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Turn up the girl power in science

European Commission

The European Commission's "Science: It's a Girl Thing!" campaign has been retooled.

It's not exactly surprising that males are perceived as more competent in science than females — but researchers at Yale University were surprised to find that even professional scientists showed evidence of such bias. Now the big question is what to do about it.

"Whenever I give a talk that mentions past findings of implicit gender bias in hiring, inevitably a scientist will say that can’t happen in our labs because we are trained to be objective," microbiologist Jo Handelsman, lead author of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said in a Yale news release. "I had hoped that they were right."


Handelsman and her colleagues asked 127 science faculty members from six institutions to review an application from a senior undergraduate student looking for a job as a lab manager. The faculty members were asked to judge how competent the applicant was, how much the student should be paid, and whether they'd be willing to mentor the student.

Each researcher looked at the same application — but in some cases the applicant was given a male name (John), and in the other cases a female name was assigned (Jennifer), all on a random basis. When the results were analyzed, it turned out that the sight-unseen male applicant was rated more competent than the female. The mean starting salary offer was $30,238.10 for John as opposed to $26,507.94 for Jennifer. Faculty members were more willing to mentor John than Jennifer.

The data showed a disparity whether the demographic category in question was male or female, young or old, tenured or untenured. "The bias appears pervasive among faculty and is not limited to a certain demographic subgroup," Handelsman and her colleagues wrote.

The researchers emphasized that they weren't suggesting the biases were intentional or stemmed from a conscious desire to hold women back. In fact, they found that the faculty members tended to like Jennifer more than John. That sentiment was generally voiced by faculty women as well as faculty men. It's just that the warm feelings for Jennifer "did not translate into positive perceptions of her composite confidence or material outcomes," according to the PNAS paper.

So what is to be done? "Our results suggest that academic policies and mentoring interventions targeting undergraduate advisers could contribute to reducing the gender disparity," the researchers wrote.

The findings suggest that it's not enough to get young women interested in careers in science, technology, education and math, a.k.a. STEM. There needs to be a conscious follow-through by the folks who do the hiring and mentoring. You can read through the whole study at the PNAS website.

Maybe it shouldn't be so surprising to find out that scientists can be vulnerable to subtle biases, just like other people. Even journalists. Last month, for example, Lund University researchers Daniel Conley and Johanna Stadmark found that far fewer women than men were being invited to write commentaries for the journals Science and Nature.

Conley and Stadmark acknowledged that men tend to outnumber women in scientific fields, particularly at the higher levels, so there's something of a selection effect at work. But they said it was "still fair to conclude that fewer women than men are offered the career boost of invitation-only authorship in each of the two leading science journals." They called on the editors to "extend gender parity for commissioned writers."

Over time, raising the visibility of women scientists (and raising their salaries) will help draw more girls into research and science education. At least that's the idea. Here are a few more efforts that put girl power to work on the science world's gender issues:

'Girl Thing' reloaded: Remember the European Commission program that stirred up a controversy by putting out a glammed-up video about STEM careers for women? Now the EC's "Science: It's a Girl Thing" program is sponsoring a contest for videographers who think they can do better. On the Scientific American website, "Science Goddess" Joanne Manaster explains how to enter. The winning videos will be shown in November at the European Gender Summit at the European Parliament in Brussels. Three winners will each receive a cash prize of €1,500 ($1,930).

Think locally: It's worth looking for organizations that are bringing girl power to STEM on the community level. The best example is Sally Ride Science, which thinks globally and acts locally when it comes to getting girls involved in scientific pursuits. The organization, founded by the late space icon Sally Ride, presents a series of science festivals for girls in grades 5 through 8. The next one is coming up Oct. 27 at Rice University in Houston, with astronaut Wendy Lawrence as the featured speaker. Other organizations involved in girl-power science include Girlstart in Austin, Texas; and Science Club for Girls in the Boston area.

Women chemists in the spotlight: The Chemical Heritage Foundation's video series pays tribute to seven women who have made their mark in chemistry — including Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of bulletproof Kevlar fiber; Paula Hammond, a pioneer in nanotechnology for drug delivery; and Nancy Chang, a successful biotech entrepreneur. 

Celebrating girl power: Today The Mary Sue is highlighting a series of posters that pay tribute to women scientists such as Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin and Jane Goodall. And next month, the Royal Society is planning a Wikipedia "Edit-a-thon" to improve the online encyclopedia's articles about women in science. "Female editors are particularly encouraged to attend," the society says. The event in planned in conjunction with Ada Lovelace Day on Oct. 16.

More about women in science:

In addition to Handelsman, the authors of "Science Faculty's Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students" include Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoli and Mark J. Graham.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.