Gender bias

From The Embassy of Good Science

Gender bias

What is this about?

Even though a majority of university students are female, in most research areas a minority of senior professors are female. It is thought that one of the important causes of this is gender bias: women not being given the same professional opportunities as men. Often this bias is unconscious (so-called “implicit bias”)[1]. Gender is often considered to be different from ‘sex’(male/female). It can be perceived as a social construct of what it means to be a man, woman or non-binary.  

  1. Gvozdanović J, Maes K. Implicit bias in academia: A challenge to the meritocratic principle and to women‘s careers-And what to do about it. 2018.

Why is this important?

Expectations, in relation to behavior, attitude and competencies, are often influenced by traditional gender roles and stereotypes. These expectations influence how people approach you. For example, the competence people expect you to have or not to have, influences whether you are encouraged to pursue a career in science or not, whether they invite you for a job interview or not, and whether they develop and promote your career – or not.

When selecting candidates for assistant professorships, committee members tend to look for someone “who has the potential to survive in the competitive academic world by being productive, confident, committed to the profession, and internationally mobile.”[1] Men are more often perceived by others to possess these characteristics than women. Gender bias can manifest itself in a number of situations: in working conditions (such as job security), in recruitment and career advancement, and when awarding grants.

For example, researchers from the University of California studied video recordings of job interviews across five engineering departments of research universities.[2] They found that female candidates received more questions and were interrupted more often. Women had less time to deliver their message than men. This study illustrates the phenomenon of “stricter standards” of competence that are demanded of women compared to men when applying for what is perceived to be a masculine-type job.

It seems that the people who reach top positions in the current system are mainly ‘alpha males’. This means that there is also a group of men that is underrepresented in these positions. Keep in mind: even if all people in top positions are men, not all men are in top positions. Moreover, we speak of ‘men’ and ‘women’ here. This excludes yet another group of people who do not identify as either one of them.

Gender bias goes against the principles of research integrity, and is detrimental to good science.

  1. Herschberg, C., Benschop, Y., van den Brink, M. (2018). The peril of potential: Gender practices in the recruitment and selection of early career researchers. Gender and Precarious Research Careers, 111-1424.
  2. Blair-Loy, M.; Rogers, L.E.; Glaser, D.; Wong, Y.L.A.; Abraham, D.; Cosman, P.C. (2017) Gender in Engineering Departments: Are There Gender Differences in Interruptions of Academic Job Talks? Social Sciences, 6: 29.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

A working paper by LERU sets out the following recommendations:[1]

  1. "Universities and other research institutions need to have regular monitoring in place to examine whether their organisational structures and processes are susceptible to a potentially biased access to resources that cannot be justified by the meritocratic principle. If so, they should develop and implement a plan to mitigate any identified bias. It is crucial that the university’s leadership commits to this plan, sees it through with appropriate encouragement, support and initiatives, throughout the organisation. Clear accountability should be assigned, with final responsibility for action resting with the President/Rector and the governing body.
  2. Universities and other research institutions should examine crucial areas of potential bias and define measures for countering bias. Progress needs to be monitored and, if necessary, measures re-examined and adjusted.
  3. Universities and other research institutions should gather expertise and organise gender bias training in various formats, including the possibility of anonymous training. There is no shortage of national and international resources which organisations can use.
  4. Recruitment and/or funding processes should be as open and transparent as possible and be genuinely merit-based. This includes measures such as briefing selection committees about bias pitfalls, deciding on clear selection criteria at the outset, letting external observers monitor the selection process and involving external evaluators.
  5. There should be close monitoring of potential bias in language used in recruitment processes.
  6. Universities should undertake action towards eliminating the pay gap and monitor progress, examining bias as a contributing factor to pay gap.
  7. Employees should be compensated for parental leave, making sure the process is bias-free, for example by extending fixed-term positions or calculating the leave administratively as active service, yet exempt from publication expectations.
  8. Universities and other research institutions should monitor precarious contracts and part-time positions for any gender-based differences and correct any inequalities. Universities should examine conditions for part- time positions for professors and their gendered division.
  9. Universities and other research institutions should undertake positive action towards a proper representation of women in all leading positions, making sure that leadership and processes around leadership are free from bias."
  1. League of European Research Universities. Implicit bias in academia: A challenge to the meritocratic principle and to women’s careers – and what to do about it. ADVICE PAPER no.23 - January 2018, Available at: Accessed May 2019.