Academics face prejudices in doing ‘female’ research

An analysis of a million doctoral dissertations reveals widespread biases against research that appears to be simply feminine, even if it is not explicitly about women or gender.

For more than a decade, women have earned more doctorates than men in the United States. Despite this, women less often obtain tenure, are advertised and reach senior positions in academia than men.

Much of the research on why this might be focuses on structural barriers and explicit biases. But a new study by a team of researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education reveals a widespread implicit bias against academic work that appears to be simply feminine, even if it is not specifically about women or gender.

“Female” research

Analyzing nearly a million doctoral dissertations from US universities over a recent 40-year period, researchers found that academics who wrote on topics related to women, or used methodologies associated with women, were less likely to get senior faculty positions than those who did not.

“Everyone points out that academia is based on meritocracy… It’s a bit wrong, and it’s a bit impossible.

The issue was not so much a prejudice against feminist studies or gender studies, which have grown considerably since the 1970s. In fact, people who wrote their theses explicitly on women had slightly better career prospects. than those who wrote explicitly about men.

The real problem was a more subtle bias against subjects and research models that were “feminized,” meaning they were more associated with the traditions of women’s work. Academics whose thesis summaries contained words like parenthood, children, or relationship, for example, had slimmer career prospects than people who used words like algorithm, efficiency, or war.

Even within a particular field, be it sociology or computer science, academics whose theses were associated with women’s research traditions had poorer prospects than those who wrote more “masculine” theses in their fields. respective. Despite changes in social norms and an increasing number of female academics over time, the researchers found that the devaluation of research on women was more or less constant throughout the 40-year period.

“Everyone emphasizes that academia is based on meritocracy, that everything is neutral and based on the scientific merit of research,” said lead author of the study, Lanu Kim, who led the team at research as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and is now an assistant professor. at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. “It’s a bit wrong, and it’s a bit impossible. There may be differences in the research interests of men and women, and some topics are already associated with women rather than men. The process cannot really be neutral.

The study appears in the journal Research policy.

AI finds patterns

Researchers used natural language processing, a type of artificial intelligence used to study text models, to analyze dissertation abstracts in all fields of universities in the United States between 1980 and 2010.

To measure how “feminized” or “masculinized” a thesis can be, the researchers counted the concentration of words that had been used disproportionately by male or female doctoral candidates in previous years. This included words that explicitly referred to gender, such as woman, man, her or him.

Beyond that, however, the researchers looked for words associated with the interests of women or men, even though the words themselves had nothing to do with gender.

Among the terms strongly associated with women: school, teacher, child, parent, culture and participation. Terms strongly associated with men, on the other hand, ranged from algorithm and efficiency to words related to energy and electronics.

Less professional reward

The researchers then measured academic outlook by looking at which researchers held senior faculty positions. Specifically, they investigated whether a researcher was subsequently appointed senior faculty advisor on someone else’s doctoral thesis, which is a strong indicator of the long-term success of an emerging researcher. as an academic.

While there are many other measures of success, Kim and his colleagues wanted to know if academic institutions implicitly penalize academics for certain types of research.

Overall, only 6.3% of those who earned a doctorate went on to become an academic advisor, but women were about 20% less likely than men to achieve that grade.

Notably, academics who wrote theses explicitly on women had a slight advantage over those who wrote explicitly on men’s issues. This reflected the efforts of many universities to make up for lost ground after years of neglecting women’s issues.

Academics who pursued research topics and designs more implicitly associated with women, however, had less good prospects: their chances of becoming an educational advisor were 12% below average. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the implicit bias was actually greater in fields that had strong research traditions associated with women’s work in universities, like sociology, than in male-dominated fields, like engineering. mechanical.

For academics working in fields with a preponderance of research traditionally associated with women, women with doctorates are more likely to experience a triple disadvantage in the labor market, the authors write. “They are penalized for being women, [for] not to do a doctorate in a masculinized field, and [for] do not adopt human-like research practices.

“The disturbing inequity we have identified is one that female professors have probably long suspected, but continue to experience,” said Daniel McFarland, a Stanford professor and one of the study’s co-authors.

Kim and her colleagues have confirmed that women are now modestly rewarded for research into women’s issues. But implicit biases, they conclude, overwhelm this progress.

“As a society, we have made remarkable strides over the past century in transforming institutions of higher education and science,” said Daniel Scott Smith, doctoral student at Stanford and co-author of the study. “But the implicit biases against certain types of research undermine our current efforts to make the academy more diverse – in terms of who becomes university professors, but also in terms of what is considered valuable academic knowledge.”

Source: Stanford University

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