By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 14/01/2016


Two people apply for a job managing a science lab: a male and a female. Who’s more likely to be hired and who will be deemed most worthy of a higher starting salary?

You might already know the answer to this question (spoilers: the bloke) but what’s behind the answer is what Dr Nicola Gaston has tackled in her book, Why Science is Sexist.

Dr Gaston, Victoria University – soon to be University of Auckland – theoretical physicist and past president of the NZ Association of Scientists goes beyond the anecdote of individuals and sifts through research showing that yes, science is sexist to discuss how that’s come to be.

Part of the Bridget Williams Books series of BWB Texts (“short books on big subjects”), Why Science is Sexist should be a quick read, except if you’re stopping every few paragraphs to gnash your teeth at what Dr Gaston is outlining.

One of the more teeth-gnashing pieces of research outlined is a study led by Dr Corinne Moss-Racusin and published in PNAS in 2012.

In brief, science faculty were asked to assess CVs from applicants for a laboratory management position, but the applicants were randomly assigned male or female names. The sinking feeling in your stomach should probably start about now.

“Male” applicants were rated higher on perceived competence, hireability and the willingness of the academic to mentor the applicant. But that’s not all: when asked to suggest an appropriate salary, the male-named applicants were apparently worth an additional US$4000. And it wasn’t just the male faculty members who differentiated applicants in this way, women did too.

This is the crux of Dr Gaston’s thesis: unconscious gender biases are at work constantly in the sciences (and presumably many other fields). If it’s starting right back at who gets a job and what their starting salary is, it’s easy to see how it could continue to ripple throughout the careers of men and women.

Dr Gaston’s book has been called eye-opening and thought-provoking. It is, but it is also a call-to-arms. Once our biases are laid open, it is our job to address them.

Science can only work when ingrained biases are constantly challenged. As a scientist you must be prepared, in the face of superior evidence, to throw out any theory you hold near-and-dear. This could be something a scientist has worked their life on, but out the window it goes if the evidence disproves it.

That’s why this book needs to be read by those in positions of power: heads of research groups, directors of research institutes, academics who foster and tutor up-and-coming scientists. Those in decision-making positions need to be open to challenging the ingrained, unconscious bias and habit of the field.

For that reason, Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Kate Hannah have launched a PledgeMe campaign, aimed at getting Dr Gaston’s book into as many academic institutes as possible. It’s already made its target of $3000, but if you want to contribute further you have a few more hours to do so.

If you miss out on getting a copy of the book that way, you can also buy it online via Bridget Williams Books or in good bookstores.

Featured image: Flickr CC, stavos.