By SM Morgan

It’s always tricky raising a polarising issue, and occasionally especially so in an on-line forum with the potential for excessive trolling, but I (and evidently a lot of others worldwide) think it is definitely something on which needs to have an open discourse established, and I would hate for our wee country to miss out on the opportunity for growth and improvement – and informed comment.

The fact is; scientists are sexist.

Right, obligatory inflammatory by-line out of the way; now the research, and then the impassioned soap-boxing.

This study grew from the question of whether inherent sexism in science is the reason behind the gender disparity in employment; are women not applying for, or getting, science academic jobs because the employers are specifically sexist against them, or is it their own fault for not applying due to other reasons such as low pay/timing of family production/difficulty of training etc etc (“life choices” no less).

One hundred and twenty seven science faculty members, ‘academics’, were given a CV from either a male or female ‘student’.  The CV’s were exact copies, just with different, blatantly-gendered names attached.  The participants were asked to rate the student on employability/hireability, competence, the starting salary and the amount of mentoring they would offer the student.

The hypothetical student was applying for a laboratory manager position, before PhD study or postdoctoral employment.  This career period was chosen because it is at this point where women start dropping out of the pipeline, after being overrepresented in undergraduate studies.  The “formative predoctoral years” (how delightful!) affect how a student perceives a career in science, and if gender biased will effect opinions on self-worth with regards to scientific abilities and attractiveness of the career as a whole.

The study was carried out in a double-blind fashion, where the academic participants didn’t know that they were ultimately taking part in a gender bias study, and the experimenters didn’t know which results belonged to the female or male CVs until after the data was collected and analysed.  This hopefully avoids bias on behalf of the experimenters as well, in case they subconsciously wanted a biased result.  (Experimenter bias is actually an important confounding variable that people often forget about; is that embryo showing the staining pattern you want or do you really want to see that staining pattern you expect, so do?  Good article here about it).

In case you are thinking gender bias is only an issue in a particular area of science, physics in comparison to biology for example, the types of science academics surveyed were broad and represented biology, chemistry and physics professors, nationwide (USA).  And least you dismiss the study for coming from a ‘lesser’ institution, the research group is at Yale and the paper in PNAS.  The PI of the group is Jo Handelsman, a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology.  And finally, in case you think the academics were just throwing numbers around; they were all under the impression that they were rating the CV of a student who was intending to go to graduate school, had just applied for a laboratory manager position, and would indeed receive the feedback from that particular academic.  This feedback had consequences.

There are only two simple graphs, one table and one flow chart figure in the paper, and the data show that not only are female applicants rated lower on competence, hireability and mentoring than males, but that both female and male academics are guilty of the bias.  Also, starting salaries are offered lower from a female academic than a male, to a male student, and even lower from a female academic to a female student.  When faculty gender is collapsed (so ‘academics’ as a whole, rating potential job applicants) the results look thus for the rating scales, with a significance P-value of < 0.001:

And thus for the starting salary offer, with a significance P-value of < 0.01:

The supplementary information includes a detailed run-down of the scales and rating system used in the experiment and is a fascinating read, there is also included the cover story text that was given to the academics and a sample of the ‘CV’.  Here, if you feel like further reading.  I would also recommend reading Sean Carroll’s short and snappy blurb on the article, here, and Ilana Yurkiewicz’s commentary, here.  Also related; the 2011 snapshot of women in science in NZ by Shaun Hendy, here, and Peter Griffin’s replicated graphs of 2011 gender in science, here.  Brilliantly visual indications of a nation’s science-gender despair.

I’ve been following the thread throughout the internet and it is glaringly apparent that if you agree with the presence of gender bias in science; it’s weak, you feel bad, you need more data before you can be sure, or you are criticised as being a ‘nazi-feminist’.  If you disagree you are automatically labelled sexist – there is no middle ground, and no one is happy with the discourse itself or the result of any debate.  But if it is indeed subconscious, and knowing about the issue is enough to make a start at causing change, is that not enough in itself?  Is the beginning of change and planting the questioning seed not a worthy goal?

Do you think this is an issue in NZ?  Do you think it is an issue at your university? (See?  See that cringe you pulled just then?  The fact that you are scared to even contemplate it is indicative of fear that it does exist and you will be persecuted for saying anything about it).

The commentary is not all bad – there is mention of cases being brought to the attention of senior academics that were completely unaware of the habit and immediately corrected the behaviour.

Do you amend marks or impressions for a female student to take into account emotional responses and social interactions in the lab which otherwise would have no impact on ‘school work’, if the student had been male?  Have you dismissed the complaints of a student with regards a lecturer because ‘she was just an overreacting, emotional young girl’?  Will you ever be able to make such a call ever again without seriously examining your own behaviour?  Are you judging me right now for raising this issue, and being female?  What if a male had written this post?  Are you a female academic struggling to be held to the same standard as your male peers and overcompensating by being a harsher critic of other female scientists?

Is it time we started calling for job applications (and theses for marking…) without names or gender?  If you dismiss that idea out of hand, are you doing it because you think you need to know the gender of an applicant in order to make a hiring decision?  In which case – why?  Why on earth would you?!

I want to raise children and be a professor.  I want to have a successful scientific career and a happy, healthy family.  I want to raise my sons and daughters in a world where having a penis on your CV does not earn you more money or gain you more opportunity, or more mentoring or easier advancement.  I don’t want the issue to be an issue any more, especially in my own dear field.

There is no excuse not to examine your own actions and the actions of the academics around you.  If you see it, call it out.  Change is needed, and it will be good.  Don’t be afraid.  Let’s talk.