Can we fix inequity in awards for women scientists?


Our wonderful undergraduates at their poster session look towards a world with less bias.

Unfairness to women in academic recognition is common. Anne Lincoln and co-authors, for example published on the Matilda Effect on awards and prizes in science. Women achieve much more for much less recognition, if they get credit for their own ideas and inventions at all. Shelley Correll has written about biases against women, as have many others. I am not going to review this work today. This is an action plan and some principles.

  1. My most basic principle is that no one wants to be biased and no one, not men nor women, consciously favor men, male-led projects, or erroneously attribute ideas to men. I start from this perspective that scientists are good, well-meaning people who try hard to be fair. Of course there are the others, but if all the good people formulated an action plan of their own, the problem would largely go away.
  2. We do not understand our own motivations very well, or even at all. We are evolved creatures, evolved to behave in certain ways and to make judgements quickly that were good enough sometime in our evolutionary past. Assuming these judgements are unbiased is silly. This is true for the legal system where one study found that judges gave much harsher sentences before lunch (blog here), to others that show the shortcomings of the simultaneous line-up instead of a sequential one for identifying ill doers by eye witnesses. I think it is true for pretty much everything. I get a lot of insight from reading a lot of social science literature. Daniel Ariely comes to mind, but that could be a false attribution because he spoke twice at Wash U. These two principles motivate the action plan in the next three points.


    Ursula Goodenough, mentor to many, wonderful colleague, and scrupulously fair, at her retirement festivities.

  3. Take the nomination pledge. With this you agree to nominate worthy women and under-represented minorities for awards broadly and in your discipline. These can be society prizes, university prizes, or others. Educate yourself as to what is out there and nominate.  You decide what is a good number for you. It could be one a year, one a month, or one for some particular awards. Make it a normal part of your academic responsibilities, like letters of recommendation are.  Encourage your colleagues to do likewise.
  4. Don’t use recall to choose whom to nominate. It gives our brains too much leeway for bias. I suppose we would all think spontaneously of the same handful of people. Instead use recognition. Get lists of society members. Look at editorial boards. See who on those lists is worthy and unrecognized. Keep a list of people to nominate and fill them in when something comes up. Don’t just stick to people from your own institution or own sub sub discipline. Remember, recognition, not recall.
  5. Finally, if you find yourself on a judging committee, remember how bad we are at evaluating quality or predicting who will shine in the future. Remember to be broad about discipline and to avoid cliques and narrow windows of prestige. Think broadly. Choose women and under-represented minorities. Look at ideas and outcomes. Don’t count citations or publications.

I think we can fix this problem with these two perspectives and these three simple steps. After all, there are plenty of outstanding scientists in the target communities. Help get them the recognition they deserve!

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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3 Responses to Can we fix inequity in awards for women scientists?

  1. These are all excellent and worthy suggestions but I think they will not effect change except at a glacial (and unacceptable) pace. The problem is your number 2—we all have biases and there is not much we can do about them, try as we might. As the new book by Beau Lotto ( argues, perception is all, or largely, in the brain and that brain is shaped by experience and genes.

    I see two possible ways to effect change quickly. I do realise that these will not be very popular but I hope that by mentioning them we can get some useful discussion going. First, every prize could have a male and female version (like the olympics, except equestrian events), maybe one, if you like, recognising quantity and the other quality, but at least recognising that there are inherent biases in the current system.

    Second, every award/prize/accolade competition could choose, say, the top 2 male and 2 female candidates, and toss a coin to see who wins. Or maybe more fairly, choose at random from a small pool that is representative of the sex ratio of applicants/nominees.

    Both of these methods would instantly redress the balance. Many people feel that this sort of affirmative action is odious and I can sympathise, but if we really want to make a change some drastic action is needed. Without it we are, I feel, looking at change that will take decades to achieve.

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