Stereotypes about others’ gender and race can influence the way we perceive and judge them. Such biases have been shown to affect employers’ hiring decisions, even when evaluating “fake” but identical resumes. A 2019 study examines how intersecting stereotypes about gender and race influence professors’ perceptions of fictitious post-doctoral candidates applying for positions in different STEM departments at universities.
In science, as the study shows, there is still a tendency to view women as less competent and hireable than comparable men, but fields that are more male-dominated (i.e., physics) appear to be more discriminating than those that are more gender-balanced (i.e., biology). Meanwhile, Black and Latinx PhDs, especially those who are women, tend to be viewed as less competent or hireable than comparable White and Asian PhDs.
We’ve known there to be racism and sexism in the academy for a long time, but what is unique about this study is that the authors took an intersectional approach to their analyses. For instance, instead of just looking at the effects of race (i.e., black vs white applicants) or gender (i.e., men vs women) on professors’ ratings of applicants’ hireability, likability, and competence, the authors made sure to analyze the effects of intersecting identities (i.e., Black/Latinx/Asian women, Black/Latinx/Asian men in comparison to white men/women) on such outcomes. Their results highlight how understanding the underrepresentation of women and racial minorities in STEM requires examining how racial and gender biases intersect.
What I found most interesting about the study’s findings is that even though physics and biology are both STEM fields, the discrimination against women was found more so in physics, where women are severely underrepresented compared to biology (Women earn a little more than half of doctorate degrees in biology but only one-fifth of the doctorate degrees in physics). Similarly, the study also found that Asian applicants were not discriminated against compared to black and Latinx candidates, which further supports the point about representation in STEM fields making a difference in how job candidates of different groups are perceived and rated for those jobs.
These findings raise some important questions and implications about gender and racial discrimination in STEM. Would women be more accepted in currently male-dominated professions if those professions were more gender-balanced? Do women and some racial minorities appear "out of place" in physics because they are underrepresented in that field as it stands, thus leading to hiring biases? Are women relatively accepted in the life sciences because such fields have become more “feminized” over the years and, thus, are perceived as “easier” to excel at?