Studies: Women Face Bias in Higher Education

While an undergraduate electrical engineering and computer science student, Colleen Lewis says her adviser tried to talk her out of her choice of major.

"The argument I got every time I told an adult while I was in college that I liked computer science was, 'Oh, Colleen, you won't like sitting in a basement, coding until three in the morning. You're a people person,'" she says.

Lewis, now an assistant professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd College, says she believes that people wanted her to be happy professionally and that, in their eyes, she "didn't fit their mold of who a computer scientist is."

"When I ask you to picture a computer scientist, it should be exceptionally difficult for you because there's such variation," Lewis says. "What's that person's height and weight and gender? There should be all this variation that makes it impossible for you to picture one."

While Lewis was in college, she says an antisocial white or Asian male was a stereotypical identity of a computer scientist, and, since then, the macho "brogrammer" has become another.

She says she remembers, as an undergraduate at the University of California—Berkeley, asking a white male friend whom she describes as gregarious and not entirely fitting the mold, if anyone had discouraged him from majoring in computer science. When he replied in the negative, she thought, "That's an awesome privilege to never have someone try and talk you out of the thing you want to do."

Lewis was the recipient of the Denice Denton Emerging Leader ABIE Award, presented by the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology, which also produced the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, an event in Houston this week offering panel discussions, keynotes, networking receptions and other programming. The gender gap, identity and bias in tech were some of the issues addressed during GHC.

On Friday, Therese Huston, faculty development consultant at the Center for Faculty Development at Seattle University, presented two studies on gender bias in higher education during a session titled "More Interested in Josh's Ideas Than Jessica's? Breaking Those Biased Habits."

For the 2015 study "What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway Into Organizations," lead author Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania, along with Modupe Akinola of Columbia University and Dolly Chugh of New York University, contacted more than 6,500 professors from 89 disciplines and 259 institutions with an email that differed only by the signature of the sender. In the email, a prospective doctoral candidate requests a 10-minute meeting with a professor to inquire about research opportunities.

Huston says the signatures varied by the gender of the name and the implied race and ethnicity of the prospective student. The findings revealed that white male students received the greatest number of replies with the most bias present in business schools. Huston says in business, 82 percent of white males received replies compared to 62 percent of women and minorities, and for engineering and computer science, 69 percent of white males received replies versus 59 percent of females and minorities. One might expect that women faculty would be more responsive to female students, but in this study, they were not, she says.

Regarding Milkman's findings, Huston says: "It's a disturbing pattern that we think white men have more potential, and that white men are more worth our time, and I think that's true in society in general, but it's especially disturbing to think that this is true in academia, in the ivory tower where we expect that people are above bias."

In the second study Huston discussed at GHC, "Gender Differences in Recognition for Group Work," Heather Sarsons, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, explored whether there is gender bias among faculty when they evaluate their peers. Huston says Sarsons based her findings on 40 years' worth of economics departments' data on tenure rates. The findings, published in 2015, show that 77 percent of the men up for tenure received it, versus 52 percent of women. Huston says there is a correlation between the number of publications a faculty member has produced and the likelihood of being granted tenure.

On a positive note, Huston says that a female economist who is the sole author of a paper has the same likelihood as a male faculty member of receiving tenure. However, she adds, writing in academia without a collaborator, especially in economics, is rare.

For men, each additional co-coauthored paper he produced increased his chances of tenure by 8 percent, and the gender of the collaborator was inconsequential. For women, by contrast, if they wrote with a male collaborator, their chances of the promotion were without increase, but being the sole author or co-authoring with a woman meant her chances of tenure increased by 9 percent per paper, Huston says.

"What's happening here is when a man collaborates and he writes with other people, he'll get the credit, but, if a woman collaborates, basically, the guy is still getting the credit," Huston says.

The unfortunate part, Huston says, is that since economics is a male-dominated field, most of the potential collaborators are men, especially if someone wants to work with a senior economist. "It means we have fewer women being promoted, and also a bias that men's contributions are worth more, like we found with Milkman's study," Huston says.

