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A subtle gender bias in science



People who call men by their surname are more likely to use prestige.

When we talk about the most famous scientists, we often have surnames. For figures like Darwin and Einstein, first names and even titles like "Professor" seem irrelevant. We know who they are and a single name is enough to conjure up everything they've achieved.

But can you think of female scientists where the same applies? A new study suggests that using a scientist's name could help maintain a bias against female scientists. A variety of studies show that people are more likely to refer only to their last name to men. And a separate series of experiments suggests that people settle for more prestige to those worthy to be referred to their surname.

True in Politics and Science

The studies were conducted by Stav Atir and Melissa Ferguson of Cornell. The first sentence asked a relatively simple question: is there evidence of gender bias in referring people to their surnames?

To find out, the two used some available data sources. One is simply the transcription of various news programs from the entire ideological spectrum. ( All in all Fresh Air Morning Edition The Rush Limbaugh Show and The Sean Hannity Show ) , References to individuals have been identified, as well as the genders of those referred to. The researchers then determined whether the person was addressed only with their surname, without any initials or titles such as doctor or professor. At least on the radio, people were more than twice as likely to refer to men as using only their surname.

To see if this could be true in the academic context, Atir and Ferguson turned to Rate My Professors, a service that allows students to do exactly what the name says. The data was collected for professors from five departments (biology, psychology, computer science, history and economics) at 1

4 different universities, with the same search for references based on surnames of professors. Students during the assessment were more than 50 percent more likely to reserve surname references for male professors. Atir and Ferguson examined whether gender only played a role in the professor's degree of seniority, but that turned out to be incorrect.

The researchers switched directly to science and created a list of scientific accomplishments accidentally attached to a male or female name. This was handed to approximately 200 Mechanical Turk participants, who were then asked to describe the researcher. If a male name was attached to the profile, people were more than four times more likely, referring to the fictitious person who only used their surname.

So there is a clear trend to treat the sexes a little differently when we communicate about them, and it seems to extend to science. After this had been determined, Atir and Ferguson turned to the question of whether this tendency had consequences.

Distorted Perceptions

To find out, the researchers prepared a series of research proposals and arbitrarily replaced the full names and surnames of the researcher's work. Mechanical Turk's participants found that the researchers their surname referred to were better known and better known (though strangely enough they were not better known). They also rated researchers who were named just by surnames as more of a reward for their work. In allocating funding for various research projects, participants referred more to researchers who were referred to only by their surname.

It is important to recognize the limitations of this study. The people recruited on Mechanical Turk are not likely to be the same who set foundations to review their scholarships, so the direct relevance to scientific recognition and awards is likely to be limited.

But that's not the same as saying this work completely irrelevant. While the process of science as a whole tends to limit the effects of subtle distortions like this, individual scientists are as vulnerable to their influence as any other human being. Many scientists also use popular reports to track news outside their area, and they could therefore take a biased perspective. Finally, the popular perception of scientists also plays a role in the question of who becomes a scientist and in which areas they specialize.

Given that countries still have large gender disparities, it pays to pay attention. A follow-up that directly examined the use of names among scientists would certainly be appropriate.

Atir and Ferguson, in turn, are curious to see why the distortion arises in the first place. They suggest options such as the fact that some women change their last name after marriage, or the fact that women's first names are more descriptive in areas dominated by men.

Regardless of their cause, their potential is aware of it is critical to limiting their influence. That is, at least until the day when it becomes customary to talk about people like Dresselhaus and Nüsslein-Volhard as regularly as about Darwin and Einstein.

PNAS 2018. DOI: 10.1073 / pnas.1805284115 (via DOIs).


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