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Women in science: is sexism still a problem?

ByA.K. Brown

Feb 10, 2017

Peer review is the stringent process by which scientists check each other’s work. Within two of the most prestigious scientific journals, Science and Nature, women make up just 26 per cent of first authors in submitted research papers, and just 20 per cent of all peer reviewers nominated.

Similar statistics are seen in journals throughout a plethora of fields, despite the rising number of female researchers worldwide. This seems to be indicative of a larger problem of sexism within science.

It is certainly not for lack of enrolment. Over half of the students attending university are women. Of these, a whopping 77 per cent of students studying veterinary science are female. The figure for psychology is even higher at 79 per cent. The majority of students studying degrees in anthropology (72 per cent); ophthalmics (69 per cent); anatomy, physiology and pathology (64 per cent); forensic and archaeological sciences (61 per cent); and pharmacology, toxicology and pharmacy (61 per cent) are female.

So what’s the problem? It could be at least in part due to the availability of a mentor. Far fewer female researchers who have spent decades in the field are available to guide new talent. Very little advice can be found on how to withstand micro-aggressions, setbacks, and outright harassment when the majority of those who have been able to achieve this, ‘master-status’ are male.

This issue however may be more subversive than that. True to form, when – as a community – scientists realise something isn’t right, we study it. A paper published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed a strong bias against hiring women into science positions. Science faculties from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student who was randomly assigned either a male or female name for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the identical female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses. Female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against a female student.

In another study on gender segregation, scientists themselves reported that they felt it was due to discrimination in early education.

Beginning in primary school, female children who display an aptitude for science are encouraged to pursue interests primarily in just three disciplines, psychology, social science, and life sciences such as biology. The result of this is that in 2017, 81 per cent of women who are able to crash through the myriad barriers set before them within academia end up concentrated in these very same three fields.

Does this matter? There are plenty of examples to show that it does. Male-dominated science and technology allowed women to be killed by first-generation car airbags at speeds of only 20mph, because engineers did not know that breasts closer to the steering wheel may push airbags up to the neck. And over the centuries anatomists forgot about and, ‘re-discovered’ the clitoris at least six separate times before the scientist Helen O’Connell put a stop to it.

Researcher Elaine Howard Eckland has perhaps said it best: “If women experience barriers to entry or success in certain science disciplines, science and even society as a whole suffer by losing important human capital that might contribute to advancing scientific knowledge.”

Image: Lavitt Alan

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