Sexism is still one of science's biggest issues

Nicola Gaston, of Victoria University, says there are still plenty of examples of sexism in the country's laboratories.
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Nicola Gaston, of Victoria University, says there are still plenty of examples of sexism in the country's laboratories.

Why is science sexist? Author and academic Dr NICOLA GASTON explains and asks if it is a problem that can be fixed.

For a long time, I bought the idea that the situation of women in science was naturally improving, now that discrimination itself is illegal and direct sexism is generally disapproved of.  My generation would be different, surely?

Not so much.

The idea that science could be sexist meets with a certain amount of opposition, in my experience. Scientists like to think of themselves as objective, as seekers after some kind of ultimate truth. So how can science itself be sexist?

Specific examples of sexism are not hard to find, although they can potentially be dismissed as anomalies. There was the case of Geoff Marcy, a Berkeley astronomer who resigned recently after being found guilty of sexual harassment of his students. Or, much less seriously, the case of Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, whose ill-advised joke about being more comfortable in gender-segregated labs led to a lot of women venting their frustration on social media under the "distractingly sexy" hashtag. 

That frustration had due cause. In contrast to specific incidents, statistically robust evidence of sexism in science is easily found by just looking at the proportion of women in scientific careers. If gender is a variable that affects your chances of having a career in science, then science is not gender-blind - it is fair to call this sexism.

The extent to which women drop out of the scientific workforce is demonstrated by the metaphor of a "leaky pipeline", which describes the gradual loss of women from science as though it were an inevitability. The only solution usually proposed is to top up the pipeline by encouraging young girls into science. I think we need to do better.

There is some evidence that the representation of women in science is getting better, but it is remarkably patchy. Stereotypes are slow to change, and they affect us all - your reference image of what a scientist looks like is just as likely to be an old man in a white coat with white hair regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.

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There is good reason for this. Stereotypes are based on aspects of the truth, and, just for example, the Nobel Prizes in Physics that have been awarded as of 2015 have gone to 209 recipients, the overwhelming majority of whom were white and male.

By contrast, only two women have ever been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics: Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963. The percentage of Nobel winners in physics who are women has been steadily decreasing since Marie Curie first won, when it was 17 per cent. This year it dropped for the first time below 1 per cent.

Do biological differences between men and women explain the gender gap in science? (No.) Why are some disciplines, such as physics and engineering, so much more sexist – by the simple measure of representation – than other disciplines? Are women sexist about science, too? And what effect can co-ed schools have on the choice to study science? 

I discuss the evidence that provides answers to these questions in my new book Why Science is Sexist – but the overarching answer can be found in a 2012 study led by Corinne Moss-Racusin. What this study showed is that scientists – real biologists and chemists and physicists – evaluated a CV much more favourably when a single variable was changed: The name Jennifer was replaced by John.

This discrimination can be explained by the concept of unconscious bias, which affects our decisions despite our best intentions. The prevalence of unconscious bias has been widely demonstrated in numerous contexts, some of which have nothing to do with science itself.  It's a human weakness, not an inherently scientific one.

But what a growing number of published studies show is that people who consider themselves to be highly objective might just be the most biased decision makers of all. Until we acknowledge our unconscious biases, we can't address them. This is why we need to think – and talk – about sexism in science.

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Dr Nicola Gaston is deputy director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology and has been the President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists for the past two years. She is the author of Why Science is Sexist, published as part of the BWB Texts series.

 - Stuff

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