“We can account for all the yeah-buts,” Hebl says, “but we still have this bias, and we need to do something about it.”
One solution is to give women more power over inviting colloquium speakers. The team found that when those committees are chaired by women, half of the invited speakers are women; that’s compared to just 30 percent when the committees are chaired by men. “I’m not sure if these are explicit bias, where male chairs are saying we don’t want women,” Hebl says. “It’s more about the people who they think about, who are in their networks. And maybe women just know other women in the field.”
But in male-dominated fields, “if we take the few women we have and we put them on all the committees, we’re overwhelming them with experiences that aren’t necessarily helpful to their own progress,” Hebl says. Ultimately, “the burden falls on male allies. We need to train men to be aware of these biases. And we should put women on the important committees—the ones that decides who’s going to be our new board member, not the one that decides where we have our holiday party.”
Yael Niv, from Princeton, who created a site to monitor gender biases at neuroscience conferences, says that her department solved the problem of all-male colloquia by requiring faculty to nominate a certain base rate of women as possible speakers. “In this way, we encourage everyone to think a bit deeper about their nominations, and cast a slightly wider net,” she says. “The results have been colloquia with equal numbers of men and women in recent years, and a wider, more interesting array of scientific ideas that we’re exposed to.” And even if committee members struggle to think of female speakers, several scientists have now compiled lists of possible names in microbiology, astronomy, physics, evolution, political science, neuroscience, and more.
“While finding more women gatekeepers may help get more women colloquium speakers, will it actually solve the whole problem?” asks Kelly Ramirez from Colorado State University, cofounder of 500 Women Scientists. “Probably not. There are so many things that can make science a toxic or difficult environment for women.” When seeking jobs, women are viewed as being less competent than identical male applicants. They’re offered lower salaries and fewer opportunities for mentorship, and they’re given shorter letters of recommendation with more hedging words. When teaching, they’re rated more negatively. When simply trying to work, they face high levels of sexual harassment and assault.
The solution, Ramirez says, is to “build a strong and large network so whatever the challenge, women scientists will have a network to turn to. And we need to speak up, set examples, and hold people and institutions accountable.”
All of these barriers are particularly profound for women of color, who face a double whammy of discrimination because of both their race and gender. It’s telling that Hebl’s team wanted to look at whether ethnicity deepens the gender disparity among colloquium speakers, but with the universities they looked at, they couldn’t find enough professors of color to get a statistically strong sample.
* This article originally attributed quotes from Michelle Hebl to Christine Nittrouer. We regret the error.