Comment: Science is Sexist

Science has traditionally been considered a man’s field: most scientific achievements are accredited to men, and the best-known scientists are male. Physics is a particularly male-dominated field, and female physicists often experience bias, unequal opportunities and a lack of support. Female scientists are becoming more accepted and their opportunities are slowly widening, however, this does not mean that things will be equal between male and female scientists for a long time.

The disparity in the experiences of male and female scientists is longstanding. There has always been a stigma against women studying physics, perhaps due to the belief that women should stay home and take care of the children and domestic work. And if women do work, they are only capable of jobs less demanding than typically male professions. This social construct manifests that science, especially physics, is more fit for boys.

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Chien-Shiung Wu, a Chinese-American physicist, known as the “first lady of Physics”, revolutionised the science of nuclear physics.  Photo: Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

Girls in single-sex schools are two and a half times more likely to take physics than their co-educated counterparts. In English state co-educational schools, 49% of teachers did not send a single female student to study physics at A-level, according to a study conducted by the Institute of Physics. In addition, a study conducted by the American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Centre demonstrated that women in physics comprised only 14% of the faculty and 20% of all undergraduate and graduate students.

This suggests that the odds are stacked against a girl before she even contemplates pursuing physics. She has to battle her teacher’s disparaging attitudes or the school culture, to prove that she is just as worthy as the boys. She is practically alone in a field dominated by men. If she does succeed in her field against all odds, she still has to wrestle the derogatory comments and condescending attitude of her equally-qualified male co-workers. Their sexism comes in many forms, from micro-aggression to blatant trespasses. If she is seen to take care of her appearance and wear makeup or jewellery, she will be accused of spending too much time on superficial matters and not dedicating enough attention to her duties as a physicist. This is simply a daily transgression that must be endured. Some infractions, however, are so severe that they threaten to diminish her entire career. For example, when women and men with equally impressive backgrounds and experiences were scored, the women generally scored lower in scientific competency despite having, in many cases, more publications in prestigious scientific magazines

Harassment experienced by women in male-dominated fields (e.g. scientific ones) is a longstanding problem. According to a recent survey published by the American Astronomical Society’s Committee (AAS) that studied 426 female astronomers, the great majority of them claimed to be the victims of sexism: 82% had experienced sexists remarks, 57% had experienced verbal sexual harassment and 9% reported having been physically harassed. In response to these discouraging statistics, AAS created an anti-harassment policy for conferences in 2008, which was quickly adapted and adopted in other societies for their own meetings. A hopeful step in the right direction.

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Physicist and mathematician Katherine Johnson was one of the earliest women to join NASA Photo: Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

Another survey published in 2004 by the Academic Field Experiences, which included 666 scientists, showed that many women felt pressure from male co-worker’s (harassment and assault) particularly early on in their careers.  Recent cases include a professor at Caltech, Christian Ott, who received very light punishment for the harassment of two female students and a situation at U Cal Berkeley, in which a young student was harassed and violated by an astrophysicist peer. The disparaging attitude towards women in physics is the result of many years of male domination in the workplace. Many men feel that women do not belong in a lab or conference, their resentment is evidenced in the harassment and rape culture that exists in the science field.

Peer-reviewed manuscripts are the essential currency of scientific advances due to the credibility afforded by independent scientific review.  When researchers submit a manuscript to a journal, the journal selects independent subject matter experts to review the submission. Scientists are invited to peer review based on their scientific reputation and accomplishment.  A recent study produced by a group of scientists from all around the world (including scientists from Yale and the Max Planck Institute) found that female scientists (a small minority in science as it is) are under selected for these jobs, compared to their equally-qualified male counterparts.

The result of this is a phenomenon known as homophily; a preference or bias towards your own group, in this case same gender. As there are more males in the scientific community, there are more males producing scientific studies. The more males producing scientific studies, the more males experiencing homophily, which results in more males being given unwarranted bias.

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Norwegian neuroscientist May-Britt Moser, along with her husband Edvard Moser and colleague John O’Keefe, received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2014 for her work on the spatial reasoning capacity of the human brain.  Photo: Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

While the fields of physics and physical science are particularly guilty in terms of sexism, in no way is it  absent from social science fields. The recent publication of a senior thesis by Alice H. Wu, student at the University of California, Berkeley, shocked the world when she investigated the difference in attitudes between male and female economists. They anonymously discussed each other on the professional website Economics Job Market Rumors. In her research, she found that the words most frequently used by males, when referring to fellow female economists were (in order): ‘hotter’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bb’ (slang for ‘baby’), ‘sexism’, ‘tits’, ‘anal’, ‘marrying’, ‘feminazi’, ‘slut’, ‘hot’, ‘vagina’, ‘boobs’, ‘pregnant’, ‘pregnancy’, ‘cute’, ‘marry’, ‘levy’, ‘gorgeous’, ‘horny’, ‘crush’, ‘beautiful’, ‘secretary’, ‘dump’, ‘shopping’, ‘date’, ‘nonprofit’, ‘intentions’, ‘sexy’, ‘dated’ and ‘prostitute’. These results are especially shocking when compared to how female economists referred to male economists on the website. They were purely professional, the list includes words such as ‘mathematician’, ‘textbooks’ and ‘pricing’.

Widespread discrimination and harassment is pervasive in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields as well, as demonstrated by the recent revelations by Susan Fowler regarding outright harassment, sexism and belittlement during her tenure as engineer at Uber.

While measures have been taken to improve the disparity between males and females in scientific fields, there is still a long way to go. Many cases of inequality and discrimination go unreported and many occur so frequently that some do consider it commonplace. However, as more awareness on this issue is spread, things do tend to improve and it is possible that at some point in the far future things will balance out to become even. Until then, women will have to speak out about the discrimination, let the world know we don’t have equality in the workplace and push for change in order to ensure that the future generations of women in science (and women globally) have a fair and equal experience and that no woman should ever believe that her gender holds her back in the world.

By Eva Kretsinger and Léna Garreau

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily endorsed by The Update. We encourage anyone who would like to send an opinion piece to sign up in the ‘About Us’ section of the website.

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