Is sexism in science still an issue?

Tom Herzberg.

Tim Hunt’s recent controversial comments about women in science have sparked debate about whether sexism in science is still an issue. Whether or not Tim Hunts comments were well-intended, the reality is that science is still a largely male-dominated discipline and we need to question why this is and what we can do about it. The fact is that men and women are equally gifted at science (they perform equally well at GCSE). Yet despite equal abilities, statistics show that there are serious inequalities in the number of men and women doing science at A-level and university level. According to the institute of physics 46% of schools sent no girls to study A-level physics in 2011 and in 2012, 79% of students doing A-level physics were male. Furthermore, these figures have remained roughly the same for the past 20 years, with little noticeable improvement.


Why do these gender gaps exist when all evidence shows that men and women are equally gifted in the sciences? The answer is that unfortunately many old-fashioned stereotypes regarding men and women still pervade our culture. One of these stereotypes is that men are naturally more gifted in subjects such as science and maths, while girls are better at the arts and humanities. Evidence that these attitudes still exist can be found in the results of association tests carried out by researchers at Northwestern University and University California-Berkeley. These association tests are designed to reveal unconscious biases by asking subjects to associate scientific terms with gendered terms. The study was conducted across 66 nations and the results showed that across 34 countries 70 percent of people are quicker to associate male terms with science than female terms. This shows that science is still widely perceived to be a male subject. Furthermore, girls at school are more likely tato be afflicted by low self-confidence when tackling science or maths problems, causing them to do worse than they otherwise would, suggests a study by OECD. The problem then, is one of confidence, not innate talent. How can we address this? Firstly, stereotypes must be combatted through education. People tend to be more aware of the scientific contributions of male scientists such as Newton and Einstein. Perhaps making people more aware of the work of women in science such as that of Marie Curie, we can help to dispel the notion that women have no place in the scientific community and provide female role models. Secondly, parents should encourage both boys and girls to pursue careers in engineering if this is where their interests lie. According to a bbc article, ‘parents are steering their daughters away from careers in engineering, with only 3% encouraging it as a career, compared to 13% for their sons’. So it is vitally important that encouragement to pursue science careers takes place at home as well as in school.

The gender inequality in science also exists further along the academic line, with only 19 percent of researchers, 15 percent of lecturers and 5.5 percent of professors being female. To exploit an often used metaphor, this means that we have a ‘leaky pipeline’, with more women leaving physics careers than men. Research has showed that this is not because more women are choosing to leave, but because women are often hindered by academics (both gender) in climbing the academic ladder due to unconscious bias. For example, it was found that in blind studies, CV’s with female names were ranked lower than those with male names. On top of this male science professors are on average paid £5000 a year more than women and in some institutions the pay gap can be up to £21,000 a year, according to an article in the independent. Many organisations are already doing all they can do address these problems. The Institute of physics has launched a programme called ‘juno’, which rewards departments that actively address the under-representation of women in physics at university. Departments achieve ‘juno status’ if they meet the standards set out by juno. Departments are assessed against five principles, which include ‘A robust organisational framework to deliver equality of opportunity and reward’ and ‘appointment and selection processes and procedures that encourage men and women to apply for academic posts at all levels’. This is a step in the right direction, as attention is being drawn to the issue of gender equality in science. We also have soapbox science, which gives women a public platform to talk about what they do, which increases their visibility.

Another obstacle that women face in science (or academia in general) is the issue of maternity leave. Often it is difficult for women with short-term contracts to take maternity leave. Maternity pay is often more generous for staff in permanent positions than for staff with short-term contracts. Except that permanent positions in academia are predominantly held by men rather than women, so unless they have a long-term position, starting a family can severely impede a woman’s career. Of course, this is an issue that affects both men and women, however according to nature, female postdocs who become parents or plan to have children abandon research careers up to twice as often as men. Offering women better maternity rights would go along way towards closing the gender gap in science.

Sadly, sexism in science has a history. The scientific contributions of women have often been overlooked in the past. Most notable is the case of Jocelyn Bell, who discovered radio pulsars, yet the nobel prize for this discovery was given to Antony Hewish, her thesis advisor, who took credit for her work. History is rife with cases like these, so Tim Hunt’s comments were really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sexism in science.  Although things have greatly improved for women, cultural stereotypes are still deeply embedded and we must consciously try to rid ourselves of them in order to close the gender gap in science. If we do not, we are not only perpetuating gender inequality but we are also losing out on half of the available talent out there.

Is sexism in science still an issue?

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