Stanford University Study Finds Women Academics Often Held Back Due to The Nature of Their Research

For more than a decade, women have earned more doctoral degrees than men in the United States. Despite that, women still lag behind men in getting tenure, getting published, and reaching leadership positions in academia.

Much of the research into why that might be focuses on structural barriers and explicit prejudice. But a new study by a team of researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education finds a widespread implicit bias against academic work that simply seems feminine – even if it’s not about women or gender specifically.

Analyzing nearly 1 million doctoral dissertations from U.S. universities over a recent 40-year period, the researchers found that scholars who wrote about topics associated with women, or used methodologies associated with women, were less likely to go on to get senior faculty positions than those who did not.

The issue wasn’t so much a prejudice against feminist studies or gender studies, which have expanded considerably since the 1970s. In fact, people who wrote their dissertations explicitly about women had slightly better career prospects than those who wrote explicitly about men. The real problem was a more subtle bias against topics and research designs that were “feminized,” meaning they were more associated with traditions of women’s work. Scholars whose dissertation abstracts had words like parenting, children, or relationship, for example, had slimmer career prospects than people who used words like algorithm, efficiency, or war.

“Everyone emphasizes that academia is based on meritocracy, that everything is neutral and based on the scientific value of research,” said the study’s lead author, Lanu Kim, who led the research team as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford GSE and is now an assistant professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. “It’s somewhat fake, and it’s somewhat impossible.”

“As a society, we’ve made outstanding progress over the last century in transforming higher education and science institutions,” said Daniel Scott Smith, a doctoral candidate at Stanford and co-author of the study. “But implicit biases against certain kinds of research undermines our current efforts to make the academy more diverse – in terms of who becomes university professors but also in terms of what’s considered valuable academic knowledge.”

The full study, “Gendered Knowledge in Fields and Academic Careers.” was published in the journal Research Policy. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/Study


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