The sexism of science

Posted: November 24, 2012 in Ethics, Jobs

There is a large disparity in the number of male verses female scientists at the faculty level.  While plenty of women receive Ph.D.s, a disproportionate number never reach tenure track level. Are scientists sexist? Do male scientists look down on female scientists, or is the problem more insidious, with female scientists also biased against other female scientists? A series of articles over the past few months have suggested that both men and women are equally sexist when it comes to how they regard female scientists. Two of these research articles specifically called out both Nature and Science. Now the editors of Nature have published their response.

Daniel Conley and Johanna Stadmark of Lund University, Sweden, published a Nature Correspondence with a simple message, commission more women scientists for “ the career boost of invitation-only authorship.” The first paragraph reads as follows: “We have analyzed the gender distribution of authors of News & Views articles in Nature and of Perspectives in Science for 2010 and 2011. Our numbers indicate that both journal sections under-represent women scientists.” While the authors are careful to point out that because full professors are the main invitees for News and Views, and women make up a smaller portion of full professors in both the US and Europe, the number women who are invited to submit these types of manuscripts is so low as to suggest additional underlying bias playing a contributing factor.

Conley published a similar Correspondence in Nature in 2005 addressing the journal’s lack of women authors chosen to contribute to their Insights section. At the count now two Conley and zero for Nature as far as a response goes, I am heartened to find a Nature Editorial addressing these shortcomings in their current issue. While the editors point out that they employ nearly equal numbers of male and female editors and reporters, they do own up to the apparent bias when it comes to author selection. Specifically, only 14% of paper referees were women in 2011 and only 18% of the scientist profiles in Nature were about women.

The editors write, “Our minds were further focused on the problem by a much-discussed paper published in September. The disturbing message of this blinded, randomized study was that US academics discriminated in hiring decisions and in salary against women who applied for a lab-manager position. Notably, female faculty members were as significantly discriminatory as males.” The study asked science faculty from research focused institutions to rate the application of a student for a laboratory manager position. Some faculty were given the application with a male name attached and some with a female name attached. Both male and female scientists rated the male applicant as more “competent and hirable” than the identical female applicant. Interestingly, the bias was thought to arise not because the faculty ranked the male higher, but instead because they ranked the female lower, i.e. the “female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent”. Additional analysis revealed that an underlying “preexisting subtle bias against women played a moderating role.”

While the editors of Nature posit that numerous factors, such as fewer female faculty in high ranking faculty positions, the reluctance of females to reach for the spotlight, and the larger share of household and childrearing duties performed by many women, play into the reason behind this apparent bias, they do not find those factors fully sufficient. They write, “That leaves the unconscious factors, and here we believe that there is work to do. We believe that in commissioning articles or in thinking about who is doing interesting or relevant work, for all of the social factors already mentioned, and possibly for psychological reasons too, men most readily come to editorial minds…. We therefore believe that there is a need for every editor to work through a conscious loop before proceeding with commissioning: to ask themselves, “Who are the five women I could ask?”

While I am cautiously encouraged by the Nature editorial staff’s renewed committment to irradiating or at least decreasing the underlying bias against women in science, I worry that these are merely talking points meant to placate a justifiably angry and frustrated readership and population of scientists. As they readily admit, the editors at Nature were “taken to task” by Conley in 2005 regarding their Insights section. If the editors were serious about fixing the problem, you would think they would have immediately reviewed shortcoming and bias existing in their other sections and if found, taken steps to eliminate. Obviously this was not the case, as Conely explains in his newest correspondence, sexism and bias still exist in both Nature and Science. Obviously these issues are complex and will not be solved overnight, but simply attempting to keep this inherent bias in mind, like the editors of Nature plan to do, seems to be too small of a step, regardless of it being in the right direction.

To me, an important question to ask is, ‘How does this underlying bias against women scientists arise?’ If we can eliminate the bias we wouldn’t have to worry about continually asking “Who are the five women I could ask?” Based on the data available, one could image that the cycle is: less women in the upper echelons of university faculty leads to decreased numbers of female scientists being invited to submit entries for News and Views and other such sections leads to less female scientists on prominent display leads to a lesser view of female scientists by both male and female colleagues leads to less women in the echelons of university faculty (and all of the interconnecting arrows between each stage). If this is even remotely reminiscent of reality, we find ourselves in a self-perpetuating and very dangerous cycle. How can we break this cycle? Where is the easiest point of entry? I think women for one can work to increase their market value as a scientist. Writing News and Views for Nature is not the only way to become noticed and respected by one’s colleagues and peers. The idea that scientists, both male and female, need to learn how to better market themselves is a concept that has been gaining increasing attention as the funding resources have become less and less plentiful over the past few years. Along these lines, FOSEP is reading “Marketing for Scientists, How to Shine in Tough Times” for our winter book club. I promise a blog post containing all I have learned once I have completed the book.

  1. News from University of California Davis – “Discrimination against women in science continues to be a problem, even in fields dominated by female researchers, suggests a new study from the University of California, Davis, that found a startling gender disparity in who is chosen to speak at scientific conferences. The study is being published today (Nov. 21) in the journal PLOS ONE.”

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