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Uncommon Knowledge

Tough luck for women in science

And other insights from the social sciences

Alli Arnold for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Hard conservatives, soft liberals

Traditionally, conservatives have presented themselves as tough, while liberals have been seen as bringing a softer touch to politics. Based on the results of a new study, these metaphors are so ingrained that they’ve become almost tangible. People who squeezed a hard ball while viewing a face were more likely to judge that face to be a Republican compared to when they were squeezing a soft ball. Likewise, after writing about a Republican, people were more likely to judge a ball to be harder than after writing about a Democrat. The effect also translated to academic disciplines, as squeezing a hard ball made it more likely that students would identify a professor as a physicist.


Slepian, M. et al., “Proprioception and Person Perception: Politicians and Professors,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

Bad news for women in science

Given the predominance of men in science, you might expect that professors would try to encourage young women trying to enter the field. But researchers at Yale have found that female science students still face discrimination from faculty—even female faculty. They asked more than 100 science professors at universities around the country to evaluate the same student’s resume, but with the first name presented as either John or Jennifer. Regardless of their own gender, field, age, or tenure status, professors tended to view the female student as less competent and less hirable and offered her less career mentoring. She was also offered an average starting salary of $26,508, whereas her male counterpart was offered $30,238. The professors who discriminated the most against the female student were also those who perceived less discrimination against women in society. Nevertheless, professors reported liking the female student more.

Moss-Racusin, C. et al., “Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

For higher incomes, compete!

In these months running up to the election, politicians are slugging it out over who—and what—will create economic growth. A new study by economists from Stanford has located one surprising answer: Growth can be boosted just by subdividing areas into more jurisdictions. “Specifically,” they write, “doubling the number of county governments in [a metropolitan area]— such as by going from one to two—leads to an approximate 0.15 percentage point increase in the average annual growth rate of earnings per employee over 1969-2006. This effect is relatively large and meaningful, amounting to an average annual growth rate in earnings per employee that is 17% higher than average.” The economists theorize that this is the result of competition between jurisdictions, which attracts higher-wage industries and workers to the area, while also increasing incumbent workers’ hours and wages.


Hatfield, J. & Kosec, K., “Federal Competition and Economic Growth,” Journal of Public Economics (forthcoming).

Young love: Not depressing

Once their kids become teenagers, many parents—even good parents with good kids—start to freak out about the perils of teenage romance and sex. And, indeed, research has shown that teenage dating and sex are associated with psychological problems. But how much should we worry? Psychologists analyzed data from a national survey of teenagers and found that neither dating nor sex with a dating partner were associated with depression, controlling for genetic and family-environment differences. However, sex with a nondating partner (i.e., casual sex) was associated with depression, especially among younger teenagers. These findings were the same for boys and girls.

Mendle, J. et al., “Depression and Adolescent Sexual Activity in Romantic and Nonromantic Relational Contexts: A Genetically-Informative Sibling Comparison,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology (forthcoming).


The power of a black judge

What difference does racial diversity on the judicial bench make? It turns out that it can sway outcomes on judiciary panels not just because of the votes of nonwhite judges, but by changing how the white judges vote, too. A political science professor at Princeton analyzed the votes of judges on three-judge panels hearing affirmative-action cases in the US Courts of Appeal between 1971 and 2008. He found: “Nonblack judges are predicted to vote liberally [to uphold affirmative action] in about 50% of cases when they sit with two nonblack colleagues. When a black judge joins the panel, the predicted probability rises to about 80%.” This effect includes Republican judges. Although adding a nonblack Democratic judge to a panel with two Republican judges doesn’t seem to affect a Republican judge’s vote, adding a black (Democratic) judge to the panel leads Republican judges to uphold affirmative action in four out of five cases.

Kastellec, J., “Racial Diversity and Judicial Influence on Appellate Courts,” American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.