Wednesday, December 10, 2008

You Didn't Think You Could Win, Did You?

There was a press release today about a new study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly that points out the difficulty women have in effectively presenting themselves during a job interview - in the case of this study, for a position as a computer lab manager.

  • women who presented themselves as confident and ambitious were viewed as highly competent, but lacking social skills
  • women who present themselves as modest and cooperative, were well liked but perceived as having low competence
  • confident and ambitious men were perceived as both competent and likable and were more likely to be hired
I haven't read the actual study, so I can't comment on the methodology the study used or the statistical significance of the numbers their conclusions are based on. However, their results certainly ring true*. This election season certainly seemed to play out along those lines. On the one hand Hillary Clinton has often been characterized as a ball-busting bitch for her aggressive politicking - until she choked up a bit before the New Hampshire primary and that was obviously a sign she was too weak and emotional to be president.**

The effect is that I feel that, as a woman, I have to dance the line between being confidently assertive and self-effacingly modest. And it doesn't help that the line moves, requiring a shift from the self-deprecation that's expected in many social situations to the confident self-promotion required when asking for recognition or a raise - or applying for a grant. It makes me wonder what role this might play in the "leak" of women from the academic pipeline.

In the December 5 issue of Science, Ley and Hamilton look at the differences between NIH grant application and success rates between men and women. They found a striking drop in applications by women for basic research grants for independent facutly positions as compared to grant application for postdocs. They concluded that this is likely due to women leaving the academic pipeline :
Although some female career attrition could be due to cohort effects (i.e., smaller numbers of female graduate students in the past, leading to smaller numbers at advanced career stages at this time) the effects that we describe here occur in a very narrow time frame and are far too large to be totally explained by this phenomenon. Instead, the data strongly suggest that a large fraction of women are choosing to leave the NIH-funded career pipeline at the transition to independence (i.e., in the late postdoctoral and early faculty years). Female physician-scientists make this decision earlier and more often, perhaps because more attractive and/or flexible career options (e.g., clinical practice) are available to them. Men and women have near-equal NIH funding success at all stages of their careers, which makes it very unlikely that female attrition is due to negative selection from NIH grant-funding decisions.
It's worth noting that the "near-equal" funding success the mention is actually a small but statistically significant difference in favor of male applicants. The long-term result is that women principal investigators are significantly less likely to have funded NIH Research Project Grants than their male colleagues.

There's an interesting discussion of the article going on over at Blue Lab Coats. One of the commenters there points out that the statistics show the average NIH award size is less for women than men (pdf. See Table 3.4 p.28). That likely has to do with women asking for less money than male applicants, and I believe part of the reason why is that there are negative social consequences for women who are perceived as overly aggressive in asking for what they want.

Of course that is only one of many possible reasons for the gender gap in academic science. There is the issue of women being expected to take the bulk of responsibilities for child care and housework. And, of course, everyday sexism. See the discussion going on at DrugMonkey's blog and Dr. Isis's response for more.

Ley TJ and Hamilton BH. "The Gender Gap in NIH Grant Applications" Science 5 December 2008: Vol. 322 no. 5907 pp.1472-1474. DOI: 10.1126/science.1165878

Hosek SD et al. "Technical Report: Gender Differences in Major Federal External Grant Programs." (2005)

* which I know isn't a good way to judge a study, but it's all I've got since I don't have access to the actual data.

** And I'm not forgetting the more stereotypically feminine Sarah Palin, who was given the sexy-but-dumb treatment. There were many reasons to criticize Palin as a VP candidate, but I think the sexist commentary was uncalled for.

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Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wonder how much of this can be attributed to the fact that women tend to give lots of thought and concerned attention to these type of details, whereas it probably never even occurs to most men to think about such nuances (e.g., staying on the right side of the line).

In other words, is it possible that we make it worse for ourselves by overthinking the situation?

(I know, personally speaking, I am queen of making things worse for myself by overthinking them ;-) Oops, was that self-deprecating?)

I'm curious to know who was making these perceptions - was it mostly men? mostly women? fairly even split?

Peggy K said...

Yeah, as a super overthinker myself, I wonder if that might play a role in being less aggressive in asking for what I want. But it's hard to know if that's a cause or result of having to navigate the self-confident vs. modest divide.

It's an interesting question whether the participants in the study were male or female or both. The journal's web site hasn't been updated to the current issue, so not even the abstract is available at the moment.

Phoebe Leboy said...

On the subject of gender differences in NIH grant funding:
The bottom line is that women's applications for NIH R01 grants now score at least as well as men's applications, but-
1) women have a harder time getting their R01s renewed (probably because they don't churn out as many papers- and why that is so is another story);
2) on average, women have less NIH grant funding- for reasons of grant numbers as well as type of grant:
a) women do not average as many grants/PI as men (probably because they just don't have the spare time that men with stay-at-home wives have)
b) women are rarely selected as Principal Investigators (PI) on the big bucks center grants

There are lots of data posted on the NIH website at:

Phoebe Leboy, President, Association for Women in Science Check us out!