Skip to Main Content

All 2020 Spring classes online. Building access restricted. Check for more info.

UMass Lowell, UMass Worcester Study Gender Biases in Workplace

NSF Funds Project with $750K Grant

UMass Lowell Image
Researchers from UMass Lowell and UMass Medical School are developing a quantitative subtle gender-bias index to better understand the micro-inequities being experienced by female faculty members in colleges and universities.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Gender biases in the workplace are nothing new, as Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg notes in her new book "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead." However, Sandberg focuses on encouraging women to take action against workplace discrimination and ownership over the gender pay gap. A team of researchers from UMass Lowell and UMass Medical School picks up where Sandberg leaves off by moving beyond the individual to highlight the impact of hostile workplace climates, which create barriers to women’s productivity and advancement. 

“What makes gender biases of today different from those of the pre-civil rights era is the shift from overt bias and sexism to a more subtle form of discrimination,” explains Nellie Tran, Ph.D., an assistant professor in UMass Lowell’s Department of Psychology and an associate in the University’s Center for Women and Work (CWW).

This discrimination can produce “micro-inequities” that ultimately have a significant impact on hiring, salary, tenure, promotion, recognition and leadership responsibilities.

Thanks to a three-year $750,000 grant from the ADVANCE initiative of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the researchers are developing an index to measure subtle gender biases within the academic setting that can add up and lead to missed career opportunities for female faculty members. 

“Visible barriers to women’s success in science, technology, engineering and math [STEM] fields are well documented,” notes Tran, who is the principal investigator for the NSF project. “But the more subtle, yet powerful, biases still go unnoticed. If we can measure this cultural phenomenon, it will enable us to take more effective action and better assess the success of our efforts. To date, no such measurement exists for quantifying subtle gender biases and other roots of micro-inequities in academia.”

The Negative Effects of Gender Biases on Women 

Despite efforts to recruit, retain and advance more women in the STEM disciplines, studies have shown they are still underrepresented in higher academic ranks, executive and other leadership positions, and boards for both industry and academic institutions.

Subtle gender biases are often perpetrated unintentionally by well-meaning individuals through verbal/nonverbal, visual or workplace indignities, especially in a male-dominated work environment.

“For example, a well-intentioned department chair may ask a male faculty member to represent the department at a regional strategic research planning meeting, while asking an equally qualified female faculty member to organize the department’s student honors ceremony because it doesn’t require as much travel,” says Vice Provost for Research Julie Chen, a faculty member in Mechanical Engineering and a co-principal investigator for the NSF project. “The result is a lost opportunity for the female faculty member to promote her research expertise as one of the strategic areas to be pursued.”

The accumulation of subtle biases over the years can have a profound negative impact on their careers, preventing them from achieving their full potential. It can lead to stereotyping, lowered performance, productivity and self-esteem and lessened sense of belonging to their workplace. The added stress and pressure at work can also harm their physical, mental and emotional health.

A Unique Collaboration 

By combining their expertise in engineering and the physical and natural sciences with those in social and behavioral sciences, UMass Lowell and UMass Medical School aim to achieve a scientific understanding of subtle gender biases and develop the metrics and tools for quantifying them. These tools can be used, in turn, to refine existing techniques and design new methods for addressing the issue in academia. 

“Once the biases can be scientifically measured, we can raise awareness and teach people to avoid making those mistakes,” says Tran.

UMass Lowell is the lead institution for the NSF grant and the CWW is the academic home of the project. Tran and Chen are joined by faculty from the departments of Psychology and Sociology, including Profs. Paula Rayman, Ivy Ho and Meg Bond.

“I am leading the team to conduct qualitative analysis of twenty interviews of women in STEM departments from either UMass Lowell or UMass Medical School,” says Tran. “We will use faculty associates from the Center for Women and Work, who are national experts on gender issues in the workplace, to refine the items that comprise the metrics.”  

The team’s findings are expected to benefit not only women, but also men in all academic fields. The results also will provide the foundation for addressing similar subtle biases in non-academic and international environments.

This fall, UMass Lowell is taking the lead in applying for a second, larger grant — the NSF’s ADVANCE-Institutional Transformation (ADVANCE-IT) award.

“As a prominent institution in study and research in STEM fields, UMass Lowell is committed to the advancement of women in these disciplines,” adds Tran.