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Biases and effects that permeate the female career in academia

Category Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Gender discrimination is a persistent challenge in academia, felt in a variety of biases and systemic effects that undermine the careers of professionals who identify as women and non-binary around the world. This scenario is even more serious in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), which are historically dominated by men. Recognizing these biases and effects is the first step towards fighting against them and creating a more inclusive environment in higher education and research institutions.

In this article, we’ll explore 16 key challenges STEM women face in academia, providing a brief description and exemplifying their impacts. Our goal is to encourage a more in-depth discourse on this topic, seeking to foster a fair and equitable academic career for all genders.

Key Challenges

1. Leaky pipeline

Definition: The leaky pipeline is a phenomenon in which the participation of women in science decreases throughout their careers. This happens for a number of reasons, including lack of funding opportunities, gender discrimination, and prejudice against women in academia.

Example: For several reasons (which we will see throughout this article) women receive, on average, less funding for research than men, have a more limited network, supervise fewer students, and publish less. This discourages women, who often abandon their academic careers or don’t feel fulfilled in it.

2. Scissor effect

Definition: The scissor effect is a phenomenon that occurs when women are underrepresented at higher levels of an organization or professional field. The scissors effect is a consequence of the leaky pipeline effect.

Example: Women make up just 34% of leadership roles, according to a study by the McKinsey Global Institute. In the prestigious Brazilian research grant program PQ-CNPq, women are underrepresented in all fields, particularly at the higher levels.

3. Token bias

Definition: The token bias is a phenomenon in which an individual belonging to a minority group (in this case, usually women in predominantly male environments) is a “token” or “symbol”, that is, an exception in relation to the majority of the group. This individual usually stands out as the only representative of his group in a given situation or context, such as department meetings, conferences, funding committees, among others. Token bias occurs when the “token” individual is subjected to specific pressures, stereotypes, prejudices, and/or expectations due to their minority position.

Example: The “token woman” often feels the pressure to represent all women in the STEM environment in a positive and exemplary way, leading to a significant emotional and psychological burden. She may also feel isolated, affecting her sense of belonging and well-being, as well as having difficulty finding mentors or peers who understand her experiences and can support her career.

4. Representativeness bias

Definition: in an environment where there are more men than women, the tendency is for more ideas to be presented by men, due to the greater male representation in the place.

Example: in events, committees and meetings where there is a greater male representation, the tendency is that proportionally fewer ideas or opinions will be presented by the few women present, leading to the thought that women have fewer ideas than men. Furthermore, if the gathering is not well-conducted and presents a hostile environment for minority groups, this impression can be even more aggravated.

5. Cumulative advantage or Matthew Effect

Definition: the cumulative advantage is a phenomenon in which small inequalities at the beginning of a process become cumulatively larger over time; and/or where individuals or groups who already have a head start are more likely to gain additional success.

Example: prestigious researchers tend to receive more recognition and financial resources for their academic activities than lesser known researchers. A woman who faces pauses at the beginning of her career (e.g. maternity leave) tends to suffer from the accumulation of inequalities over the years, leading to less research funding, lower scientific production metrics, and lower academic recognition in comparison with male colleagues.

6. First-mover advantage

Definition: the first-mover advantage is an advantage that a person obtains for being the first to say, publish or manifest something. The cumulative advantage is often a consequence of the first-mover advantage.

Example: It is known that in predominantly male environments such as STEM, men typically have more access to mentoring and networking and thus participate in more productive teams. Upon leaving the PhD with more publications, they have more access to research funding, which in turn generates more publications and visibility, and so on, initiating the cumulative advantage effect.

7. Glass ceiling effect

Definition: The glass ceiling represents an invisible barrier that prevents women from going beyond a certain level in the hierarchy of institutions, whether in the private or public sectors. The glass ceiling metaphor has often been used to describe invisible barriers through which women can see elite positions but cannot achieve them.

Example: Several prestigious positions and seats, such as chancellors, deans, directors, funding judgment committees, and senior councils are occupied predominantly (if not exclusively) by men. The various effects and biases cited in this article serve as some of the reasons for this effect.

8. Double and triple burden effect

Definition: The double shift effect happens when women are primarily responsible for housework (or at least the mental planning of housework) in addition to their paid jobs. The triple shift involves paid employment, housework and child care.

