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Help Us Patch the Pipeline


 

Read Part Two of the doubleheader here.

 

At first, my mom wasn't sure if she should name me ‘Victoria’ or ‘Sydney’.


Privy to prejudices, she understood that a gender-neutral name could help inoculate her daughter against the discrimination she may face in her future career.


Today I am a first-year neuroscientist seeking a doctorate degree from Emory University. I love my field: every day is a blessing as I get to run experiments in the lab, discuss literature with my friends, and learn from some of the best scientists in my field. This truly is a good life.


Luckily, my upbringing largely sheltered me from gender bias. Growing up, my parents poured their support into my interests without consideration of gender expectations. I revered my older brothers who invited my company as we built forts, shot NERF guns, played video games, and became backyard arsonists. I grew up with the expectation that wherever my interests may take me, a welcoming community will receive me as an equal. Now as an adult, I notice troubling trends that threaten women and minorities in their scientific careers. We need to discuss the effects of implicit bias in STEM.


 

Most of my peers and all my former faculty members treated me with the utmost respect. Sometimes in a casual conversation with a colleague, implicit prejudices rang in the subtext. For example, when I shared the news of my first publication with a colleague at my undergraduate institution, he suggested that I got into that lab because I was an attractive woman. It seemed easier for him to believe that my success resulted from my outward appearance rather than years of hard work.  Although sexist, my colleague’s assumption relies on the fact that statistically speaking, my PI is a heterosexual man. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. Although women receive over half of all Ph.D. degrees, only 22% and 15% reach tenure or become department chairs, respectively. Of all the graduate students pursuing STEM doctoral degrees, just 2% are Hispanic and 2% women of color. Our pipeline hemorrhages talent before it can reach the graduate level. What factors undermine women and minority access to a scientific career?


Women get fewer invitations to speak at conferences, receive fewer paper citations, are less likely to be published as first author, receive fewer award nominations and prize money, are awarded less funding, and hiring committees exhibit a favorable bias toward men.

Women and minorities pursuing STEM fields contend with a barrage of biases at each career milestone. Upon applying to graduate school prospective students, take the General Record Exam (GRE). One scientifically demonstrated harm of societal prejudice is the stereotype threat in which the fear of living up to a stereotype impairs performance: an effect documented in standardized testing.



The stereotype threat was one factor that contributed to my own anxiety I experienced while preparing for and taking the GRE. I took studying for the GRE seriously, as I enrolled in a GRE course, studied from several books, utilized online sources, and took dozens of practice exams. I began having regular panic attacks during studying and classroom sessions. I could not finish a practice exam without having an anxious episode. In addition to studying, I began seeking cognitive behavioral therapy so I could learn strategies to control my anxiety. After six months of studying and mental health work, I got to the point where I could finish on-site practice exams with satisfying percentile scores.


Frustratingly, when it came time for the first quantitative section on the real test, anxious thoughts flooded my cognitive space. Many pressures contribute to my test-anxiety: one threat was the suspicion that stereotypes against women performing in quantitative fields might be true, and that my failure would contribute to this stereotype. Despite my love for mathematics and calculus in my college courses, racing thoughts of inadequacy interfered with my ability to focus on the test questions. A fear of having a panic attack in the test-center compounded these anxieties and I lost my composure. To avoid distracting the other test-takers, I felt that all I could do was leave the test center with my exam unfinished.


 

It was only after starting my doctoral degree that I learned about problematic correlations between under-represented demographics and GRE scores. A meta-analysis conducted by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organization administering the test, reveal that women score on average 80 points lower in the physical sciences than men, and African Americans score 200 points below white test takers. Graduate admissions committees often use GRE scores to screen-out applicants without adjusting for gender and ethnicity. Recently, the use of the GRE as a talent-sieve has been criticized after several studies documented the tests' failure in predicting any measure of