Sexism in Science: Problems and Solutions

Sexism in Science
Illustration of a scientist in the laboratory. Vector illustration, flat style

The march to improve conditions for women in science is like a well-oiled truck that’s gone into a ditch. I think we need to put on the brakes, think about things, then do a bit of reversing and pushing before we can start off down the road again. So let’s put the brakes on using equity. What is equity? Equity is defined here as equality of outcome, and has been taken on as gospel truth for many academic institutions. It assumes that if there’s a difference in the sexes, there must be something wrong. More men than women on a panel? How terrible! More male professors than female? A scandal! The solution? Create women-only initiatives and prioritise women in job hiring.

There are two main problems with equity. Take the example of majority or all-male panels. The Hoffsome stamp is associated with all-male panels. The problem with this undeniably amusing stamp is two-fold. First, as it seeks to tackle the negative trend of all-male panels, the stamp-appliers assume that there was inequality in selection. What if five men and five women were asked to be on a panel, but only four people could manage it, and they all happened to be male? Should we force women who don’t want to be on a panel to do it, for equity’s sake? An outcome that appears biased does not equal a bias in the selection process. Secondly, it smears the poor participants with claims of chauvinism and twitter-shames them. All-male panels may more likely to occur because underlying sexism, just as extreme climate events are made more likely by climate change. That doesn’t mean a particular climate event or all-male panel, happened because of those causes. It may have occurred for other reasons. I attended a conference with five women on a panel, and there was no online outrage over inequality of outcome (a Streisand stamp perhaps?)

​The second issue with equity is it seeks to make things fair for one group of people, by making it unfair for another group of people. This is not an improvement, in the same way that spinning in a circle is not a journey. Excluding or denying someone a job because of his gender is not equality in any coherent sense of the word. Also, I recall a feminist idea that women are worth more than their bodies. It’s quite unnerving that I might be hired for a job, not because I’m an excellent candidate, but because my vagina helps someone meet a quota. The problem with confronting equity is that we like having work, and will take any available. But it leaves a foul taste when you suddenly wonder: was that award, that job, that scholarship, just a patronising pat on the head, a way of saying ‘there was a male candidate who was more suitable, but you really need that extra help’? Thanks, but no thanks. Our truck has gotten into a ditch. We need to back up.

Both men and women face discrimination in science that needs addressing. Rather than focus on equality of outcome, think about equality of opportunity. This means that we work to eliminate biases and obstacles to all people being treated on an equal footing in all aspects of work. We chuck biased equity out, and explore what causes inequality of opportunity. Why are women professors judged differently than males by their students? Why do women still face sexual discrimination in science workplaces? Why are the numbers of female authors in medical journals decreasing?

Growing up in an academic family meant I was supplied with tales of how women would suggest ideas at science workplace meetings, have them dismissed, only for a man to suggest the same things and be lauded for it. One serious problem is the discrimination women face for belonging to the gender that bears children. ‘Publish or perish’ is law in scientific disciplines, and a gap in publication records is a source of anxiety for most scientists applying for a job. We must make sure that women are not disadvantaged when they have children: giving birth tends to get in the way of running experiments or commenting on the sixteenth version of an in-progress journal article. There are some awful problems which women can face at work which need to be addressed by everyone. Change will not magically occur by itself, and it is hard to accomplish. But having discussions with line managers, HR staff, and getting support from other colleagues starts the ball rolling. We all need to give employers the message that an equal opportunity environment is a highly desirable one.

Men also face bias and discrimination in science. There is a hiring bias against men, thanks equity, and paternity leave* is usually small or nonexistent (in the UK women get 39 weeks leave. Men get 2). Science is a stressful environment, and men’s mental health is often ignored and unsupported. In my time as a PhD student, I’ve learnt how many men are anxious giving presentations, have had to take time off work because they have severe depression, or struggle with drink or drug problems created through trying to escape stress. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK, and stereotyping men as blasé, unfeeling automatons that work without effort is immensely harmful. One of the trends we need to reverse on you may have noticed already. Most of the ‘sexism’ in science in the media is not about selection bias or maternity care. It’s about human interactions, and with the dawn of social media has come avoidance of a hard truth – human beings are complicated and difficult to interact with.

The sexism that women, and men, face at work is rooted in human interaction, and not in a simple way either. We often upset others without realising: well-intentioned or thoughtless actions are interpreted as something bad. When Matt Taylor and Tim Hunt made such doltish gaffes, their normal human mistakes were displayed for all to see. Matt Taylor was called an ‘asshole’ and other unkind names for wearing a shirt with cartoon-style drawings of scantily-clad women on it. I don’t think this is act of sexism, more a complete lack of professionalism and self-awareness, likely caused by being distracted by the not-insignificant event of landing a spacecraft on a comet. Tim Hunt was asked to do an impromptu speech at a conference dinner (it’s hard to watch your words when you are literally making them up in the moment). He said some words which offended a few people in attendance, and rather than seeking a private audience with him, those people thought the internet should know all about it. Thus, followed a not-so-merry internet dance of ‘he said, she said’, ‘this transcription said’, ‘this audio file said’, and so on.

These examples are case studies in how not to deal with sexism at work. Running to an online mob to get support for your offence is about as unprofessional as you can get. Instead, try talking to the person who has upset you, being as obvious, specific, and civil as you can. Make it clear that they may have upset you accidentally, but you feel their actions were inappropriate/ unprofessional/ something you’re not comfortable with. If they persist, or if the first offence is truly extreme (i.e. doing the sort of thing Donald Trump jokes about), then the next step is proceed directly to HR (and we need to make sure HR processes are fair as well). But it’s always best to try to deal with another human being face-to-face and to understand that they are just as prone to making mistakes as you are. Would you rather you were gently made aware of an error in private conversation, or to hear all about it in social media?

Dr Matt Taylor eventually apologised for wearing a controversial ‘sexist’


None of this means that there aren’t real sexists out there. But weeding them out means confronting the people who upset you, and finding out why they upset you, not just posting all their details online because you assume malicious motives. This is why we need to collectively work on making science a better environment for everyone, where we collaborate and work peaceably together. Ideas such as the Athena SWAN Award are good, but quickly risk becoming a bureaucratic tick-box exercise, where female scientists are handed a pile of work to prove a department has a ‘commitment to advancing the careers of women’. I know STEM departments whose Athena SWAN Awards deserve little more than a bitter ironic smile.

We can always make things better, once we get back on the right track. Beatrix Potter couldn’t read her submitted paper at the Linnean Society because she was a woman. Roughly one hundred years later, my mother’s half-sister was at a conference where women had name-tags reading ‘Professor Smith’, ‘Professor Brown’, which she thought was so progressive. Until she found out the women were all labelled with their husband’s names. Times have moved on rapidly, and gladly so: maternity leave is much more available and expected, there are far more women with families working in academia; there are more female and male academics sharing family work than before; more women are getting into academia and becoming professors. Though slow, mental health is becoming more of a recognised issue, for men and women. We can do much better, but only if we are not afraid to criticise our methods and work together to constantly improve on them. The giants whose shoulders we stand on are both male and female, after all.

*These numbers are for simple paid leave. Shared leave is also a possibility in the UK, however not everyone is eligible for this. More information here


About Suzanna Mason 4 Articles
Ecologist, Writer and Lecturer

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