Do you know what I dislike about presidential election campaigns? Okay, a lot of things. But among my gripes is the way presidential campaigns overshadow all other news, at least in the U.S. media. For months, the candidates’ every cough shoves everything else off the front pages and top-of-the-hour news summaries. Major news gets downgraded to fewer inches and minutes; other news simply disappears. Remember Syria, where there’s a civil war going on that in which people are battling a dictator? Did anyone notice that a new study links BPA – a chemical used in plastic food packaging –to childhood obesity? Oh, never mind, Paul Ryan got an intelligence briefing. And his eyes are blue.
Yes, I get grumpy about it. I’m just not enough of a junkie to want to parse polls all day; it’s too much like debating sports scores, which are boring. I care about the election, but only because I care about the underlying issues—which are what I want to hear about, please.
What kind of underlying issues? Well, given my beat, let’s talk about the ladies. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported on a new study that confirmed, yet again, that implicit bias regularly holds down women’s career opportunities and lifetime earnings. This study focused specifically on hiring in science. Both male and female professors at top research universities, in biology, chemistry, and physics, were asked to assess a job application from a recent science graduate for potential hiring in their labs, as part of a study whose purpose wasn’t disclosed. Here’s how the Times describes the study:
All of the professors received the same one-page summary, which portrayed the applicant as promising but not stellar. But in half of the descriptions, the mythical applicant was named John and in half the applicant was named Jennifer.
About 30 percent of the professors, 127 in all, responded. (They were asked not to discuss the study with colleagues, limiting the chance that they would compare notes and realize its purpose.)
On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being highest, professors gave John an average score of 4 for competence and Jennifer 3.3. John was also seen more favorably as someone they might hire for their laboratories or would be willing to mentor.
The average starting salary offered to Jennifer was $26,508. To John it was $30,328.
You can read the original peer-reviewed article here. The authors are clearly startled that both male and female professors are equally down on the ladies—for no other reason than their names.
So is it especially bad for women in science, or is this a generalizable problem? You might say that the field of science, like math, is especially saturated with a fair amount of subtle social bias against women’s skills. (Are you listening, Larry Summers?) But similar blind-resume studies have regularly shown the same thing in a variety of fields. Women get offered lower-paid table-waiting jobs; men get offered the jobs in expensive restaurants. Sociologist Shelley Correll has repeatedly documented a motherhood penalty: Job portfolios that suggest a woman has children (for instance, a line noting she has been PTA president) get offered lower starting salaries and allowed fewer latenesses and absences before she’s fired; the same portfolio with a male name gets offered a higher starting salary and more leeway for tardiness or absence. And try getting an American woman elected to anything higher than city council: the U.S., in particular, seems to find it nearly impossible to reach the 25 percent-female mark for our national legislature that we ask newer nations to put into their constitutions. (Look at #80 in the world's ranking of percentages of women in national parliams on this list to find that women's percentage in the U.S. Congress remains stuck way down at 17 percent.)
Despite the changes we’ve seen over the past several decades, implicit bias against working women remains deep. Of course many women know they have to work harder to get as far; that’s part of why Hanna Rosin, in The End of Men, predicts world domination (just kidding--a better shot in the coming economy) for the ladies. Immigrants to a new culture – like women in the career world -- so often work harder because they expect less, need more, and take less for granted. But when bias works at such a subtle level, undermining women before they even show their faces, it’s disheartening and frustrating, and it does wear women down. You can cherry-pick a few pockets of data to find different results, but overwhelmingly, when applying for “good” (i.e., well-paying) jobs, sociological studies repeatedly show that men have the wind at their backs, while women have the wind in their faces. So much for the end of men.