Gendered language in reference letters

…”nice” never got me a research grant or professional position. –Marcia McNutt

I previously posted an interactive visualization tool the shows language differences when reviewing male vs. female professors on, which shows a startling difference in word frequencies.  These reviews may have been hastily written by students, and they may not have thought much about the word choices they used when describing their professors.

What about letters of reference?  These are often critical pieces of information for acquiring a job, securing grant funding, and long-term career success.  A colleague just forwarded me an editorial that appeared in Science, written by Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief for Science Journals.  McNutt was recently tasked with reviewing small research grant proposals written by graduate students.  She found that over 10% of the proposals included reference letters with inappropriate content for the decision to fund the grant.  While the offending letter writers were both men and women, all of the affected applicants were women.  Letter writers should highlight the applicant’s qualifications, so one would think that these would be carefully vetted for gendered language.  Sadly, they are not.


Love Cards Against Humanity? You will now love them even more.

You can buy Cards Against Humanity on amazon.

The Cards Against Humanity game just did something remarkable: they will soon offer full-ride college scholarships for women in STEM fields.  The Science Ambassador Scholarship will be open for the Fall 2016 school year.  It will primarily be funded by the game’s new “Science Pack” expansion to the original game, according to their press release.

There’s Marie Curie…who else?

Two weeks ago I posted a list of famous women scientists and doctors from an old book I had.  This article emphasizes that while most people can name a women scientist, they often only name one: Marie Curie.

We Need to Stop Ignoring Women Scientists | WIRED.

After reading this article, I am looking forward to Rachel Swaby’s iBook 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World.

Famous Women in Science

Years ago, my grandmother gave me a book called The 100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century.  With my new job comes the task of assigning names for the nine computers in a computer lab.  I’m taking some inspiration from the famous scientists and doctors in the book.  Sadly, despite owning the book for well over ten years, I didn’t recognize all of them.

Who else should make this list, from the 20th century or otherwise?  I can think of these:

Managing “expectations of brilliance”

I just skimmed through this report that was recently published in Science:

Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Leslie, Cimpian, Meyer, & Freeland. 16 January 2015: pp. 262-265.

Their summarized definition of the field-specific ability beliefs hypothesis is this: women are underrepresented in certain fields as a result of (i) a field-specific belief that one’s success in that field requires raw talent that cannot be taught and (ii) the cultural stereotype that men are more likely to possess this raw talent.  The authors support this hypothesis using a nation-wide survey of academics in both science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as well as non-STEM disciplines.  In the survey, academics were asked to rate their own discipline, and these scores were combined to produce a discipline-specific measure of how much raw talent is required for their field.

The image below is the first figure from their paper. The x-axis corresponds to a synthesis of responses from academics about their specific discipline.  The y-axis corresponds to the percentage of Ph.D.’s in the field who are female.

In STEM fields, Math appears to be the field that requires the largest amount of raw talent, whereas Earth Science requires the least.  Physics, Engineering, and Computer Science, which all have notoriously low numbers in terms of women, are also rated higher on the “need to be brilliant” end.  One of the most interesting points about this work was that the hypothesis was also supported in non-STEM fields (Figure 1B).  The paper also shows that the hypothesis is supported among African American underrepresentation as well.

This paper brought up a number of questions for me.

  1. What’s up with Philosophy? Remember, these measurements of field-specific ability beliefs are determined from academics within the discipline.  I wonder if it’s the logic required behind philosophical arguments that leads to the high field-specific ability belief.
  2. The percentage of female Ph.D.s in a discipline is the measure of underrepresentation/overrepresentation.  In fact, this gender gap may begin in college, when students declare a major.
  3. The academics surveyed were faculty, postdocs, and graduate students – presumably all people who have obtained or are on their way to obtaining a Ph.D.  What if we surveyed 1,820 people from the general population instead of from this narrow slice?  Do the general population’s evaluation of field-specific ability beliefs align with the academic beliefs?  How does this correspond to the percentage of underrepresented groups in the major?
  4. As a soon-to-be faculty member that will span an historically underrepresented field (computer science) with an historically overrepresented field (biology) in terms of women involvement, will this new discipline become an average of the two in expectations of brilliance?  I think that it will make computer science more accessible, thereby reducing the belief that the discipline requires innate raw talent.  Only time will tell.