Unconscious bias: a barrier for women and STEM


Published: 5Mar2020

A blog by Gabrielle Brewer

“Unconscious bias” refers to behavioural tendencies influenced by making automatic and unintentional assumptions. One of these biases that is particularly relevant to a young, female scientist like myself, is the belief surrounding the aptitude of women for careers in science and technology. Toni Schmader, a University of British Columbia psychologist, along with researchers in France, found that both men and women on academic hiring committees tended to show a stronger association between “science” and “male”, rather than “science” and “female”. The reality is that less than 30% of all researchers world-wide are female; demonstrating that the stereotype does exist and is continually reinforced by a lack of female role models. Today, the world is turning its attention to women and girls for International Women’s Day, and I think it’s an apt time to honour the contributions of women in science and recognize that work still needs to be done to better empower a larger generation of female scientists.

In 2017, McGill engineering alumna, Jenni Sidey-Gibbons was selected for the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut training program and graduated to astronaut earlier this year. With NASA aiming to establish sustainable lunar exploration later this decade, Jenni could very well be the first woman to go to the moon. That same year, Dr. Joelle Pineau, associate professor at McGill University was appointed head of the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research Lab. More recently, Canadian physicist (& my childhood neighbour) Dr. Donna Strickland made international headlines for being the third female scientist to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

Although these recent examples are emblematic of women’s rising presence in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), high profile female researchers throughout history are still few and far between. This may be a result of the limited number of women in academia. Encouragingly, the stats on academic gender equality are approaching parity in Canada, where 40% of full-time faculty members are female—a huge jump from the meager 13% in 1970. Given that studies show gender-diverse workplaces are good for employee engagement, innovation, financial returns and reducing turnover, we all stand to benefit from this progress.

As with any problem, education is key. It is important for hiring committees to be dedicated to education on gender biases and stereotypes, and implementing strategies to ensure any implicit biases are not being carried into hiring decisions. It is also crucial that institutional initiatives for gender equality are committed to long term. We must continue to support early career female mentorship programs, as well as expose young children to STEM. Drs. Jess Wade and Claire Murray, two female researchers in England, single-handedly raised £23,000 to distribute a copy of the book “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story” to every state school library in the UK. To quote Wade and Murray, the book is a “powerful, impartial and thoroughly researched look” at the origins of dangerous gender stereotypes – a strong tool for teaching adolescent girls to stop questioning their own capabilities. Here at the GCRC, we’ve paired with Young Women in Bio, a non-profit organization that encourages young girls to explore careers in STEM, allowing them to experience firsthand what women in science do every day (spoiler alert… it’s not any different than men in science 😉). We need to remain committed to expanding these efforts because without varied role models, minorities in academia will continue to face discrimination at every stage of the process.

As a graduate student in life sciences, I feel fortunate to be surrounded everyday by female scientists who are incredible sources of support and inspiration. I am truly grateful for those who came before me, as it was their commitment to balancing the gender scales that led to the opportunities women have in science today. Empowering women isn’t just about helping women, it’s about making a better, more unified scientific community. By encouraging women to engage in STEM, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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