What do you mean, we’re all sexist?

Yes, I mean I’m sexist.  I try not to be, but I know that deep down I am.

But this isn’t about me (whew!).  This is what it’s about: a study of real people, showing unequivocally that changing the gender of a job applicant from female to male improves their chances of being hired.  Not just because they’re male, of course; purely because they are more competent and easier to mentor – as judged from a c.v. where only the name (and consequently, gender) is changed.


Their increased competence, as illustrated by the all important gender of their given name, confers certain financial advantages: a salary ~12% higher than would be offered to the woman.


The people making these judgements?  Faculty members at American universities, in Physics, Chemistry or Biology.  Both women and men, and here’s the punchline: both men and women are equally sexist!

Hooray for gender equality!

Read the paper (it’s open access!) if you are interested in the statistics.  If it really bothers you that the y-axis on the bar graph of salary doesn’t start at zero, send a friendly email to the authors.  One thing that talking about this piece of work has taught me?  Physical scientists can be really nasty about social science:

“This just seems to cast doubt on the scientific rigor of gender studies. If women social scientists are behind these studies and this is how women do science, maybe this is why women are not in the higher levels of physical sciences and engineering.”

(in comments on this assessment of the paper).

So yes, it is only one study.  It has limitations.  It does not contain the wavefunction of the universe, nor any discussion of what you would do with it if you had it…

What it is, is consistent.  With studies on the effect of race: Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?; and on the effect of gender on employment outside science: Constructed Criteria: Redefining Merit to Justify Discrimination.

There’s a lot more literature out there, if you start looking.  Most of the studies are done on postgraduate students who participate in these studies for credit in their programmes, which is why it is significant that the PNAS paper demonstrates bias in actual people who make actual hiring decisions.  But what struck me about the second of these papers, was a  small detail: the title refers to the fact that when hiring a police chief, the male candidate is preferred, but the criteria which are assessed as being important for the job change depending on whether the candidate is male or female, in order to justify the decision.  If the participants are asked to state clearly their criteria for the job beforehand, a significant part of the bias goes away.

Then there is this:

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 12.59.02 PM

Participants who rate themselves as highly objective exhibit a significant amount of bias.

Participants who rate themselves as not so objective appear to make relatively unbiased judgements.

The value of self-awareness, anyone?

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1 Response to What do you mean, we’re all sexist?

  1. Pingback: Talent, Hard Work, and the Economist; audiences, commenters, and the importance of ‘feelings’ | Why Science Is Sexist

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