Example: Many women have an able partner but, in addition to working in paid jobs, are primarily responsible for cleaning the house, grocery shopping, dividing  household chores between members of the household (and checking if they were completed), taking the children to and from school and extracurricular activities, for caring for elderly family members, among others. Often, in these cases, the partner “helps” with the housework or taking care of the children, but without having effective responsibility or leadership over the task. This phenomenon increases the physical and mental burden on women.

9. Motherhood bias

Definition: The motherhood bias concerns people’s judgment of women who become mothers. This prejudice is based on the collective assumption that motherhood has an impact on women’s productivity and capacity for commitment. This biased thinking is based on the belief that a woman will not be able to dedicate herself to the job like other colleagues, now that she has children.

Example: An example is the decision not to promote mothers with young children or not to select them to participate in work opportunities that involve travel, believing that they are less capable and/or have less available time.

10. Stereotype bias

Definition: Stereotype biases are the judgments that a person makes about an individual belonging to a certain group, not based on specific attributes or qualities of the individual, but on generalizations about the group. Gender bias is a type of stereotype bias that is based on gender expectations.

Example: Women often suffer from the stereotype of being less productive or capable than men. Phrases such as: “women drive poorly”, “women publish less”, “women are more sensitive”, “women do not know how to impose themselves or express themselves well” are examples of stereotypes. This can lead to women being underestimated or ignored in the workplace, being less recommended for leadership positions, or failing to receive funding for their research just because they are women, without a measure of their real professional capabilities.

11. Unconscious bias

Definition: Unconscious bias is a term used to describe prejudice or discrimination that occurs without the individual’s awareness, often arising from stereotype biases. The unconscious bias is a set of prejudices formed through experiences and social influences, and it can affect the judgment, perception, and behavior of the individual.

Example: According to research carried out by IBGE in 2019, women received, on average, 77.7% of the amount earned by men. Among the highest positions, such as directors and managers, women received 61.9% of men’s earnings. This occurs because unconscious bias often leads people to believe that men are more competent and qualified, and therefore deserve to earn more for their work.

12. Affinity bias

Definition: Affinity bias represents a person’s preference for individuals who are more like them in terms of ideology, attitudes, appearance, religion, etc. This pattern causes a tendency for people to better judge individuals more similar to them. Therefore, in a predominantly male environment, such as STEM areas, the tendency is for men to be better judged and more heard.

Example: Men who only seek male advisors and men who do not invite women to be part of research teams.

13. Confirmation bias

Definition: Confirmation bias is a tendency to seek information that confirms existing beliefs and ignore or reject information that contradicts them. This bias can be caused by a variety of factors, including personal experiences, cultural beliefs, and emotional state.

Example: One specific occasion of a woman who is emotionally shaken can be used to confirm the gender bias that “women are more sensitive than men”.

14. Age bias

Definition: The age bias is used to describe prejudice or discrimination that occurs based on a person’s age.

Example: Younger women or those in the reproductive phase are less indicated for positions and commissions because people imagine that they have less knowledge or that they will soon become mothers. Due to this fact, women in the early stages of their careers often change their style of speaking or dressing to appear more experienced. Older women also suffer from age bias because people believe that their mental abilities are impaired.

15. Salary gap

Definition: The salary gap is a phenomenon in which women earn less than men, even if they have the same level of experience and qualifications. This is due to a number of factors, including unconscious bias, representativeness bias, affinity bias, occupational segregation, and gender discrimination and expectations.

Example: A study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) showed that women earn, on average, 31% less than men in similar jobs around the world.

16. Gender division of labor

Definition: The gender division of labor or occupational segregation refers to the phenomenon in which certain professions or sectors are predominantly occupied by men, while others are predominantly occupied by women. This occupational segregation often leads to wage differences, as jobs considered “feminine” tend to be less valued and remunerated than those considered “masculine”.

Example: Careers in caring, such as nursing and infant teaching, are predominantly occupied by women. Areas such as law and engineering are normally occupied by men – and are considered by a large part of society as having greater social prestige than those care-related ones.

Final Thoughts

These 16 effects and biases represent only a fraction of the many that exist. The impact of gender inequalities on women’s careers is vast and complex, and our selection of examples reflects just a few of the many ways in which these disparities manifest themselves. We recognize that there are a myriad of other challenges facing us and other minority groups, and it is essential that we continue to explore, discuss, and fight them. To this purpose, effective public policies that address these issues comprehensively are imperative, as well as raising awareness, so that everyone can play an active role in promoting gender equality, leading to a fairer and more inclusive society.

Image by Freepik.