Gender Bias in Neuroscience: SfN’s San Diego Symposium

Many years after women were legally recognized as "people", gender bias is still alive and kicking, even in the fields which study it. (Wikimedia Commons User Tombe / Wikimedia Commons)

Many years after women were legally recognized as “people”, gender bias is still alive and kicking, even in the very fields which study it. (Wikimedia Commons User Tombe / Wikimedia Commons)

This weekend, San Diego hosted the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting. Among topics ranging from neural injury and plasticity to creativity, there was a symposium on gender bias in neuroscience. Several social scientists dissected the issue and discussed interventions on the effect of sexism in the scientific workplace.

Hannah Valantine of the Stanford School of Medicine was the first presenter. She pointed out that stereotypes often operate outside of our consciousness and are exhibited by a wide range of ages. For example, a group of university psychology professors who evaluated identical (fake) CVs chose to hire CVs with a male name more often than the ones with the female name. The “Jennifer” applicant was also estimated to be paid US$3,730 less than her male counterpart.  To combat this bias in the workplace, Valantine has developed the Recruitment to Expand Diversity and Excellence program in Stanford University to increase awareness about stereotypes.

Another look at bias came from presenter Peter Glick of Lawrence University, who broke sexism down into two forms: the clearly hostile and direct form, and its more subtle counterpart, “benevolent sexism.” This “BS” involves patronizing discrimination such as giving women less challenging assignments and more positive feedback – both of which can create a false sense of achievement. To complicate the matter, those that reject this treatment are found to be “less warm,” and their level of respect at work may decrease.  To help prevent BS, Glick encourages supervisors to provide an equal amount of criticism for men and women, something he calls “wise mentoring”.

Lastly, Muriel Niederle has been exploring something called the “opt-out phenomenon” in which women are choosing careers in science less and less frequently. Using an economics-based paradigm, she has collected data from Grade 9 classes in the Netherlands. Her data supports a strong correlation between a person’s level of competitiveness and a subsequent choice of more prestigious academic tracks. Investigating this trend further may help change how young girls look at neuroscience careers.

The prevalence of these biases in neuroscience is not only embarrassing to a field that has elucidated so much on pre-existing bias psychology, but also detrimental to the future of this science. This amounts to trying to address daunting neurological challenges while preferentially choosing talent from only half of the available pool! According to symposium chair Jennifer Raymond,  it will still take over 100 years at our current pace of hiring to have an environment in which 50% of assistant professors are women. Therefore, it should be the objective of every professor and researcher to choose and encourage the best workers… regardless of that person’s gender.


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