• Analysis of 1 million doctoral dissertations shows an entrenched bias against 'feminized' research topics.
  • Through a form of AI called natural language processing, researchers discovered connections between gender, gendered interests and professional outcomes.
  • Researchers found that women were about 20% less likely than men to become faculty advisors; a result of the bias against 'feminine' research.

An analysis of 1 million doctoral dissertations finds widespread bias against research that just seems feminine, even if it’s not explicitly about women or gender.

For more than a decade, women have earned more doctoral degrees than men in the United States. Despite that, women less often get tenure, get published, and reach leadership positions in academia than men do.

Much of the research into why that might be focuses on structural barriers and explicit prejudice. But a new study by a team of researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education finds a widespread implicit bias against academic work that simply seems feminine—even if it’s not about women or gender specifically.

'Feminine research'

Analyzing nearly 1 million doctoral dissertations from US universities over a recent 40-year period, the researchers found that scholars who wrote about topics associated with women, or used methodologies associated with women, were less likely to go on to get senior faculty positions than those who did not.

The issue wasn’t so much a prejudice against feminist studies or gender studies, which have expanded considerably since the 1970s. In fact, people who wrote their dissertations explicitly about women had slightly better career prospects than those who wrote explicitly about men.

The real problem was a more subtle bias against topics and research designs that were “feminized,” meaning they were more associated with traditions of women’s work. Scholars whose dissertation abstracts had words like parenting, children, or relationship, for example, had slimmer career prospects than people who used words like algorithm, efficiency, or war.

Even within a particular field, whether sociology or computer science, scholars whose dissertations were associated with women’s traditions in research had poorer prospects than those who wrote more “masculinized” dissertations in their respective fields. Despite changes in social norms and a growing number of women scholars over time, the researchers found the devaluation of women’s research was more or less consistent throughout the 40-year period.

“Everyone emphasizes that academia is based on meritocracy, that everything is neutral and based on the scientific value of research,” says the study’s lead author, Lanu Kim, who led the research team as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and is now an assistant professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. “It’s somewhat fake, and it’s somewhat impossible. There can be differences in men’s and women’s research interests, and some topics are already associated with women rather than men. The process cannot really be neutral.”

The study appears in the journal Research Policy.

AI finds the patterns

The researchers used natural language processing, a type of artificial intelligence used to study patterns in text, to analyze the abstracts of dissertations in every field from universities throughout the United States between 1980 and 2010.

To measure how “feminized” or “masculinized” a dissertation might be, the researchers tallied the concentration of words that had been used disproportionately by male or female doctoral candidates in previous years. This included words explicitly referencing gender, such as woman, man, her, or him.

Beyond that, however, the researchers looked for words associated with women’s or men’s interests, even if the words in themselves had nothing to do with gender.

Among the terms with a strong association to women: school, teacher, child, parent, culture, and participation. Terms strongly associated with men, by contrast, ranged from algorithm and efficiency to words connected with energy and electronics.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Less professional reward

The researchers then measured academic prospects by looking at which of the scholars went on to hold senior faculty positions. Specifically, they looked at whether a scholar was later named as the primary faculty advisor on someone else’s doctoral thesis, which is a strong indicator of an emerging scholar’s long-run success as an academic.

Though there are many other measures of success, Kim and her colleagues wanted to know whether academic institutions implicitly penalize scholars for certain types of research.

Overall, only 6.3% of those who received PhDs went on to become faculty advisors, but women were about 20% less likely than men to reach that mark.

Notably, scholars who wrote dissertations explicitly about women had a slight advantage over those who wrote explicitly about issues for men. That reflected efforts by many universities to make up for lost ground after years of giving short shrift to women’s issues.

Scholars who pursued topics and research designs more implicitly associated with women, however, had poorer prospects: Their chances of becoming a faculty advisor were 12% lower than average. Perhaps even more startling, the implicit bias was actually greater in fields that had strong traditions of research associated with women’s work in academia, such as sociology, than in fields dominated by men, like mechanical engineering.

For scholars working in fields with a preponderance of research traditionally associated with women, female PhDs are more likely to suffer a triple disadvantage on the job market, the authors write. “They are penalized for being women, [for] not doing a PhD in a masculinized field, and [for] not adopting man-type research practices.”

“The troubling inequity we identified is one that women faculty have likely long suspected but continue to experience,” says Daniel McFarland, a professor at Stanford and one of the study’s coauthors.

Kim and her colleagues confirmed that women are now modestly rewarded for research on women’s issues. But implicit biases, they conclude, are overwhelming that progress.

“As a society, we’ve made outstanding progress over the last century in transforming higher education and science institutions,” says Daniel Scott Smith, a doctoral candidate at Stanford and coauthor of the study. “But implicit biases against certain kinds of research undermines our current efforts to make the academy more diverse—in terms of who becomes university professors but also in terms of what’s considered valuable academic knowledge.”