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Why Curie’s no Einstein: A subtle gender bias in science

Enlarge / Who’s this? If your answer didn’t include “Albert,” you’re pretty typical. (credit: Columbia University)

When we talk about the most famous scientists, we’re often on a last name basis. For figures like Darwin and Einstein, first names and even titles like “professor” seem irrelevant. We know who they are, and a single name is enough to conjure up all they accomplished.

But can you think of any female scientists where the same is true? A new study suggests that using a scientist’s surname may be helping perpetuate a bias against female scientists. A variety of studies show that people are more likely to refer to males only by their last name. And a separate set of experiments indicate that people will attach more prestige to anyone deemed worth of being referred to by their last name.

True in politics and science

The studies were performed by Stav Atir and Melissa Ferguson of Cornell. The first set asked a relatively simple question: is there any evidence of a gender bias in referring to people by their last name?

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