Gender equity in science: Achievement unlocked?


Is it time to throw out our gender-equity-in-STEM training materials? Williams and Ceci (2015) reported that STEM faculty members have a preference for hiring women (not men), reigniting debates over equity in academic hiring. In our blog post, we add to a growing conversation among the scientific community that questions Williams & Ceci’s grand claim of a post-sexist era in academic hiring.

Newly published data from a series of experiments on gender equity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) hiring would suggest we've finally "arrived" when it comes to gender equity.  Williams & Ceci (2015) report a 2:1 hiring preference for female over male candidates for tenure-track jobs in STEM among a sample of US faculty participants. You read that correctly: the preference was for hiring equally-qualified female, not male, candidates.  Shall we, then, declare victory against gender bias in STEM, and file away our implicit bias workshops?  This finding is a surprising reversal from previous research – which documents a persistent bias against women at many STEM career stages (e.g., Moss-Racusin et al., 2012; Reuben et al., 2014). So before we celebrate, let’s first consider how the research was conducted and what we can and cannot conclude from these results. 

Williams & Ceci asked male and female faculty members from four STEM disciplines (economics, engineering, biology and psychology) to rank 3 equally-qualified male and female faculty candidates for an assistant-professor position.  In lieu of asking participants to review a typical dossier, participants read candidate summaries (allegedly from hiring committee chairs) about 3 short-listed candidates. Two of the hypothetical candidates (one male, one female) were presented as unambiguously and equally stellar future colleagues; a third "foil" candidate was presented as having strong credentials, but somewhat less-so by comparison to these two stars. While the first study compared highly qualified male and female candidates with identical lifestyles (e.g., comparing a single childless woman with a single childless man), additional studies in the paper asked evaluators to compare (1) male and female candidates with different lifestyles (e.g., comparing a divorced mother to a married father) and (2) female candidates (mothers) who had taken parental leave during graduate school with those who had not.  The overall pattern of results was clear:  highly qualified female STEM candidates were deemed more hirable than equally qualified male candidates.

These data do indeed present evidence for reduced biases in STEM faculty hiring. But the authors concluded too readily that "efforts to combat formerly widespread sexism in hiring appear to have succeeded” and that we now have a “surprisingly welcoming atmosphere . . . for female job candidates in STEM disciplines.”

We should question these conclusions for several reasons.  First, as others have pointed out, these data reflect evaluations of exceptional candidates who have already survived much of the hiring process and made it to the short list. Given the equally stellar nature of the two candidates, we shouldn't be too surprised by these particular results; they are actually consistent with a large body of previous work (e.g., Dovidio & Gaertner, 2000) demonstrating that biases favoring dominant groups (in this case men) are reduced or disappear when people evaluate equally and unambiguously qualified candidates. 

If real-life hiring only ever involved female candidates of the most superior qualifications, it appears that women aspiring to the STEM professorate would have no cause for concern.  But this isn’t always the case, and things get trickier when we consider that ratings of stellar versus “merely strong” female candidates are often highly polarized (Bettencourt et al., 2015). Stellar women do indeed rise to the top of candidate pools, but they must be outliers to do so. And the gap between ratings of stellar and strong female candidates is often greater than the ratings gap between stellar and strong men. As a result, in a real hiring process, strong women can still end up ranked below their equally qualified but "only strong" male peers.    

When we consider lifestyle factors alongside possible variations in qualifications, the picture becomes even murkier: the way a female candidate’s lifestyle affects ratings of her hirability may actually vary depending on her qualifications.  To see how this might work, consider a concrete example from the paper: (male) evaluators prefermothers who have taken parental leave to those who have not.  Why? Are evaluators really likely to view having taken parental leave as an indicator of superior professional ability?  This is unlikely: all the candidates have identical (superior) qualifications. 

Instead, the evaluator might conclude that the woman of superior qualifications has overcome greater obstacles (i.e., parental leave) to reach a place of equally stellar professional standing with an individual with a less demanding home life, making her all the more impressive.  But what about a case that Williams and Ceci did not study – a woman who possesses merely “strong” qualifications?  If she were to take a parental leave, would she be held in the same esteem?  Or would evaluators penalize her, inferring a causal connection between her parental leave and her less impressive qualifications, especially when compared to a candidate who is single or childless?

By presenting lifestyle information explicitly, Williams and Ceci have conducted an impressive and tightly controlled study in which they show that women can be favored in hiring, provided that all other things are equal. 

But once we introduce some of the “noise” of a real hiring situation, we can no longer be sure that the playing field is equal.  While real-life hiring scenarios involve the inevitable comparison of candidates with different lifestyles, real candidates never reveal their marital or parental status in explicit statements on application materials (in fact, it is illegal for a hiring committee to directly ask such questions).   Furthermore, in contrast to another recent study of academic hiring in STEM fields (Reuben et al., 2014), which imitates the stakes of real hiring by offering monetary incentives for selecting the best-performing candidates, Williams and Ceci’s study offers no such incentives.  But people’s explicit judgments and their behaviors can diverge greatly depending on the stakes surrounding a decision (FeldmanHall, et al., 2012).  Thus we can’t rule out the possibility while evaluators would like to think that they would preferentially hire women, their behavior under less idealized conditions could differ.              

We can conclude from Williams & Ceci’s findings only this: When judging two exceptionally qualified final candidates with explicitly defined and identical lifestyles, faculty seem to err on the side of improving gender equity in their disciplines. This does suggest that our efforts to inform the professoriate about the need for gender equity are having an impact, at least when “all other things” are equal.  But let's not throw out those equity training materials just yet. Until we can be much more confident that these results generalize under less idealized conditions, we still need to keep the pressure on the system to promote gender equity in STEM hiring. 


Bettencourt, B. A., Manning, M., Molix, L., Schlegel, R., Eidelman, S., & Biernat, M. (2015). Explaining Extremity in Evaluation of Group Members Meta- Analytic Tests of Three Theories. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1088868315574461.

Dovidio, J.F. & Gaertner, S.L. (2000).  Aversive Racism and selection decisions: 1989 and 1999.  Psychological Science, 11, 315-319.

FeldmanHall, O., Mobbs, D., Hiscox, L., Navrady, L., Dalgleish, T. (2012). What We Say and What We Do: The relationship between real and hypothetical moral choices. Cognition123, 434-441.

Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 16474–16479.

Reuben, E., P. Sapienza, & L. Zingales (2014). How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111, 4403–4408.

Williams, W. M. & Ceci, S. J. (2015).  National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 112, 5360-5365.