Skip to content

Molly Carnes: Gender bias persists in academia

Think women have achieved equal footing in academia? Molly Carnes, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, begs to differ.

The cofounder of the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute will be on the Stanford campus next Thursday, Oct. 21, to explain how assumptions about gender continue to shape institutional landscapes. Carnes' talk, "Gender Equity in Academic Medicine and Science: Time for Institutional Change," will run from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the 2nd floor conference room of the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge. Registration is open to all Stanford students, trainees and faculty.

Carnes was kind enough to preview her talk with us in this Q&A.

Is gender bias in the life sciences any worse than it is in other academic disciplines?

That's a good question. In biological sciences, because we're beyond just a small minority of women, it at least confirms that the problem is not a pipeline problem as you could potentially say it is in math or engineering. In the biological, social and medical sciences, we're way beyond being able to say that. The pipeline is flush with women, and at every level, where women may be evaluated or have the opportunity for advancement, they're disadvantaged.

Can you give me a specific example from your own life, when as a woman you felt disadvantaged in your career?

I try not to focus on the negative, but I have had to go through three rather humiliating gender pay equity exercises, in which I was being paid considerably less than my male colleagues with fewer accomplishments. Each time it took a full year to argue for a raise. And that happens all the time. Study after study shows, even where males and females may have pretty comparable salaries at the entry level, as you get further along in the career, more toward leadership and high status positions, the salary differential becomes greater and greater. It's just harder to see an accomplished woman as accomplished given the fact that gender is such a powerful status cue in our society.

In a 1999 study (.pdf), academic psychologists were handed a curriculum vitae that was assigned either a woman's or a man's name. The psychologists, whether male or female, were more likely to say they would hire the individual when the CV carried a man's name. What does it say about the nature of bias that women discriminate against women?

It shows that bias is ordinary. We are all members of a society where things that are associated with men are of higher status. And even if we don't consciously endorse or embrace the stereotypes, we're all aware of them. Stereotypically, men are strong and independent and decisive; stereotypically, women are more docile and supportive and nice and gentle. So even though we know men and women who don't fall into those norms, those stereotypes exist, and they creep into our decision making - particularly if there's any ambiguity. Human minds are wonderful and efficient about functioning on partial information. It's what puts us at the top of the food chain.

I'm a physician, and I tell physicians, the fact that you can function most of the time on partial information is what makes you a good doctor. But, in certain circumstances, those same processes can fail our conscious intention.

Just this week, you won a three-year grant to develop a video game that will "place faculty situations where they can recognize the self-defeating nature of implicit bias." What's the single best action universities can take right now to improve gender equity on campus?

Because we're talking about a change in cultural norms and attitudes of our whole institution, you have to approach it as you would any kind of institutional change. So it has to be hit from multiple angles: You have to have leaders saying the matter is of urgent importance, and make sure they have the resources to follow through; and you have to work at changing the individual attitudes and behaviors of the people who drive change at an institution, which on campus would be the faculty.

When will you know you've been successful?

When the composition of all of our departments and leadership mimics the demographics of our country.

Popular posts