciplines and careers becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, despite institutional gender bias in aviation, Amelia Earhart chose to be an aviator (rather than a homemaker or a nurse), partly due to her drive and self-discipline but also because she had strong adult mentors—including a determined mother—who guided her “choices.” These factors, coupled with white race and class privilege, were central to facilitating her “choice” in a Jim Crow era. By contrast, the African-American female aviator Bessie Coleman, a contemporary of Earhart’s, had to go overseas to receive most of her flight training because no one in the United States would train a black woman to be a pilot.

Pronouncing equality in STEM hiring as a result of one study is a dangerous pipe dream that can undermine the fight to dismantle the very real barriers that exist in STEM representation for women. Until then, those women who do make it through the STEM academic pipeline will be viewed as the rare exception—talented trespassers in White Man Land, or worse, in the case of women of color, “the help.”