Gender bias in academic hiring, and dust

A new study has shown very clearly the existence of gender bias in scientific hiring: With exactly the same CV, male applicants are preferred over female ones.

This reminds me of the following story that happened to me a while ago.

I wanted to apply for a national grant with an institute and had the full support of a professor in my field. But the head of the institute, who is in a different field than me and could not judge my work in any detail, refused to write me a letter of support.

He said:
“If you apply you will get it, because the national agency wants to promote women. But we do not want underqualified people here at our institute. ” When I pointed out that I had more publications and citations than some of the other people they had allowed to apply, he said while that was true, the problem was that I had not been at a conference in the US. I asked several other professors after that and all told me that this is a hiring criterion they have never heard of. I guess he just made this up on the spot.

When I insisted, he told me that his institute could not “play the role of a vacuum cleaner”. He saw me as a dust particle. With a good CV, but hey, that did not change my nature as woman, and therefore as dust. (Isn’t it crazy that dust particles now can get PhDs? Wow, in my time that would have been unthinkable.)

Normally, of course you do not actually talk to the people reviewing your application so directly and you don’t find out what kind of idiotic rationalizations and disturbing mental images they make up to refuse you. It was shocking to experience this so clearly. Nevertheless, even when I was sure of the reason he refused me, I could do nothing. I was thinking about complaining somewhere, but several people told that this would mean burning the bridges with this institute for good, which I could not risk.

The sad thing is: Normally, this kind of process takes place behind closed doors, and as a woman applying you never find out why you didn’t get the job. You will start to doubt yourself. You will think your competitor probably has the better CV than you. And perhaps you will give up, and not realize that the reason you are leaving is in fact discrimination. This is why such controlled studies are so extremely important for us women and other minorities in science.

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