Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bias for male lecturers in Physics

Lately there has been a lot of discussion here and elsewhere about male privilege and sexism. I think one of the reasons this is such a touchy subject is because many of our actions that are inherently sexist are unconscious, so we can get especially defensive when people call us out on them. For example, let's look at how Physics students react differently to male and female lecturers:

Why aren’t there more women physicists, and in senior positions? One factor may be unconscious biases that could keep women physicists from advancing—and may even prevent women from going into physics in the first place.

Amy Bug, a physicist at Swarthmore University, examined the bias question. Her research team trained four actors—two men, two women—to give a 10-minute physics lecture. Real physics classes watched the lecturers. Then the 126 students were surveyed.

When it came to questions of physics ability—whether the lecturer had a good grasp of the material, and knew how to use the equipment—male lecturers got higher ratings by both male and female students.

But when asked how well the lecturer relates to the students, each gender preferred their own. And while female students gave a slight preference to female lecturers, male students overwhelmingly rated the male lecturers as being superior. The research appears in the journal Physics World.

Bug says the results may be evidence of inherent biases that could hold women back—along with economic inequalities, such as lower wages and smaller start-up grants. Which reduce career acceleration and thus the amount of force available to crack the glass ceiling.

Note that it's not just male students who have some sort of unconscious biases - the female students do as well. This is why it is so important to become aware of our biases. When someone points out that something you said is sexist (against women or men) or that you're privileged, it's not to make you feel guilty or like a bad person - it's to make you conscious of your actions. Only once we are aware of what we're doing can we actively try to correct it.

Back to the science aspect - I would like to see this repeated looking at scientific papers in addition to lecturing ability. Often times when names on papers are represented by initials alone, people assume those authors are male. If given the same paper, but one with a male name and one with a female, would students say they are the same quality?

I'm also curious how prevalent this is in other disciplines. Is it a science thing, or does the same trend hold in liberal arts? Would it be less pronounced in a field with a more equal sex ratio like Biology? Something I get to think about before I become a lecturer...

(Hat tip to Rugved)

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