Why Science is Sexist

By Siouxsie Wiles 05/06/2014

Dr Nicola Gaston is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington and a Principal Investigator of the MacDiarmid Institute. Recently she gave a talk at the University of Auckland entitled ‘Why Science is Sexist’. The storify of the tweets from her talk are available here. The talk was also recorded so I’ll post a link to that when possible.

Much is made of the difference between the numbers of men and women in STEM careers, with calls for more role models to attract girls into STEM subjects at school and university. It’s certainly clear that more could be done for subjects like maths and physics, but what is happening in biology shows there is more to the problem than a lack of role models for girls. We have plenty of girls studying biology at undergraduate and PhD level. Hell, there are also plenty at postdoc level. But then it all starts to fall apart, with a dramatic drop in the number of women becoming group leaders and eventually professors. This ‘leaky pipeline’ as it is called is often blamed on women wanting to have babies and sabotaging their career for their husband.

I’m one of these women. I gave up a lectureship at an excellent university to move to New Zealand with my husband after our daughter was born. I got a Hercus Fellowship from the NZ Health Research Council and started again, trying to finish all the projects I had going in London while building a new lab in Auckland. It has been hard. Really hard. So hard, I wonder would I still do it with the benefit of hindsight. It doesn’t help that the research I do is expensive but grant success rates here are in the single digits. While I would probably now be an Associate Professor had I stayed in London, I still don’t even have a permanent job. But is it all my fault? I sometimes wonder.

Nicola talked about how she started to think more seriously about sexism in science when she was sent a flyer for a ‘Women in Leadership’ session aimed at scientists which included a 2 hour session on how to dress appropriately. It was held by a woman who hosted a show called ‘Does my bum look big in this’. Seriously. Between shit like that, the European Union’s disgraceful Science: its a girl thing video involving make up and high heels, and comments like that made by Employers & Manufacturers’ Association chief executive Alasdair Thompson who actually went on record as saying the gender pay gap can be explained by women taking more sick leave because of having periods, Nicola started to look at the literature more closely.

So what’s going on? Nicola thinks its a combination of four things:
1. Actual sexism
2. Imposter syndrome
3. Unconscious bias
4. Stereotype threat

While it is hard to do much about imposter system – that feeling many people get that they aren’t good enough and will be found out an ejected from the ‘club’ (I get this on a regular basis), dealing with unconscious bias is the one we need to be working on. The studies Nicola talked about paint a depressing picture in which women essentially have to have better CVs to be considered equivalent to men. And that’s when women are being assessed by men and women. We are all biased. Nature ran a feature on the issue of sexism in science if you want to read more about it.

Nicola’s message was clear. We need to be transparent about how decisions are made, and collect data so we can see how we are doing. We also need to distinguish between role models and mentors. They are not the same thing. While it is clear we need good female role models to get women into STEM*, they then need proper mentors to keep them there – and these mentors can be men and women. Finally, Nicola says we need to educate and train people on encountering unconscious bias. Studies show that bias can be removed if, for example, specific criteria are defined before CVs are evaluated.

Nicola ended on a thorny issue – should we be adopting a quota system in science, like is being done in business? On the one hand this will force the issue, but it is likely to stigmatise those women who fill the quota, leaving them open to whispers that they wouldn’t have got there on their own merit. But maybe it’s time to stop ‘leaning in’ and teaching our girls to be ‘resilient’, instead demanding quotas and ignoring the whispers. As Nicola said, our priority shouldn’t just be to make it equally possible for women to succeed in science, but equally easy. We’ve been waiting long enough for the old guard to die out and look where that has got us.

*Speaking of role models, how awesome is it that Lego are going to be releasing a female scientists minifigure set? Of the six designs submitted by by Alatariel Elensar in 2012, Lego have just announced that 3 are going into production, with a release date of this August. They will be the astronomer, paleontologist, and chemist. Woohoo! (Although I still think our idea for dual-faced minifigs would be better…)

0 Responses to “Why Science is Sexist”

  • Imposter syndrome is a bit different from the other problems in that it isn’t specific to under-represented groups. Even white men get imposter syndrome. It may well be less disabling for us, since there’s a lot more other reinforcement that we belong, but subjectively it still happens.

    Like you, I’m ambivalent about quotas. I do think shortlist quotas are genuinely useful — that is, you can reduce the problem of just ignoring or forgetting about women (or any other relevant subpopulation) by setting requirements for a short list to be representative in any setting where there are lots of possible candidates. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it does help.

    I think it’s worth experimenting with real quotas, to see if they work. For example, I’d certainly be in favour of conferences trying it with invited speaker slots.

  • Quotas are not good, if women like science and want to do it they will. Just like yourself..
    Merit is what should rule

    • Thanks for commenting Derek, but I do wonder if you read the piece?! I agree that merit should rule but that doesn’t seem to be the case currently.

  • Hi Thomas,
    I agree completely. I made the point about imposter syndrome not being gender specific, but also mentioned the #ripplesofdoubt conversation on twitter which showed that there are elements of imposter syndrome which are strengthened by gender bias.
    For the quotas – again, I agree. I think it is worth thinking very hard about what a system with equal representation would look like – and it is very hard to see how to get there. But dealing with the root cause – through unconscious bias training etc. – is necessary unless you want to put quotas in for each underrepresented group – e.g. Māori. So I would conclude that we need a combination of the two approaches.

  • Siouxsie,
    It does seem like a bit of a travesty that you don’t have a permanent position yet given the breadth and depth of your skill base. One of the things I’ve noticed in the chemistry area is that there have been a lot more hiring of women lecturers and over time I suspect they will become professors, perhaps physics and maths are just lagging behind?
    That said, I don’t doubt that some people are sexist, there are some real jackasses out there, and it occurs in engineering as well

    Though at my institution, at least two of the last four engineers hired in the engineering area were women.