Sunday, October 28, 2012

Physicists prefer gentlemen

Remember those exposés where identical applications are submitted to decision-makers, but one applicant is this while the other applicant is that? (The "this" and "that" might be different races: one applicant's name is "Dustin" while the other's is "DeShawn".) When the decision-makers show consistent, statistically significant preference for the "this" applicants (Caucasian) over the "that" applicants (African-American), such studies reveal bias.

Such a study was conducted among tenured scientists. And scientists prefer gentlemen. has the skinny:
Undertaken by psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin and colleagues from Yale University, the study involved 127 tenured scientists across six universities in the US being asked to provide feedback on an excerpt from a job application for a graduate-level lab-technician post at another institution. The excerpt – developed by an academic panel – was designed to be as realistic as possible and was identical, except that 64 of the scientists were told the applicant's name was Jennifer, while the other 63 were told the applicant's name was John. The scientists were told that their feedback would help the applicant's career development, unaware that both the candidate and the post were fictitious. The candidate was painted as promising but not exceptional.
The study found not only that the scientists rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant, but also that the hirers would have given the male student a higher starting salary. "Male and female science-faculty members, including physicists, said they were more likely to hire the male student," says Moss-Racusin. "They also offered to pay him about $4000 more per year on average and were more likely to offer him career mentoring, relative to the identical female student."
In fairness, the bias was seen in chemistry and biology as well as physics.

Gender bias problems continue in physics. I wrote my master's thesis about gender equity in the physics classroom. Whenever I bring up the subject, colleagues tend to treat it as an attack and fend me off as the attacker. Which frustrates me, since it looks like folks prefer a heads-in-the-sand approach.

I don't have any answers beyond acknowledging the problem exists. The solutions proposed by classroom-bias researchers were essentially, "Engage in good teaching practices and refrain from bad teaching practices." Nothing gender-specific.

The one gender-specific finding I do recall is that boys do better when there are girls in the classroom while girls do better when there are no boys in the classroom. And that doesn't help. Short of compelling holography techniques, creating girl-only classes for girls and mixed-gender classes for boys isn't physics-ly possible.

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