National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track
Male and female faculty revealed a 2:1 preference for hiring women across both math-intensive and non-math-intensive fields, with the single exception of male economists, who showed no gender preference.
Women’s underrepresentation in academic science is a significant problem that contributes to the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. In life and social sciences, women now earn the majority of doctorates but make up a minority of assistant professors. From 2008 to 2010, 53.2% of doctorates went to women but only 31.6% of assistant professors were women. This gap persisted after controlling for demographics, degree characteristics, and field. This underrepresentation is typically attributed, both in scientific literature and in the media, to sexism in hiring. However, minimal empirical research has evaluated this hypothesis directly.
Women considering careers in academic science are often confronted with many gendered challenges to becoming professors. Research identifies many of the obstacles standing between female graduate students and tenure-track positions, including inadequate mentoring and networking, downgrading of work products such as manuscripts, grant proposals, and lectures, and gender bias in interviewing and hiring. Implicit, and sometimes explicit, attitudes can affect the hiring process and negatively influence evaluations of female candidates and their scholarship, contributing to women’s underrepresentation within academia.
Here, the authors examine faculty-hiring preferences for hypothetical applicants in fields in which women are and are not substantially underrepresented to find out whether sexism in hiring contributes to the underrepresentation of women in STEM. Across five experiments, the authors use systematically varied profiles reflecting identical scholarship that differ only in gender pronouns and/or lifestyles to assess differences in faculty hiring preferences for assistant professorships in biology, economics, engineering, and psychology.
 From 1993 to 1995, 28.4% of assistant professors were women, but 41.6% of doctorates went to women.
Overall, there was a strong preference for female applicants over identically qualified males who shared the same lifestyle (e.g., married or not, children or not). This preference for women was observed across all four fields of study and by both genders of faculty, with the exception of male economists.
With minimal exceptions, female candidates were preferred over male candidates regardless of field of study, lifestyle profile, or faculty gender.
- In comparing the narrative profiles of two identically qualified candidates with the same lifestyles, female applicants were ranked first by 67.3% of faculty, representing a highly significant 2:1 advantage over their male counterparts.
- Female applicants were preferred over male applicants regardless of field of study, i.e. in both math-intensive and non-math-intensive fields.
- Female applicants were preferred over male applicants regardless of lifestyle profile (which was based on marriage status, job status, spouse’s job status and whether the applicants had children), except for mothers with spouses running home-based businesses.
- Female applicants were preferred over male applicants regardless of faculty gender, except in economics. In economics, female faculty retained the 2:1 advantage for identically qualified female candidates over male candidates (68.3% vs. 31.7%) but male faculty showed no gender preference and rated the male and female candidates as equally hirable (54.8% vs. 45.2%).
Male and female faculty showed different preferences for certain lifestyle comparisons.
- In comparing the narrative profiles of two identically qualified candidates with contrasting lifestyles, female faculty preferred divorced mothers to identically qualified married fathers (71.4% vs. 28.6%), while male faculty had a non-significant trend in the opposite direction (42.9% vs. 57.1%). However, both female (78.1%) and male (73.0%) faculty preferred a single woman without children to a married father.
- In comparing mothers and fathers who did or did not take one-year parental leave during graduate school, there was a significant difference between male and faculty perceptions for mothers but not for fathers.
- Male faculty preferred mothers who took extended parental leave 2:1 to mothers who did not (65.9% vs. 34.1%), while female faculty had a non-significant trend in the opposite direction (37.8% vs. 62.2%).
- Neither male nor female faculty showed any preference for whether or not fathers took extended parental leave.
These findings, supported by real-world academic hiring data, suggest advantages for women launching academic science careers. The perception of significant barriers to entry may discourage women from applying for STEM tenure-track assistant professorships, which might perpetuate the continued underrepresentation of women despite the positive attitudinal changes in faculty around hiring.
The authors conducted five randomized experiments and validation studies on 873 tenure-track faculty (439 male, 434 female) from biology, economics engineering, and psychology at 371 American universities. Economics and engineering were selected as two math-intensive fields in which women are underrepresented, while biology and psychology were selected as two non-math-intensive fields in which women are well represented. The authors compared the likelihood of identically qualified women and men being ranked first by individual faculty members for a tenure-track assistant professorship. In follow-up studies, the authors also varied six lifestyle profiles (single without children, married without children, married with children and stay-at-home spouse, married with children and spouse working outside home, married with children and spouse working inside home, and divorced with children). The set of experiments were intended to disentangle the relative effects on hiring preferences of applicant gender, applicant lifestyle, faculty gender, and faculty field.
In the main experiment (Experiment 1), 363 faculty members evaluated narrative summaries describing hypothetical female and male applicants for tenure-track assistant professorships who shared the same academic credentials and lifestyles (e.g., single without children, married with children). In Experiment 2, 144 faculty members evaluated narrative summaries describing candidates with the same academic credentials but nonmatching lifestyles to assess gender bias related to different lifestyles. In Experiment 3, 204 faculty members evaluated identical mothers (or in a separate condition, identical fathers) who either did or did not take a one-year parental leave in graduate school. Experiment 4 was a validation study among 35 engineering professors that used the same method as Experiment 1, except faculty members rated candidates’ full (CVs) rather than narrative summaries. Finally, in Experiment 5, 127 faculty members rated only a single applicant (female or male, with identical records) to ensure the findings of experiments 1–4 were not a result of socially desirable responding (i.e. endorsing gender diversity).