Race and Gender Bias: Forces Driving Women of Colour out of STEM

July 27, 2016

Written By: Sarah Ngo

Despite studies that relate the underrepresentation of women in STEM to factors surrounding family pressures, gendered expectations, lifestyle choices and career preferences, women also carry the weight of gender biases that hold them back from entering the professional workplace.

Gender bias is a driving forces that continues to push women out of science-related fields. When it comes to recruitment for positions in STEM, research has shown that men are favored over women in hiring decisions. For example, employers are twice as likely to hire men over women for jobs that require arithmetic tasks even if both applicants are equally qualified. This type of discrimination undermines the skills and abilities of women in science-related fields by attributing gender-based stereotypes related to performance and expectations to certain groups and not others.

On top of that, women’s experiences with gender bias are further shaped by race. A recent study by Professors Joan C. Williams, Katherine W. Phillips, and Erika V. Hall looks at the pervasiveness of gender bias experienced by women of colour in the workplace. Through 60 in-depth interviews with women of colour and 557 surveys conducted with a diverse array of women in STEM, the researchers explored the biases in women’s everyday work lives. An extensive review of literature presented four distinct patterns of bias affecting the degree in which women of colour are perceived.

The Four Gender Biases

1. Prove-It Again
Women must often provide evidence of their ability to perform in order to be viewed as equally capable as their counterparts. Two-thirds of the women interviewed and surveyed reported having to prove their competence in the workplace in order to be viewed as qualified. A common example of this is the double standard that men are given opportunities based on potential, while women are judged based on current performance and prior accomplishments. This bias is seen for all groups of women (~65%), but at a greater rate (76.9%) for black women. 

2. The Tightrope
The Tightrope Bias describes the thin line between women being perceived as too feminine to be competent in a male-dominated environment, or being perceived as too masculine to be likeable. Three-fourths (76.3%) of interviewees reported experiencing this bias – one-third (34.1%) experienced pressure to take on roles that were more feminine, and half of the group stated they received negative backlash for demonstrating stereotypically masculine behavior such as assertiveness and anger. More than half of the Asian scientists (61.4%) surveyed reported receiving backlash for exhibiting behavior deemed stereotypically masculine and were more likely than other women of colour to be constrained to traditionally feminine roles. At the same time, Latinas who behave assertively receive criticism of being too “angry” or “emotional”, while black women reported being given more leeway than other groups when it came to behaving in dominant ways.  

3. The Maternal Wall
This bias reflects the idea that women lose their competence and commitment to work after having children. About two-thirds (64.0%) of scientists with children across all races shared that parental leave influenced the way that colleagues perceived their dedication to the job. Even women scientists without children reported disadvantages including the expectation to work longer hours to make up for those on maternity leave. From those surveyed, Asian women (26.7%) and white women (26.0%) were much more likely to have their colleagues suggest they should work fewer hours because of family commitments.

4. Tug of War
Gender bias in traditionally male-dominated work environments fuels conflict between women. Women that encounter discrimination early in their careers often distance themselves from other women in their profession. Three-quarters (75.5%) of the women surveyed reported that women in their work environments were supportive of one another; however, about 56.0% of black women were less likely to agree. Over one-half (51.4%) of the women scientists surveyed believed that many women scientists have adopted stereotypically-male personality traits and have "turned into men", while 41.7% felt that some women simply “don’t understand the level of commitment it takes to be a scientist.” These responses reflect back to the Tightrope Bias - women are constantly made to be aware of theirs and other women's behaviour in the workplace due to the gendered stereptypes that exist in STEM workplaces. One-third of both black women and Asian women reported feeling tokenism - they felt the need to compete against other women for the one token 'woman's spot' in male-dominated work enviroments.  


Biases held against women in male-dominated work environments impair the futures of women in science. This study details the ways in which these four distinctive biases impact women in various ways across races. In order to retain and advance women in STEM, gender bias should be approached in the same way as any other business issue. To encourage rather than hinder the growth of women in STEM fields, employers should be familiar with best practices for recruitment, hiring, promoting and tenuring women of colour in science (page 50). Businesses and organizations should understand the benefits of gender diversity, how to manage workplace diversity, build awareness of stereotypes and follow best practices for hiring in order to redefine traditional views of women in scientific fields. Building conversation around issues of gender, and how race impacts women of colour, can forge inclusive dialogue and disrupt the traditional views of gender and racial roles in STEM for future generations.

For more details, read the full report: Double Jeopardy? Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science