Sexism is a (horrible and depressing) fact

When I posted the proposed method to look at diversity in skeptical/atheist conferences, one comment was particularly illuminating.  I stated that part of the motivation for the exercise was that:

“…there is clear and unequivocal discrimination against women in a wide array of situations and so we should be conscious of that bias when we choose speakers for conferences.”

A commenter responded that:

“Ok, I’m not sure as to what you are referring, it appears you are just performing some vague political posturing. If there were clear, and unequivocal discrimination against women at these conferences, you wouldn’t need a study to demonstrate it. It would be clear and unequivocal, such as a sexist, limiting clause in an organization’s charter. No such thing exists, so your point seems moot.”

Unfortunately, the commenter is taking a very simplistic view of sexism.  Systemic sexism of the kind to which I was referring is an insidious and far-reaching problem.  This post is a quick review of some empirical demonstrations of the subtle and systemic bias that women face, because it is clear than some people need to be made aware of the extent of the problem.  This is not a post of vague anecdotes, though – these are scientific studies.


Physics lecturers

Four actors (with no knowledge of physics) give the same 10 minute lecture.  Two actors are male, two are female.  A class of 126 physics students rates the four actors on 14 measures of teaching ability and knowledge of the subject.  Male students rate male actors vastly higher than female actors, while female students slightly (and non-significantly) prefer female actors.  You can see more details here, here, here, and here.  The original paper is here.


Lab managers


This is a personal favourite simply because of its simplicity.  The same student resume was sent to 127 faculty members in the US for consideration for a lab manager position.  In 63 of those cases, the resume was headed with a male name (“John”), and in 64 the resume was headed with a female name (“Jennifer”).  Both male and female faculty rated John as significantly more competent, offered John more money, and rated John more worthy of faculty mentoring.  THE ONLY DIFFERENCE WAS THE NAME!  The original paper is here and you can hear more about it on the Reality Check Podcast.



Orchestras were very male-biased (95% male) until the 1970s.  Explanations were given for male superiority: greater hand-eye coordination, calmer temperament, willingness to sacrifice…  Suddenly, however, in the 1990s the proportion of men dropped to around 80%.  What had caused this drop?  “Blind auditions”, where musicians are selected while playing behind a screen.  The original paper describing changing trends and an array of evidence is here.



In a truly depressing study, Madeline Heilman has demonstrated that women face a tough time in workplaces generally.  Heilman asked 48 undergraduates to rate three individuals, two men and a woman, for competency and likeability in their role as assistant vice president for sales in an aircraft company.  However, 24 students were told that the candidates were all top performers, while the remaining 24 were told that the candidates had not yet had their performance review (success was unclear).

The results showed that when success was unclear, women were rated as less competent.  However, when success was clearly stated, women were rated as less likeable (apologies for gender-stereotypical colour schemes):

Heilman graph

Take a minute to digest that: raters assumed that a woman would not be as competent, and as soon as there was no doubt about her competency they disliked her for her success.  Heilman has followed up with other studies (detailed in the same paper) showing that women are penalised for success in male-typical jobs and that likeability can have a substantial effect on pay and advancement in the workplace.  The original paper is here, and you can read more about the problems here.


Anybody who claims that sexism does not exist is kidding themselves.  The question is not “does sexism exist”, but “what can we do about overcoming or compensating for our existing biases?”.  This is the same for any number of pre-existing biases, so women don’t get away scot-free, either!  Go and take the Harvard Implicit tests to see how you fare:


2 thoughts on “Sexism is a (horrible and depressing) fact

  1. Ahh, but universities, orchestras, etc. do not have written policies *mandating* sexism, so the evidence you cited clearly doesn’t count. 😉

    A depressing point of view indeed. The commenter’s naïve response reminds me of this excellent scene from ‘A Few Good Men’ (admittedly an unfortunate title to reference in this particular discussion):

  2. Thank you for this tidy collection of evidence from different sources! And I especially appreciate that you include reference links to the original papers. I’d love to know where to get more information about the introduction of blind orchestra auditions.

    Why aren’t these studies more regularly repeated? Why is there so little experimental work being done to reinforce and verify these studies? The central study of racial discrimination is from 2003. (here it is: discrimination

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