Women represent roughly 60% of undergraduate biology students and are awarded the majority of STEM bachelor degrees.1,2 The graduate student body at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine mirrors this gender skew: 56% of students are women overall and my home department, Human Genetics, is 68% women as of 2020.3 Despite these numbers, women face many disadvantages at the graduate level and beyond. In the human genetics department, the median graduation time for women is 0.2 years longer — 5.8 versus 5.6 years — and more women withdrew from the program or prematurely left with a master’s degree — 11% compared with only 2% of men.3 A recent study of STEM graduate students from the California Institute of Technology across six years found that female students produce fewer publications during their Ph.D. than their male counterparts, especially those in the field of biology and/or who have a male mentor.4

Even if they choose to leave the lab in favor of a full-time teaching career, women in STEM face systematic prejudice in the classroom: students, especially male students, disproportionately rate male professors more favorably than female professors; further, female professors are more likely to face criticism for their physical appearance and personality, whereas male professors are more likely to be described as “brilliant” or a “genius.” As a woman who aspires to enter a teaching profession, the mountain of evidence demonstrating students’ gender bias frustrates and worries me deeply.

Obviously, in the face of this barrage of statistically robust opposition, the only course of action for me is to abandon my passions of human genetics and teaching and instead pursue something else — right?

Yeah, not likely. Giving up would leave me dissatisfied with my career prospects and myself, and is therefore an absolute non-option. So, as the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. Rather than shying from the realities of these daunting statistics and potentially becoming a statistic myself, I have armed myself with the knowledge that I will face greater obstacles than my male peers and committed myself to deliberately thwarting the ways in which the system is sexist.

I knew from the start that I was predisposed to taking longer to graduate, so I have been frank with my mentor from the beginning about my graduation timeline goals and meet with him regularly to make sure I’m still on track to graduate when I aim to. I found a second mentor for additional support, and she has continually offered encouragement and pushed me to publish well before I would have otherwise aspired to do so. When teaching, I am excessively careful of my attire to head off any possibility of a wardrobe malfunction, and I am mindful of my tone to ensure I seem warm and competent the entire lesson.

I hope there is no misconception: The energy that I sink into these precautions is often exhausting, and there needs to be a systemic change. I should not have to work so hard just to make par. But until sexism in STEM is ameliorated, it can also be empowering to know the shape of my disadvantage and meet it head-on. I am expecting to graduate ahead of my departmental average with a robust publication history and a glowing teaching portfolio. My efforts will hardly matter against the behemoth of systematic bias women in STEM face, but perhaps by identifying and then targeting the sources and symptoms of sexism, we can provide a leveler, less exhausting field for the women who follow us.

References

  1. Eddy SL, Brownell SE, Wenderoth MP. Gender Gaps in Achievement and Participation in Multiple Introductory Biology Classrooms. LSE. 2014 Sep 1;13(3):478–92.
  2. National Center for Education Statistics [Internet]. National Center for Education Statistics; [cited 2021 Feb 24]. Available from: nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=72
  3. Life Science PhD Program Statistics for CNGLS [Internet]. Office of the Provost. 2018 [cited 2021 Feb 24]. Available from: provost.jhu.edu/education/graduate-and-professional-education/cngls/cngls-interactive/
  4. Pezzoni M, Mairesse J, Stephan P, Lane J. Gender and the Publication Output of Graduate Students: A Case Study. PLOS ONE. 2016 Jan 13;11(1):e0145146.
  5. Storage D, Horne Z, Cimpian A, Leslie S-J. The Frequency of “Brilliant” and “Genius” in Teaching Evaluations Predicts the Representation of Women and African Americans across Fields. PLoS One [Internet]. 2016 Mar 3 [cited 2021 Feb 24];11(3). Available from: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4777431/
  6. Morgan HK, Purkiss JA, Porter AC, Lypson ML, Santen SA, Christner JG, et al. Student Evaluation of Faculty Physicians: Gender Differences in Teaching Evaluations. Journal of Women’s Health. 2016 Mar 14;25(5):453–6.
  7. MacNell L, Driscoll A, Hunt AN. What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching. Innov High Educ. 2015 Aug 1;40(4):291–303.
  8. Boring A. Gender biases in student evaluations of teaching. Journal of Public Economics. 2017 Jan 1;145:27–41.
  9. Uttl B, White CA, Gonzalez DW. Meta-analysis of faculty’s teaching effectiveness: Student evaluation of teaching ratings and student learning are not related. Studies in Educational Evaluation. 2017 Sep 1;54:22–42.
  10. Mitchell KMW, Martin J. Gender Bias in Student Evaluations. PS: Political Science & Politics. 2018 Jul;51(3):648–52.
  11. Mengel F, Sauermann J, Zölitz U. Gender Bias in Teaching Evaluations. Journal of the European Economic Association. 2019 Apr 1;17(2):535–66.

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