Gender bias in academic recruitment

Gender bias: what are we talking about? | Gender bias & academic recruitment | References

Gender bias: what are we talking about?

Our brains automatically record and categorise other people based on their gender, alongside other characteristics such as age, skin colour, etc. These are what we call “stereotypes”. This cognitive process of categorisation allows us to sort and reduce the mass of information we receive, interact and take decisions rapidly. It is a natural, unconscious mechanism.


Nonetheless, stereotypes can have negative consequences, since most of the time they are erroneous: they simplify to an extreme degree the groups they claim to describe and ignore individual complexity and diversity within the group. Critical reflection is needed to challenge them.


Gender stereotypes relate to socially constructed beliefs about femininity and masculinity, and the distinct skills and characteristics men and women are supposed to have. For example, men are generally believed to be more brilliant and more competent than women, with a rational mind and a propensity for leadership. Women, on the other hand, are viewed as less competent, more emotional and caring.


Gender stereotypes of this kind not only create a difference between men and women, but also suggest the existence of a hierarchical relationship in how these differences are assessed. As a consequence, female candidates have intrinsically fewer chances than men of being perceived as fulfilling the criteria of academic excellence and leadership associated with professorship. 

Gender bias & academic recruitment

Gender stereotypes are problematic insofar as they interfere with the selection criteria established for recruitment and the candidates’ supposed merits. They can lead to biased decisions, which run counter to the meritocratic and egalitarian principles advocated by the university.


For instance, in one study in the United States (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012), science professors in US universities were asked to assess an application for a job as head of laboratory. Each assessor (both male and female) was given the same application, but the research team varied the gender of the candidate by randomly assigning them either mal or female first name. The professors viewed the application with a male first name as significantly more competent than the same application with female first name. Both male and female assessors also chose a higher salary for the male applicant. The same result was found, regardless of the gender of the person assessing the application.


Everyone is influenced by gender stereotypes. Gender biases do not emanate from a desire to harm a particular group but from a cognitive reflex. It is therefore essential to be aware of this when taking on the role of evaluator.

A double standard of assessment

The notion of a “double standard” refers to differences in how individuals’ competences are assessed based on the fact that they belong to a particular social category (Foschi, 2000). Characteristics such as gender, social class or ethnicity can result in differentiated treatment. People who belong to a group that is less highly valued or has lower status are assessed more strictly. Conversely, individuals in a social category that is more highly valued are assessed more positively, and against lower standards.


Since the competences that are generically attributed to women are not those that are valued in academic careers, women tend to be viewed as less competent than men in this area and their applications may be assessed more strictly.


A Swedish study based on evaluations of applications for medical research fellowships illustrates this phenomenon (Wennerås & Wold, 1997). At equal scientific productivity, the candidates' scientific competence was considered lower than that of the candidates. The results show that to obtain an equivalent score, women had to be 2.5 times more productive than men. An American study based on the professional careers of 500 management scientists confirms these results: at equivalent performance, women receive less recognition for their work (Treviño et al., 2015). Ten years after graduation, female researchers are significantly less likely to be professors than male researchers. These analyses take into account the influence of a series of factors such as years of experience, number of publications, discipline, mobility and parenting.


In addition, research based on reports from UNIL presentation committees shows that similar characteristics among female and male candidates for faculty positions can lead to different interpretations (Carvalho, 2010). For example, a young candidate will be considered inexperienced while a candidate of the same age will be presented as dynamic and promising. Extension work will be considered unscientific for women but, on the men's side, as socially beneficial.


To counter the discriminatory effect of the double standard of assessment, it is important to define a priori the criteria sought for a position and apply them according to the same standards to all candidates.

Think leader, think male?

When we picture a leader, our stereotypes tend to mean that we think of a man rather than a woman. A simple experience illustrates this phenomenon: when a woman chairs a meeting where there are also men, she is not systematically identified as the head. But in the opposite case, the leader is immediately identified. Why?


Traditionally, the characteristics associated with leadership, such as confidence, ambition and rationality, are seen as male traits. Conversely, sensitivity, cooperation and empathy are more often associated with women. A woman who displays a typically masculine leadership style transgresses gender norms and exposes herself to criticism: she may then be judged negatively, because she is viewed as unsympathetic, aggressive, etc., which in turn affects her career development prospects.


At university, excellence is built on the basis of elements from male backgrounds and in the collective imagination, the scientist is typically a man rather than a woman. Gender stereotypes of this kind risk introducing bias into recruitment procedures for faculty posts. Not all men are necessarily ambitious and not all women are necessarily sensitive. Moreover, characteristics that are viewed as typically feminine, such as sensitivity, cooperation and empathy are also advantages for faculty posts. The university has a lot to gain from these competences being valued in both female and male candidates.

Gendered representations of science and excellence

Science and excellence are traditionally associated with the figure of a male researcher. If we think about famous scientists, we are more likely to picture a man than a woman. We are also more likely to associate genius and “pure” intelligence with men than women. Moreover, the “typical” scientific career reflects a male career path, where research activities are intensive and uninterrupted, and progression is linear. However, this ideal puts female researchers at a disadvantage, as they are more likely to experience interruptions for family reasons, work on temporary or part-time contracts, or have relatively high teaching workloads. That does not mean the quality of their application is necessarily lower. Questioning the linear career as the only model for success is a useful approach for ensuring that the merits of both male and female candidates are examined more equitably.


