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The Bias Isn't Obvious

There is an unconscious bias against women in science, and it's detrimental to the careers of female scientists, Vox says.

According to a two-year study, which was published this week in Nature Human Behavior, most scientists on scientific evaluation committees — whether they were men or women, and regardless of which scientific field they worked in — unconsciously associate science with men. That bias affects their promotion decisions, so long as they don't consciously believe there are external barriers such as discrimination holding back women in science, Vox says. However, the implicit bias doesn't influence their decisions if they acknowledge the existence of such barriers.

In other words, Vox notes, if someone can say out loud that gender bias exists, it undercuts their unconscious tendency to discriminate on the basis of gender. Awareness of the bias leads to a need to counteract it. But that means the person has be aware of the bias in the first place.

"We highlight the need for efforts to educate committees and governing bodies about the existence and consequences of these biases," the study authors write. "Recognizing the role that such biases can play might enable committees to set them aside at the time of final decisions, thereby facilitating gender equity and diversity."

The authors' suggestion to educate scientists about gender biases needs further study in terms of its effectiveness, Vox says. Research into implicit bias and how to effectively counter it has become controversial.

Over the past few years, several studies have been published on the reasons why women are underrepresented in STEM fields, and what to do about it, Vox says. In June, NIH Director Francis Collins even said that he will never again appear on a scientific panel that doesn't have at least one woman on it.