We Blinded Her from Science

As an undergraduate at Stanford, Debbie Sterling once ran out of a mechanical drafting course, crying.

Sterling was one of about five women in the class, and even though she loved drawing, she was having trouble with her final assignment. “I couldn’t get it quite right,” she admitted. But she never thought a struggle with one assignment would lead to what happened next.

During a critique, the two male teaching assistants asked the class, “OK, who thinks that Debbie should pass this class?”

The room remained silent. “Nobody raised their hands. I was mortified,” she said. “That’s the moment where I was really considering just giving up and thinking I didn’t have what it takes.”

Sterling experienced other, more subtle instances of gender bias throughout her undergraduate career. “I often felt like the guys didn’t take me seriously. It was hard to contribute or I would get ignored,” she says. “But I’ve heard Stanford is better than other places.”

Surrounded by men in her science and engineering classes, Sterling found ways to work with the few other female students. In a robotics class, she teamed up with the other women to design a girly robot with a skirt, fishnets, and tiny high-heeled shoes. Not only did they finish the assignment by 6 p.m. while the other groups stayed up all night, but her team ended up scoring the best grade.

“Our robot killed it,” Sterling said. “It was exciting for us because we knew all of the other teams were looking at us like, ‘yeah they’re going to suck,’ and we ended up winning the whole thing.”

Sterling, now 29, is employing the user-focused design philosophy she learned at Stanford to try to flip the script on women in science. After maxing out her Kickstarter goal of $150,000 in just five days, she’s in the process of developing a toy called GoldieBlox that aims to get young girls excited about science and engineering early in life.

“You don’t have to lose your femininity to go into engineering,” she says.

Sterling’s efforts are badly needed. For every 100 women who enter college, just 12 will emerge with a bachelor’s degree in science, engineering, math, or technology (STEM). Of those 12 women, five will continue working in a STEM field after two years; after ten years, that number drops to just three. That compares with 8 percent of men who major in and continue working in a STEM field after ten years. What’s more, in some disciplines women’s representation is actually on the decline. For instance, the National Center for Women & Information Technology reported that the number of women earning information-science bachelor’s degrees dropped 51 percent between 1985 and 2010.

The problem remains for women seeking to become academics instead of taking industry jobs after they complete their undergraduate degrees. Fen Zhao, who now works at the National Science Foundation but studied astrophysics in graduate school at Stanford, says that of the women in her cohort, few chose to continue into academia. A 2009 report by the Center for American Progress found that women in the sciences who were married with children were 35 percent less likely to pursue a tenure-track position at a university. This phenomenon—in which women drop off at each level of education—is often referred to as the “leaky pipeline.”

Discussions about why there are so few women in science often revolve around the difficulty of balancing the rigors of academic research and publishing with child-rearing responsibilities. Gender bias may be another factor, the argument goes, but the problem is at heart structural.

But a recent Yale study shows that bias against women is more entrenched—and more of a problem—than previously thought. When faculty reviewed résumés for a research position in which the only difference between the applicants was the gender of the person’s name, they rated male candidates as more competent and hirable than female candidates. Male candidates were also offered higher starting salaries and more mentoring opportunities. No characteristic in the faculty—age, gender, area of study—made a difference in how the candidates were evaluated.

“I think that just sort of gets at the fact that these are really pervasive stereotypes that everyone is exposed to,” says Corinne Moss-Racusin, a postdoctoral associate at Yale and lead author of the study.

“People have talked a lot about the potential impact of lifestyle choices and women’s natural or inherent preferences,” Moss-Racusin says. But the research proves that gender bias plays at least some role in keeping women out of science fields.

The Yale study builds on research that began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1999, when the school promulgated an internal report that found “many tenured women faculty feel marginalized and excluded from a significant role in their departments.” Though the report was initially supposed to remain confidential, a story about it ended up on the front page of The New York Times.


“Once you get it on the front page of The New York Times, you have an obligation to do something about it,” says Lotte Bailyn, a professor of management at MIT.

The explosive report led the university to implement measures to increase and retain the number of female faculty, like implementing family-friendly policies and overhauling the hiring process. MIT now has checks in place to combat gender discrimination in the recruitment and selection of applicants. When hiring for a position, administrators ask the committee to go back to the applications if the interview pool isn’t diverse enough. Department chairs are under an obligation to report regularly on diversity efforts. Bailyn says one of the most useful tools in tackling gender bias at MIT is simply keeping track of diversity and reporting numbers. Because of these efforts, the number of female faculty in the School of Science had doubled since the 1999 report.

Miriam Goodman, an associate professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford, which has also taken steps to hire more women, says that addressing subtle biases that affect hiring decisions is challenging. “No one is sitting there saying, I know this woman is not as good,” she says. ”We've gotten beyond the place in our society where that is anything other than absurd to think and believe consciously.”

But as with the fights that arise out of affirmative action for candidates of color, this careful monitoring has drawn some backlash. The school found that some view these new measures as providing women an unfair advantage.

“We're accused that there's a bias against men in hiring now. And I think that it’s really important to make the point that is not correct in any way,” says Hazel Sive, a professor of biology at MIT.

If MIT’s efforts to close the gender gap are successful, it may be encouraging to women like Zhao, who said she often felt alone in a hard-science field like astrophysics. While attending a supercomputing conference during graduate school, it was hard not to notice that she was one of few women; most of the women who did attend were there as so-called booth bait, intended to lure the male-dominated crowd.

While in the booth, Zhao said, “it got very awkward because the people were joking around that I was their booth bait.”

“It was blatant that I was the only female there. It makes you realize that there will never be a line to go to the women's room,” Zao says. “Without anybody having to say anything, it can have an impact.”

Zhao’s feeling is understandable, agreed Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center. “These are the biases that everyone holds,” she said, adding that they “disadvantage the female students. Already, in some cases, they’re taking a leap of faith in going into a field in which they’re making up a small percentage.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge to fighting gender bias is getting those who work in science or technology to recognize and counter it in themselves. Members of science fields tend to pride themselves on objectivity and their dedication to meritocracy, something that for years has helped perpetuate the myth that if women were really as good as their male colleagues, they would have risen to the top of the field on the merits of their work. But blind faith in meritocracy actually makes for a less meritocratic system. A Stanford study submitted to Social Issues and Policy Review found that those who believed they were in a meritocracy exhibited more bias against candidates than those who didn’t.

“By ascribing to this belief that the technology industry is meritocratic, we're telling a huge, huge lie,” says a 43-year-old manager of technology who is based in New York and asked not to be named. “I genuinely believed that you could test for technical skills and show in a real black-and-white way whether [an applicant could] succeed. One day the curtain fell from my eyes.”

Believing in the meritocracy—that the absolute best work always rises to the top and work that doesn't is simply insufficient in some way—is a trap into which we all find ourselves falling. If we succeed, it has to be because we did the best work and pushed ourselves the hardest, not because someone else wasn't given the same opportunities we were. Recognizing bias makes us face uncomfortable truths about ourselves, and constantly checking to ensure we're not judging others unfairly is not easy. Changing the evaluation and recruitment process may go a long way in helping women in science at universities, but surely other industries would also benefit from that lesson.

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