Fighting Gender Bias

Both individuals and their scientific research can be irreparably harmed by toxic workplaces. In fact, women leave the STEM workforce at twice the rate of men due to the bias, harassment, and inequity that they experience. AWIS believes employers have a responsibility to provide safe, equitable, and harassment-free workplaces so that women can achieve their full potential. Organizational leaders need to move beyond legal compliance and instead address the culture and climate issues that allow harassment to continue. Preventing harm and loss of talent within the workforce should be a priority for all. AWIS assembled this information to help educate organization leaders and the general public on the impacts of bias and how to fight it.

Why must leaders eliminate bias in the workplace?

Having bias-free workplaces and diverse perspectives provides better science, better experiences for individuals, and better outcomes for organizations – from employee engagement and satisfaction to increased innovation, and profitability. Conversely, environments filled with bias and harassment have the following negative impacts:

Photo by Jair Lázaro on Unsplash

Impacts on the individual

It can take the brain 3-4 hours to rid itself of stress hormones. Each time an employee feels discriminated against or experiences unconscious bias, these emotions can resurface.

Prolonged exposure to toxic stress can cause the body to respond in ways that have been linked to depression and autoimmune disorders like lupus and Crohn’s disease.

Workplace sexual harassment and sexual violence are both linked to a greater risk of high blood pressure in women — putting the women at risk for stroke, aneurysms, kidney disease, heart attacks and heart disease. (CNN)

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Impacts on the organization

Employee turnover and disengaged employees can be costly for organizations. A study by Coqual showed that when employees perceived negative biases at work:

  • 34 percent said they withheld new ideas and solutions
  • 80 percent said they do not recommend other people join
  • 48 percent reported searching for another job within the last six months
  • 31 percent said they plan to leave their organization within a year

This level of disengagement can lead to $450-550 billion in losses each year. (Forbes)

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Impacts on Science

Biases affect everything from hiring and advancement decisions, to who is patented, who is published, who wins awards, even what research is conducted.

More importantly, the world faces many challenges like ensuring clean water, finding and scaling alternative energy sources, preventing and curing illness.

To find the solutions, we must have a diverse workforce. Unfortunately, we lose bright, motivated, and passionate people from the workforce every year due to bias and harassment. It is critical to foster an environment where they can be successful.

Be part of changing the system

Be sure you know what bias looks like so you can help fight against it. Senior leaders of organizations need to build and maintain diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces. Adopting best practices for equitable pay, advancement, and recognition so that women feel safe, welcomed, and see themselves reflected in leadership.

As individuals learn more about equity issues, they will be able to reprogram their language and behavior to be more inclusive and move along the continuum below.

Four boxes along a contiuum. 1)Unconscious bias 2) conscious bias 3) conscious inclusion 4) unconscious inclusion

Actions for Individuals

Actions for HR / leaders

  • Conduct an assessment of policies, procedures, and climate.
  • Communicate and enforce anti-harassment and bullying policies.
  • Ensure women are included in leadership and meetings.
  • Develop mentorship and sponsorship programs.
  • Cast a wider net when hiring.
  • Establish flexible caregiving policies.
  • Ensure equitable promotions and award nominations.

Understanding unconscious bias

Many in society still hold stereotypes and implicit biases against women. Some women and girls have been directly told that they don’t belong in math and science classes. Others intuit this from being the only woman in their classes or not seeing themselves reflected in the photos in their textbooks.

Bias can also be unconscious or implicit. Our rational thoughts get overwritten with unconscious programming. For example, data shows that mothers are assumed to be less competent or dedicated than fathers. Other studies have shown that when there are two resumes which are identical except for the candidates’ names – Jennifer and John – John is more likely to get hired AND paid more. This reflects the bias of those who were involved in the hiring process. (Even when women were making the hiring decision!)

Women of color, non-binary people, and other marginalized groups face additional biases. Another study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that white sounding names received 50% more callbacks for interviews that Black sounding names.

Are you conscious of your biases?

The truth is, we are all biased. We are human, and that is how our brains work. The brain categorizes information to speed processing time. If you grow up only seeing men in lab coats when you visit the doctor, or see magazine ads, or watch TV – and someone asks you to picture a doctor or a scientist, you will likely call to mind a man.

The key is to understand your biases and actively work to counteract them. Take a bias test and ask yourself:

  • What percentage of your organization’s leaders are women? Had you noticed this before? Why or why not?
  • If you are a leader, what percentage of your team is women? Why or why not?
  • How are responsibilities divided among your team or family members? Is there a gendered division of labor? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever questioned a woman’s judgment? Would you have questioned a man in the same scenario? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever interrupted a woman or talked over her when she was speaking? Would you interrupt or talk over a man? Why or why not?
  • Do you ever comment on a woman’s clothing, makeup, or facial expressions? Would you make the same comment to a man? Why or why not?
  • What assumptions do you make about people? Do you assume mothers with small children would not be interested in attending happy hour, traveling to a conference, or applying for a promotion? When you see a ring on a woman’s finger, do you assume she is married to a man?

Gender bias is a recurring problem…

In the 1970s

  • In 1971, AWIS was formed to fight gender bias. That same year, AWIS sued the NIH on behalf of underrepresented women. Based on this lawsuit appointments to study sections and advisory groups were frozen until women were able to suggest names for the open positions.
  • In 1972, Title IX was enacted into law prohibiting federally funded educational institutions from discriminating against students or employees based on sex. This year will be its 50th anniversary.

In the 1990s

  • In 1995, women faculty in science at MIT documented their concerns with discrimination. Dean Charles Vest took immediate steps to redress inequities. Individual issues of space, resources, equipment, previous underpayment of pensions, and responses to outside offers were rapidly addressed. The inclusion of women in significant departmental activities was increased. Exceptional women were identified and recruited at all faculty ranks. One senior woman faculty stated “more progress was made for women faculty at MIT in one year than was accomplished in the previous decade.” Other universities joined with MIT in affecting change, but it was short lived.

More recently

  • In 2018, the National Academies shared a report that concluded gender harassment does real harm to individuals and STEMM fields, posing barriers to inclusion of all talent, causing many women (and some others) to leave the fields, and undermining excellence. [Note that harassment includes but is not limited to sexual harassment.] As a result, the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM was formed. AWIS is a founding member and work is ongoing.

Read our Statement on Gender Bias

Be part of the solution!