There Is a Gender Bias When It Comes to Hiring Men and Women Who Are Good at Math


The economist Larry Summers famously suggested once that so few women become scientists and engineers because of discrimination, preference and even differences in innate ability.

In a paper published Monday in the Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences, three business school professors tried to isolate the first of those reasons. They set up a lab experiment in which “managers” hired people to complete mathematical tasks that, on average, men and women performed equally well.

With no information about the job “applicants” other than their appearance, the managers (of both sexes) were twice as likely to hire a man over a woman.

In Economix, Shaila Dewan looks at a study showing that women who can do math often don’t get hired because of discrimination bias. Women have a tendency to downplay their abilities while men have a tendency to “boast,” but even when managers were given hard data about the applicants’ abilities to perform tasks, “Managers were still one-and-a-half times more likely to hire a man. When they knowingly chose the lower-performing candidate, two-thirds of the time they were choosing the male applicant.”

So how can they correct this? Managers were given an “implicit association test,” or I.A.T., to measure their gender bias when it comes to math and science.

“Anyone can do an I.A.T., and if they know that they are biased they should correct for that,” one of the professors of the study said.

Photo: Jeremy Piccola

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13 Comments / Post A Comment

ThatJenn (#916)

Ughhhh I have lots of feelings and rage about this, as a very mathy lady who loves to math (and also to words).

I mean feelings and rage about my personal experience, of course – the findings are unsurprising.

garli (#4,150)

I don’t want to talk crazy, but maybe women should stop downplaying their abilities? I’m not saying it will fix all problems because there’s plenty of sexists left in the world but I work with 80% men and none of them think I can’t do math because I’m a girl.

Liz the Lemur (#3,125)

@garli I don’t want to talk crazy, but maybe women and girls have been conditioned to believe that in order to gain social approval they have to appear “less threatening” so as to not upset men and their egos? Maybe girls are constantly told that math isn’t “for” girls. It’s the kind of thing that starts in classrooms – when girls aren’t called on as much as boys, it’s easy to learn that math skills aren’t as valued as looks and charm. Source

I agree that on an individual level, those women who are aware of the issue and have the confidence to own their abilities should do so. But asking the population that has been (and still is) put down should be a smaller part of the solution than asking those who are biased against women to examine their decisions.

guenna77 (#856)

@garli studies have shown that women who DO play up their abilities – like men – and who negotiate – like men – are also less likely to get the job than men. we’re basically damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

garli (#4,150)

@lemur_niemer In a job interview? Specifically? Even if in the rest of your life you down play your abilities a job interview is where you tell people how good you are at things.

Allison (#4,509)

@garli right but assuming everyone plays up their abilities, the job is more likely to go to a man because of the inherent bias this study is about.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@garli Lololol omg your advice is so complex and sound, thank you! You fixed gender bias

garli (#4,150)

@aetataureate You’ve mastered sarcasm font! You win the internet.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@garli Oh, okay, I see, I’ll rephrase: Your snarky-ass anecdata doesn’t mean jack, isn’t helpful, and makes you seem like the kind of “girl” who tells guys she’s “not like the other girls.”

Also wow, the shoutout about sarcasm after your shiteatingly condescending “I don’t want to talk crazy” is a BOLD CHOICE

garli (#4,150)

@aetataureate Totally legit assumptions. Except not even close. I’ve never said anything like that in my life. My college had so many female physics majors (myself included) that they sent people out to study us all the time. Our conclusion? Who knows, we all liked physics and wanted to go to this school. It wasn’t huge, maybe 9 out of 20 people?

My closest friends from grad school are women who have STEM advanced degrees and for the most part are working in technical fields. (some aren’t, but some men from the same programs I’m good friends with also aren’t working in technical fields)

As a grad student I had a science outreach fellowship that was specifically aimed at encouraging more diversity in STEM fields. It was supposed to have a one year limit but they asked me back for a second year based on performance.

I have a full time job but on the weekends I tutor my friend’s daughters who struggle with math. I’d rather not, but they had trouble finding female tutors and asked me as a favor. (I’m not a saint, I make them pay me).

I’m not saying society has no bias against women in technical fields I’m saying that as a woman in a technical field I need to get out there with confidence and kick ass and laugh at men who think my lady brain can’t handle things.

la peagoise (#6,003)

Oooh relevant to my life. The company I’m co-oping at right now (or interning rather) has 1 female engineer (2, but one is about to take a new job at another location). This despite the fact that new hires come almost exclusively from the co-op pool and the co-op hiring manager does a REALLY good job of ensuring diversity (lots of races, well-balanced between men and women considering it’s engineering).

Now, this is manufacturing, so maybe not as many women want to work in an environment where they have to wear pants every day and have to wear shoes that cover their entire foot (I don’t!). But still. One female engineer.

It’s for this reason that I look really hard at companies I want to work for and make sure that women are well-represented. Because I don’t want to be fighting sexism my entire career (I mean, more than I already will be as a second-career lady engineer with degrees in artsy things).

It sucks, basically.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@la peagoise Ahhh you’re right that it’s kind of a snake-eating-its-own-tail situation — do you want to be one of the only women and thus tasked with being a token and/or “trailblazer” forever, or is it better to find a place where they already welcome women? Tough question relevant to my career also.

Math is not a guy’s subject – it is a universal language. Borrowing from ‘Mean Girls,’ math is the same in every country. It should know no color of skin or gender. Those who are still enforcing that math-should-only-be-taught-by-men mantra are overtly insecure individuals. – Marl of Mymathdone.com

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