The gender gap in academia

Despite our best intentions, we all unconsciously favor men in leading professional posts. In her essay “The Gender Gap in Academia may be a Cognitive Neuroscience Problem”, Prof. Magdalini Polymenidou of the ZNZ Gender Equality Committee describes ways to conquer this unconscious bias. Here we publish the short essay.

The fact that women hold only a notoriously small percentage of Professorships and other leading academic positions has been well recognized over the past few decades worldwide (Wickware, 1997). This is especially true for the so-called “STEM” specialties (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). Indeed, in the Medical Faculty and the Faculty of Science of the University of Zurich, less than 15% of tenured Professors are women, despite continuing efforts from the UZH Gender Equality Office and several other committees, to fix this “leaky pipeline” (Leboy, 2008) in academia. The persistence of this gender imbalance is most frequently attributed to challenges with juggling career and family, which is particularly tough for women, not least due to the rather unfortunate synchronization of their “biological” and “tenure” clocks (Ledford et al., 2013).

The gender gap, a cognitive neuroscience problem?
Yet, studies show that the gender gap in academia may well be a cognitive neuroscience problem. Our minds are trained from early on to create images of professional roles, linking them to specific qualities. For centuries the words “leader”, “successful” or “driven” have been associated with men and while most of us no longer consciously accept them as uniquely male attributes, more often than not, our brains unconsciously do (Raymond, 2013). This is emphasized in languages, where words exist in masculine and feminine forms, such as German and Italian (Horvath et al., 2015). In other words and despite our conscious best intentions, we all (both men and women) unconsciously favor men in leading professional posts, including full Professors in academia (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012).

How to reduce the bias?
So, what can we do about this? Well, we can start by acknowledging that unconscious gender bias exists and that we are all in it. In fact, a recent study showed that men are less likely to accept evidence demonstrating unconscious gender biases (Handley et al., 2015), a tendency that can only delay resolving this issue. To our skeptical readers, we recommend taking one of the tests provided online by the Project Implicit, an international collaborative network of researchers investigating implicit social cognition. We guarantee that you will not only be entertained, but most likely shocked by your own biases. But there is reason for optimism! Neuroscientists showed that it is possible to sleep-train one’s unconscious mind to reduce gender and racial biases (Hu et al., 2015). And while using sleep training as a bias-reducing intervention (Aczel et al., 2015) may sound like science fiction, this study unequivocally shows that unconscious biases exist and can be reversed. And if we all made a conscious effort to recognize, accept and conquer our unconscious biases, we may fix the “leaky pipeline” just a little bit sooner.