Data shows unconscious bias exists for both male and female reviewers in geoscience

Women applying for a postdoctoral fellowship in geoscience are less likely to receive an ‘excellent’ recommendation letter than men, according to a new study. The bias may help to explain why many women in geoscience do not go on to pursue an academic career.

In terms of postgraduate degrees, the geoscience community is moving towards parity, with women accounting for 40% of all PhDs obtained. But that number drops off when academic positions are considered – only 10% of professorial posts are filled by women.

Caryn Block from Columbia University, US, and her colleagues have sought to understand this dip and whether biases are engrained in postdoctoral administrative processes. The team analysed over 1000 recommendation letters from 54 countries for fellowships between 2007 and 2012.

Only 53 female applicants out of 362 received an ‘excellent’ rating compared to 203 men from a total of 862. The team also found it doesn’t matter whether the recommender is male or female, the probability of favouring a man over a woman does not change.