Gender gaps in the sciences have received significant attention recently. An issue of Nature, published last year, focused on the heavy amount of discrimination still faced by females in academia. Much of this discrimination stems from individuals who started their academic careers when the gender gap was much more visible. The continuation of this gap is likely if current students graduate their undergraduate experience with gendered biases. We investigated undergraduate perceptions of their peers to test for a gender bias in who is discerned as being a particularly strong student.
We performed our research in a large undergraduate biology class, comprised mostly of freshman and sophomores at the University of Washington. Students were asked at different points throughout the quarter to identify other students who they felt were particularly strong class material. We find no gap in perception of gender at the beginning of the class. However, as the quarter progresses, males become more likely than females to be nominated as knowing the material well.
This research has important implications for achieving gender equality in the sciences. The overall trend in this classroom implies that many students left this class with the perceived experience that male students, on average, are more knowledgeable than female students. As the future wave of scientists, innovators, and policy makers, breeding a potential implicit bias may be dangerous in perpetuating a future gender gap in the sciences. Replicating this study in other classrooms, as well as understanding what underlies the witnessed phenomenon, will be important to fully understand the implications of this work.