Some research suggests that female scientists are less likely to apply for tenure-track faculty positions. Credit: Yellowdog/Getty

Universities in the United States employ many more male scientists than female ones. Men are paid more, and in fields such as mathematics, engineering and economics, they hold the majority of top-level jobs.

But in a sign of progress, a 13 April study finds that faculty members prefer female candidates for tenure-track jobs in science and engineering — by a ratio of two to one. That result, based on experiments involving hypothetical job seekers, held true regardless of the hirer’s gender, department, career status or university type, researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1.

“We were shocked,” says Wendy Williams, a psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a co-author of the study. With fellow Cornell psychologist Stephen Ceci, she surveyed 873 tenure-track faculty members in biology, psychology, economics and engineering at 371 US universities. One experiment presented participants with three hypothetical job candidates, of which two were identical except for their gender. Another experiment added descriptions of marital and parental status, to test whether underlying assumptions about gender choices affected hiring. “You don’t frequently see that level of attention and sophistication” in statistical analysis, says Robert Santos, vice-president of the American Statistical Association in Alexandria, Virginia.

Nothing seemed to sway study participants’ preference for female job candidates. The authors say that this is interesting given their previous finding that a relatively low percentage of female PhDs in the social and biological sciences secure academic positions — in part because they are less likely than men to apply for these jobs. Other research suggests that in the physical sciences, women and men are just as likely to secure a tenure-track position within five years of earning a PhD.

There are more signs that science is inching towards gender equality. In February, a study2 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology reported that US women and men with bachelor’s degrees in science, engineering and mathematics go on to receive doctoral degrees at roughly the same rate.

Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, argues that the news is not as good as it seems. Women in academic science still face gender-related obstacles before they reach the point of applying for tenure-track jobs, she says.

In the biological sciences, for example, most elite US labs are headed by men. These principal investigators hire more male postdoctoral researchers than female ones3 — despite the fact that women receive the majority of biology doctorates. Postdocs from such elite labs also tend to be chosen for assistant-professor positions, perpetuating the cycle3. Other studies have found that individual faculty members of both genders view female students as less competent than their male counterparts when judging qualifications for junior positions in a lab4.

Virginia Valian, a psychologist at Hunter College in New York who studies gender equality, is not surprised that the latest study found that highly qualified female candidates are judged on merit. But she questions whether some aspects of the study methods, such as descriptions of the candidates, skewed the results. Moreover, she says, "there is a valid concern that progress will be over-interpreted".

Asked about the doubt that has greeted the study, Williams argues that “people find it hard to accept when there’s change, even for the better.” But she does not dispute that bias may still undermine the prospects of women in science. She and Ceci are now examining women’s chances of advancement at other points in their scientific careers, on the basis of data from other nationally representative surveys.