When Tara Glasgow was in graduate school to earn a masters in engineering, she was surrounded by male faculty and students.
“I learned in my first semester, when entering a new class, to use only my last name on the top of my test, and leave my first name to my professor’s imagination,” says Glasgow, who is now the vice president of R&D, Baby and Scientific Engagement for Johnson & Johnson Consumer.
She tells Fast Company that when the professor of a statistics class handed back their first exam in order of highest grade to lowest, her name showed up on the top of the pile. “As he called out ‘Glasgow’, I actually could see the disbelief, and he actually pulled the test back away from me when my hand went up to claim my 100%,” Glasgow recalls. It was a case of bias in action that she would witness time and again. “This simple moment seemed to impact him more than me,” Glasgow remembers. “I already anticipated the bias, he was just learning this about himself in the moment, maybe for the first time.”
Glasgow isn’t the only woman in STEM who’s had to work around persistent bias and gender inequality. Mae Jemison, the first black woman to go into space, told us a similar story, as did Karen Purcell, an engineer who founded PL Electrical, and others. Do these stories mean that all women in STEM education or careers face gender bias? Of course not. But stories like these have come to light enough to point to a problem.
Here’s what we know: With the exception of three areas (statistics, botany, and health care) where women dominate, the workforce in many STEM fields is pretty homogenous. Women make up 47% of all U.S. employees, yet they only represent a quarter of the jobs in mathematical sciences and just 13% of engineers, according to statistics gathered by the National Girls Collaborative Project.
Part of the reason for the imbalance starts when children are in school. Female students often aren’t encouraged to pursue science and math from elementary school through higher education. As Ellen Futter, president of the American Museum of Natural History points out, “Science education is “broadly in crisis, as certain groups are not empowered to participate.”
Indeed, recent research reveals that another part of the problem is a gender gap within STEM in schools. Eighty-one percent of university faculty teaching STEM courses are men.
To tackle the root cause of this disparity, more female faculty need to be recruited. That’s fine in theory, but practice often yields different results. Often, more men apply for and get hired for the jobs than women for a variety of reasons. The most common among them: “There aren’t enough qualified candidates.”
But what if there was a way to intervene during the hiring process to encourage search committees to cast the net to a wider group of candidates? That’s what an interdisciplinary team from Montana State University (MSU), led by Jessi L. Smith, tested in a three-step search intervention.
The results, which are published in BioScience, showed that the numbers of female candidates considered for and offered tenure-track positions were significantly higher in the intervention groups compared with those in controls. The study found that when using intervention, the search committees were 6.3 times more likely to make an offer to a woman, and those women who got an offer were 5.8 times more likely to accept when it was made through an intervention search.
The study was conducted over one year at MSU within 23 searches to recruit STEM faculty. The researchers note that this university was historically challenged when it came to increasing the diversity of its academic staff. At the time, 81% of its faculty were men.
The researchers proposed to offer search committees concrete best-practice techniques as well as teach them to understand how to incorporate work–life integration discussions into the recruiting process, because 83% of women scientists in academia have partners who are also in academic science.
The three-part process included:
- A short presentation to search committees about overcoming the influence of unintentional (i.e., implicit) bias during the review process
- Arming search committees with a guidebook on tactics for recruiting diverse candidates
- Providing access to a faculty family advocate who was unaffiliated with the search to confidentially discuss any work–life integration issues deemed appropriate by the candidates
The researchers reported that all did not go smoothly. “Some pushback was experienced, as we expected, and a small number of male and female faculty expressed concerns that paying attention to gender diversity in STEM while conducting a faculty search was “lowering standards to fulfill a quota,” they write.
Despite that challenge, the experiment produced the desired result. In the intervention group committees, for example, 40.5% of the candidates shortlisted and phone-interviewed were women, as opposed to only 14.2% in the control group. The success of this trial prompted MSU to apply the techniques to all STEM-faculty hiring. In the years that followed, women made up 50% of those hired.
“I love this research,” Glasgow enthuses, “It was wonderful to see this psychological construct to be used to serve this cause.” If more schools put this into practice, an important part of parity that could change the ratio of women in STEM careers may actually be within reach.