What are the key challenges facing women in academia?

In the lead up to International Women’s Day on Friday March 8th, we posed a series of questions to leading academics. Here Kimberly A. Houser examines the unconscious biases behind gender imbalances in academia.

By Kimberly A. Houser, Assistant Professor, Oklahoma State University


Despite over half of all PhDs being awarded to women, the percentage of female tenured faculty hovers between 20% - 33% in the EU and US, and falls to as low as 5% in fields like engineering, demonstrating the difficulty women face moving up in academia. In many European countries these numbers are even more discouraging. Women occupy very few senior academic (Grade A) positions in Belgium (15.6%), Germany (17.3%), the United Kingdom (17.5%), France (19.3%), Switzerland (19.3%), and Sweden (23.8%). When women are hired, they are generally funneled into lower-paying non-tenure-track positions. The obstacles for women are present at all stages, including hiring, letters of recommendation, student evaluations, peer reviews, awarding of grants, funding, requests for service, and promotion to tenure. In addition, the pay gap is significant. In the UK, for example, female academics earn 12% less than their male counterparts.

Studies consistently demonstrate that women are hampered in their careers by the unconscious biases of decision-makers. This occurs at both the hiring and promotion levels. In one famous study, when names on lab managers’ CVs were randomly assigned, faculty rated the CVs with the male names as ‘significantly more competent and hirable’ than a female with identical criteria.  Even when a woman was chosen, she was offered a lower salary. Despite the numerous advantages of the presence of female professors - increasing class participation, providing diverse perspectives, acting as a role model for female students, and increasing female student grade performance - women in academia, especially in male-dominated fields, are at a serous disadvantage.

Social scientists have confirmed that humans are unaware of their own prejudices and are seemingly incapable of making unbiased, merit-based decisions. These unconscious biases include affinity bias, confirmation bias, and availability bias, to name a few. The concept of cognitive biases was first introduced by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who explain that mental shortcuts result in errors in thinking.

Affinity bias occurs when we show a preference for people who are similar to us. This means that when decisions are made by a homogenous group, such as a committee of white male professors, there is a natural preference to hire those like themselves. Confirmation bias occurs when a decision-maker only values information that supports their gut instinct. For example, an interviewer will only note characteristics which confirm their initial evaluation of their preferred candidate.

Availability bias comes into play when people find it easier to bring to mind information they have viewed recently. Take this famous riddle as an example: A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital. Just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, ‘I can’t operate—that boy is my son!’ Explain. A study at Boston University found that most participants could not answer because they were not able to easily envision the surgeon as the boy’s mother.

Although many explanations have been put forward around the obstacles faced by women in academia, the unconscious biases of decision-makers should not be overlooked. This is a very difficult issue to address because decision-makers are almost always unaware of their own biases. Moreover, research has shown that informing people of their biases may actually result in additional bias.

A solution put forward in the Irish Gender Action Plan 2018-2020 is to create a limited number of women-only professorships. The goal is to ensure that by 2024, 40% of all professor-level positions in academia are held by women. The EU has previously set goals for gender-balanced public positions and board memberships, with consequences for failing to meet such goals ranging from requiring an explanation as to why the goal was not met (such as in Spain) to significant fines (such as in Italy). These types of measures have so far been successful in the EU.

Although a number of democratic countries have adopted gender balancing requirements, the US and UK appear loathe to employ such measures. As it stands, it’s possible that with the EU’s commitment to gender balance we will see additional voluntary and legislative action to increase the presence of women in academia across that region.


Kimberly A. Houser is an Assistant Professor at Oklahoma State University where she teaches courses in Business Law and the Law of Emerging Technologies. Her research focuses on areas in which the U.S. federal government has not kept up with changes in society and technology, highlighting how current law does not meet the needs of the people. Prior to teaching, Houser practiced law in Chicago and later for an Austin tech start-up.

Houser’s research focuses on privacy, big data, artificial intelligence, and unconscious bias/gender diversity issues. Houser made national headlines last fall for her paper examining how the IRS is breaking privacy and data security laws by data mining citizens' personal information. Her new paper on solving the diversity crisis in the tech industry through the responsible use of artificial intelligence will appear in the Stanford Technology Law Journal. She has presented at various international conferences and events, and authored one of the first commercial books addressing the risks of posting and hosting online, The Legal Guide to Social Media. When Kimberly is not teaching, researching, or talking about how the IRS is stalking us, she loves playing fantasy football.