Questioning the linear career as the unique model of success is useful to take into account the merits of candidates in a more equitable way. Moreover, an analysis of the trajectories of European Research Fellowship (ERC) winners has shown that the linear academic career reflects only part of the professional careers of researchers (Vinkenburg, Herschberg, Connolly, & Fuchs, 2014). The other fellows - who are just as excellent - followed unconventional paths, sometimes marked by interruptions. By penalising alternative trajectories a priori, there is a risk that quality applications, particularly from women, will be rejected.

The spectre of motherhood

The figure of the scientist, built around the idea of total, uninterrupted devotion to research, is at odds with the image and societal norms associated with parenthood, which is also viewed as an intensive activity, particularly for mothers. During recruitment procedures, supposed or actual family responsibilities are often raised when examining applications from women, but are invisible in analyses of applications from men. Indeed, fatherhood is not viewed as involving as significant a commitment as motherhood.

The participants in one study assessed the application of two people of the same gender who were equally qualified, one of whom was a parent while the other was not. The experiment revealed that mothers were penalised on an analysis of several criteria, including perceived competence and the initial salary recommended. Fathers were not penalised, and in some cases benefited from a more positive assessment than non fathers.


Female researchers are viewed as potential mothers, for whom parenthood will have a negative impact on their scientific output. Among the younger generations, male and female researchers have comparable levels of scientific productivity. When we take into account the number of actual years of research, the bias introduced by the phenomenon of self-referencing, and the position and institutional resources available to individuals, the differences in publication between men and women disappear.

The preference for “people like us”

Homophily is the mechanism that means we are likely to feel more comfortable and form relationships with people whose characteristics are similar to our own, and with whom we can identify (for example, in terms of gender, age, social class, or national or ethnic origin). This mechanism plays a role in recruitment procedures, as the nominee is a future colleague, with whom the members of the commission will probably have to work. As a result, there is a risk that applications with a similar profile to that of the assessors (both male and female) will tend to be viewed more favourably, regardless of their academic merit, and to the detriment of other high-quality applications. Ensuring that the composition of the standing committees is sufficiently diverse is therefore particularly important to avoid this kind of “gatekeeping”.


Homosociality implies, for example, that people of the same sex form informal friendly and/or professional ties with each other and are part of the same network of acquaintances. Networking is an important aspect for the advancement of the academic career, it allows you to make yourself known and obtain support when positions become available. Since senior university posts tend to be occupied by men, female candidates tend to be at a disadvantage as a result of these dynamics, because they are less well integrated into the social networks concerned and are less able to count on such forms of support.


The presence of women on recruitment committees is important to make recruitment more egalitarian and reduce the effects of homophilia and homosociality. But this is not enough and another phenomenon, known as "queen bee", can also influence the procedure. Indeed, senior women who have succeeded in a male environment such as the university may tend to distance themselves from junior women, have stereotypes about them and deny the existence of discrimination. This phenomenon is particularly present among senior women who have experienced many obstacles in their own professional careers. In conclusion, it should not be assumed that female members of a recruitment committee will automatically be sensitive to gender stereotypes. Raising awareness among all members of the commission - men and women - is therefore essential.

The solo and halo effects

The solo effect refers to being the only member of a social category in a group, for example, a woman in a group of men. The person in the group who is in a minority is disadvantaged, since they become particularly visible: their work is judged more critically, differences from the majority group are accentuated and they are restricted to stereotypical roles. Such a situation can affect the well-being of the person in the minority social group, and it becomes an alibi - this is called "tokenism".


Moreover, the performance of female candidates, for example, during an interview with the standing committee, can be affected when the committee consists solely of men. In one laboratory experiment (Sekaquaptewa & Thompson, 2002), men and women were placed in a “solo” situation during an oral examination. The women performed less well than the men when confronted with an audience made up exclusively of people of the opposite sex. In another study (2003), the authors found that this effect was more marked if the competences associated with the task were stereotypical (such as mathematical skills, which tend to be more associated with men).


In the context of faculty recruitment, the solo effect means that a single application from a woman in a pool of applications from men risks being defined solely by that particular trait (the fact of being a women becomes the outstanding characteristic of the application) and may be assessed on the basis of gender stereotypes. Conversely, applications from men will be assessed based on the traits and qualities that make them distinctive. In addition, the performance of candidates, for example during an interview with the recruitment committee, may be affected when the committee is composed only of men.


The halo effect introduces another type of cognitive bias: based on a general positive impression of an individual or their competences in a particular area, there is an unjustified tendency to assume they have skills in other areas.


In the context of faculty recruitment, the consequence of this mechanism is a more favourable view of certain applications that make a good impression overall, which have a good reputation, or which are particularly excellent from the perspective of one of the assessment criteria. Given that women are exposed to gender bias, are judged according to double standards and generally have a more limited support network than men, there is a risk that their application will be viewed less positively. Being aware of this mechanism is important: a candidate who has been recommended because of their excellent network will tend to be evaluated more positively for other assessment criteria (for example, scientific production or teaching). It is therefore crucial to consider each selection criterion independently and assess the qualities of each application and the nuances that characterise them.


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