Huston says that faculty members need to recognize that they have this unconscious bias. "We need to acknowledge that you can be a good person, you can have good intentions, and still have this unconscious bias because we need to actively work against it."

"Much of this research is depressing, but it's also validating," she says. "When women say that the system is biased against them, people often roll their eyes, but evidence like this confirms that they aren't imagining things."

Huston says about two-thirds of her Friday audience was in industry, and one woman asked how to ensure she received credit for her work when she is the only female on her team and at most meetings. They talked about the amplification strategy used by the White House where another woman present will repeat her female colleague's point or contribution. In this instance, the woman at GHC said that she has a male ally, and Huston says the suggested strategy was for him to ask her to elaborate rather than simply restating her words to avoid the possibility of him receiving credit.

Among other issues discussed: women tend to be penalized for self-promotion whether it's about taking credit for ideas or asserting that they deserve a raise, and Huston says one way potentially to reduce the negative reaction is to clarify one's role in a private, one-on-one setting with a supervisor. The importance of reducing ambiguity whenever possible was another point raised; generally, if it is unclear who deserves credit for a team project contribution, Huston says people tend to fall on the stereotype of a man being responsible for the intellectual heavy lifting.

Other researchers have focused on the issue of female role models in academia, Huston says, and that has a significant impact on someone's decision to continue in a field. If only 52 percent of women are receiving tenure in Sarsons' study, then there will be fewer female than male role models, she notes.

On Thursday, Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that runs coding programs for young women, and Accenture released research titled "Cracking the Gender Code: Get 3X More Women in Computing." The report indicates that female mentors and role models are instrumental in female college students' decision to pursue a computing degree or career.

The research was presented at a GHC panel, "Leap Forward: What Radical Research Tells Us About the Gender Gap in Tech," with Reshma Saujani, founder and chief executive officer of Girls Who Code Julie Sweet, group chief executive, North America, at Accenture; Rebecca Minkoff, co-founder of Rebecca Minkoff, the fashion label; and Candice Morgan, diversity and inclusion leader at Pinterest.

GHC attendee Annie Kim, a senior computer science student at Carnegie Mellon University, was a Girls Who Code teaching assistant the summer after her second year of college.

Kim says she met a lot of women in tech and fellow teachers in the training program, and that boosted her confidence. She learned "there are many women who are working really hard to do whatever they like no matter what others say and they're not letting others define them just because they're women."

At the beginning of her college career, she says she struggled academically since she had no prior exposure to computer science. When a male classmate told her the reason the university had accepted her was to close the department's gender gap, she says she couldn't ignore the comment because of how she perceived her abilities at the time. She says she also did not receive encouragement from her professors, and took a leave of absence.

During that period, she studied the programming language Python, and realized she liked its problem solving aspect and that she did want to pursue the computer science degree. She had to learn certain concepts the following summer so that she could teach 20 girls participating in the seven-week summer program at Honest Company. After the girls successfully completed their final projects, Kim says she gained self-assurance.

Alexandria Heston, a senior computer science and informatics student at Indiana University–Bloomington, is another GHC attendee. While she was growing up, due to implicit gender biases, she felt it was expected for her to be compassionate, modest and artistic, she wrote in an email to U.S. News.

"There was no specific person or statement for excluding me from STEM studies, but just general representation of science and technology were men. My education was extensive and wonderful, and I was blessed to have the opportunities to study in the culture that facilitated growth - but in every class I attended I learned about men," she said.

Heston wrote that she didn't learn about Grace Hopper, Anita Borg, Ada Lovelace and Adele Goldstine, female computer scientists who made significant contributions to the field, but about Albert Einstein when it came to science and innovation, John Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt in business and economics and Mark Zuckerberg and Alan Turing as modern technologists.

Heston said she feels she must prove to others that she belongs in her field, and that despite her university's efforts at inclusion with campus groups for women in computing, for example, incoming female students question if they have what it takes to succeed in the discipline since they are aware of the boys' club that exists in tech as a result of conscious and unconscious bias against diversity.

"I don't want classes, movies, or news articles on Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs," Heston wrote. "I want classes and media that recognize the historical significance of women in computing and science."

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