Gender Bias in Science

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft published in 1792 and which explores women’s education, is considered by many to be the starting point of the feminist movement. It was not until the early 20th century that women could access higher education, thanks to the first wave of feminism. Though problems of gender inequities in higher education persist. Even with programs designed to include women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), in 2021—229 years after Wollstonecraft’s publication—women represent just 35% of the US STEM workforce (Hechtman et al, 2018). Although more PhD degrees are received by women than by men in life sciences, women progress less through academic ranks and receive only 31% of U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants.  

Gender bias starts at an early age. Many articles (Bian et al, 2017) describe how 6-year-old boys report thinking that men can be “really, really smart” while girls are less likely to think the same about women. The same studies report that children, regardless of gender, expect women to be nicer than men. This suggests that gendered notions of brilliance start very early and determine the current and future interests of children.  

In school, when exams were graded anonymously, girls outscored boys on math tests. However, when teachers knew the names of the students to whom the tests belonged, boys outscored girls (Lavy & Sand, 2018). It may seem that grading a math test is objective, but these data show how gender bias affects results that society considers free of subjective determinations. At university, biology students were asked to identify classmates that were “strong in understanding classroom material;” male students identified other male students over better-performing women. Although it is well known that both men and women are gender biased, in this study men were 19 times more biased than women (Grunspan et al, 2016).  

Gender Affects Salaries 

Many studies (Casad, et al; Roper, 2019; Jagsi, 2012) show how male gender was linked to higher salary in academia though not justified with worse job evaluations. Women actually receive better job evaluations than men but fewer promotions (Roper, 2019; Roth et al, 2012). In addition, women’s professional titles are utilized less than men’s (Files et al, 2017). While “Dr.” is used 95% of the time when a male speaker is introduced, it is  used just 49% of the time for a woman speaker. And together with these uncomfortable situations, in general, women more-often carry  less-respected academic service responsibilities. Both men and women expect women to volunteer for tasks that have low reward but high benefit for the group (Guarino & Borden, 2017). And on top of everything that was previously commented on in this article, some researchers show that what women suffer are not big acts of discrimination but a constant exposure to small insults that cause a cumulative feeling of mental drain.  

The Effects of Gender Bias on Latin American and Caribbean Women in Science 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (United Nations, 1948). However, inequality, discrimination, and a lack of rights persist around the world, as demonstrated previously in this article. The participation of women from underrepresented social, racial, and ethnic groups (i.e., Hispanic or Latin American) deserves attention due to the economic and social impact on a country.   

Historically, the role of women in society has been unrecognized due to endogenous cultural norms and the unfounded idea that women are less capable and less valued than men. Despite recent considerable progress, women are still underrepresented, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean countries. Being a woman in Latin America and the Caribbean often comes with a lack of equal opportunities. Education, socio-economic status, place of residence, age, marriage culture, and skin color are factors that influence participation, progression, and achievements of women in different areas. 

Women face many challenges when pursuing a career, many of them remain excluded and are not allowed to attend college or the university of their choice due to gender stereotypes. Without access to higher education, women have little chance of securing a job. The narrow range of women’s representation in higher education becomes bigger in STEM fields. In Latin America and the Caribbean, women represent 35% of students in STEM careers, according to UN women (United Nations).    

In addition, it is unfortunately true that gender bias represents challenges in circumstances such as the hiring process, salary offers, and promotions (Fry et al, 2021). To this the racial and ethnic gaps among STEM workers are added: Latin American women who have a darker skin color experience an even lower income than Latin American women with a lighter skin color (Bello).  

Barriers faced in the workplace go far beyond those associated with earnings as women also experience higher rates of discrimination and sexual harassment (; US EEOC, 2022; Unfortunately, most of the STEM workplaces in Latin America and the Caribbean are male-dominated (United Nations; Unicef, 2020). Indeed, sexual harassment is not exclusively a problem for women, but the gender gap makes this a significant problem for women in the male-dominated workplaces of Latin America and the Caribbean. A “lack of institutional transparency and accountability” (Bello & Estébanez, 2021) make it difficult for Latin American and Caribbean women to speak up, leaving them to suffer in silence due to the absence of adequate policies.  

In conclusion, gender bias affects economic, social, and cultural aspects of our world. Women and men play an equally important role in the development of a country and in the persistence of gender bias, which sometimes intersects with other biases (e.g., race, class, sexual orientation). Lack of opportunities, experience, and expertise for women inhibits productivity and  economic growth, and it is fundamentally unfair. Workplaces and high-level institutions must be welcoming environments for everybody; they must pay equally and develop strong anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies to ensure the security of women. 


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About the Authors:

Andrea Gomez Felipe she is a postdoc at the University of Montreal and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. She wants to understand the molecular, cellular and tissue level mechanisms underlying organogenesis in plants using cutting-edge approaches. Her professional interest lies in combining molecular biology, microscopy and computational tools to elucidate specific mechanisms of plant development. Besides her research,  she loves swimming, biking, hiking, and reading. You can find her on Twitter at @andreagomezfe.

Eva Maria Gomez Alvarez is a PhD student in Agrobiodiversity working in Italy and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. She studies cereal genetics and microbiome, and during her free time, she likes to play the flute, run and read feminist books. You can find her on Twitter at @eva_ga96.