Why we are all biased against women in science

by Jenny Nicholls / 04 October, 2017
How many male scientists does it take to watch one fill a beaker? Photo / Getty Images

It's science, with a dash of sexism. Photo / Getty Images

The S word.

Richard, Gilles, Stuart, Neil, Denis, Howard, Stephane, Matthew, Mark, Roger, JJ, Miro, Malcolm, John, Shaun, Maarten, David, Rainer, Stuart, Dion, Scott, Nicholas, Craig, Kasper, Geoffrey, Peter, Anna, Frederique, Cather, Nicola, Katie, Tra.**

Police graduates? A forestry school? Prison guards? Firemen? Army officers? Pig farmers? CEOs?

Say hello to every senior academic listed on the website of the University of Auckland’s Physics Department, excepting honorary staff – that would be Paul, Gary, Barry, Ronald, Graeme, Chris, distinguished gentlemen all.

I mean no disrespect. These scholars are intellectual stars: the 32 All Blacks (and six Black Ferns) of New Zealand physics. Making tenure at a university is insanely difficult. Of 100 students awarded a science PhD (not easy in itself) in England, according to the British Royal Society, 0.45 per cent could expect to become a tenured professor – with women a sliver of this figure. New Zealand science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called STEM subjects) university departmental websites all show a striking lack of women.
Read more: Is science in New Zealand too white and too male?

What gives? After all, young girls have been beating boys at maths and science for decades. A paper published in 2014 (Gender Differences in Scholastic Achievement: A Meta-Analysis) by the American Psychological Association even pooh-poohed the so-called “boy crisis” in education because, the authors note, “girls’ grades have been consistently higher than boys’ across several decades with no significant changes in recent years”.

So what happens to all those girl maths whizzes?

Nature magazine devoted a special issue to “Women in Science”, thundering: “Science remains institutionally sexist. Despite some progress, women scientists are still paid less, promoted less frequently, win fewer grants and are more likely to leave research than similarly qualified men.”

In 2005, Harvard University president Lawrence Summers lobbed a match into a petrol can when he suggested innate differences were to blame for the pathetic number of female STEM academics. The theory is not new; in fact, it is shared by many thoughtful scientists and writers, from Steven Pinker to the English academic Helena Cronin. As men vary in ability more than women, the thinking goes, there are more male idiots – but also more geniuses to snag professorships and Nobel Prizes.

Wellington theoretical physicist Nicola Gaston is a senior lecturer in chemistry at Victoria University* and president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists. She thinks there is a powerful, but fixable force at work that’s holding women back, and she explains this eloquently in her new book Why Science is Sexist (BWB Texts).

Gaston points to a paper published in 2012 by Corinne Moss-Racusin that subjected senior scientists of both sexes to scrutiny. Chemists, biologists and physicists were asked to evaluate a CV for a mid-career role managing a laboratory. Some were sent a CV from “John”, some from “Jennifer”. The CVs were identical.

Yes, the duped scientists thought “John” deserved 12 per cent more money than “Jennifer”. They also thought “John” was more competent, and offered to mentor him more often. The biggest surprise? Women scientists who received the CVs were just as biased as their male colleagues.

“The clear message of the Moss-Racusin study,” says Gaston, “is that we are biased against female applicants.”

She thinks we could all be more aware of unconscious bias and of stereotypes. Like many other women scientists, Gaston has taken to social media – and it may be “hashtag activism” that leads to the fastest real change. An English geneticist told by a reviewer to add men as co-authors on her paper to “improve the analysis” was astounded when her four pissed-off tweets to 100 followers resulted in a public apology from one of the world’s leading journals. Her tweets provoked a Twitterstorm, and the hashtag #addmaleauthorgate.

“Research suggests,” notes Nature, “that hashtag-driven Twitter conversations can help to amplify the voices of people who are not powerful by conventional measures.”

Because perhaps it really is all about status. A male New Zealand scientist nailed this when he told Gaston in 2013: “But if studies are correct... we should be very concerned about increasing the number of women in science, because as science becomes more gender equal, it will lose status.” 

* Ironically, Nicola Gaston joined the University of Auckland Physics Department in March 2016.

**All staff have been updated as of October 2017

 

This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of North & South.
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