What’s the Deal With Sexism in Science?

Hello All!

Roz Franklin and her x-ray crystallography

Roz Franklin and her x-ray diffraction studies gave us our double helical structure of DNA

Welcome to another edition of ‘What’s the Deal?’, the blog that calls for tough conversations to be had to promote understanding and equality in the blogo-sphere.

In this week’s edition, we’ll take a look at a head-scratching reality of 2014: sexual harassment and discrimination in scientific fields. Despite legal protection in the workplace and the fact that STEM operations are trying heavily to recruit more women, sexism or reports of harassment occur far more often than one might expect.

To get our heads around the subject, we must understand that this is nothing new: the struggles of female scientists facing discrimination are well documented – scientists who provided a wealth of important research and scientific knowledge but were overshadowed or not given credit are just now starting to get the deserved credit. It is important to delve into this as a social crisis to change workplace cultures and provide the necessary means for prevention beyond just legal protection.

The Current: No one to report to

While the incidents of sexual assault on college campuses is raising awareness and beginning to change attitudes and avenues of reporting incidents, what happens beyond the campus and beyond the halls of research is less widely reported and less regulated.

Mildred Dresselhaus, a professor at MIT contributed to the discovery of buckballs and carbon nanotubes

Mildred Dresselhaus, a professor at MIT contributed to the discovery of buckballs and carbon nanotubes

In a study published in July, 64 % of survey respondents reported having experienced sexual harassment at a field site in which scientific investigation was being conducted. More confounding than the unacceptable, and illegal, behavior is the lack of a code of conduct and reporting  mechanisms available for victims of sexual harassment or assault. According to the study, only 1/2 of respondents recalled the existence of an actual code of conduct at their field site, and less than 1/4 said there was a sexual harassment policy.

The study, along with blogs and reporting that have profiled sexual harassment in the field of science writing, are revealing just how prevalent this systemic, problematic behavior is across scientific disciplines. The dearth of a quality reporting mechanisms is also striking.

Why is this happening?

Sexual harassment, like many social issues in the U.S., is still very pervasive across many parts of working society. Despite federal and state laws addressing discrimination and sexual harassment, the behavior persists, though at lower levels than in previous generations. In scientific research, much of the reported incidents of harassment or sexual assault have been directed from a superior to an inferior (trainee, grad student, etc.). In those situations, many victims fear a reprisal that would have them kicked out of their program or lose funding for their research. So even if there is a mechanism for reporting the incident at the organization, school, or research site, perpetrators might have less of a chance of facing repercussions.

Dr. Kate Clancy, who along with her Anthropological research, shares her own story of harassment in science with other women who have experienced discrimination or harassment

Dr. Kate Clancy, who along with her Anthropological research, shares her own story of harassment in science with other women who have experienced discrimination or harassment

Stories of harassment or assault often follow similar lines:

“We start with a young, enthusiastic, intelligent woman.  A male professor takes an intellectual interest in her, takes her under his wing, gives her a job and training.  When the inappropriate comments start, she feels uncomfortable, but says nothing. She feels indebted to the professor, and he has promised to guide her to a successful career.

Someone always asks, “Why didn’t she just leave?” Well, she might not leave because she is funded, and there aren’t many other opportunities. She may be too committed to the research.  She could be years into a graduate program, and changing professors would slow her progress to graduation substantially.  Potential new professors will want to know why she left, and it will be difficult to answer.  Others in her field will think she is an unreliable scholar for switching horses midstream. Her professor may refuse to give her a recommendation, limiting her options. She knows her life and her choices will become subject to public scrutiny. She knows that some would say that she was “asking for it.”  Finally, she knows that there is a lot to be lost from standing up to an abusive professor.”

In a highly competitive field for scarce funding, a reprisal could mean the end of the line, so incidents can sometimes go unreported. As can be clearly seen, all the laws in the world still aren’t be enough to resolve the issue an bring an end to inappropriate behavior. Until an open and free environment and culture can be created at the top of the structure along with guidelines, reporting mechanisms, and harassment training are instilled, the issues will continue.

Sex discrimination in science is a well documented fact. Some of our most important scientists were female and had to endure and encounter very difficult obstacles.

‘For Whomsoever Hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance, but whomsoever have not, from him (her) shall be taken away even that (s)he hath’ – Matthew 13:12

The list of female scientists who have been snubbed for credit of important scientific developments is long, too long. From nuclear fission, to bacteriophage discovery, classifying stars, mapping the universe, mapping the ocean floors, to the structure of DNA, female scientists have been left out of the textbooks and the halls of scientific recognition.

Charles Pickering and his female assistants, the 'computers' who mapped the universe

Charles Pickering and his female assistants, the ‘computers’ who mapped the universe. Including Annie Jump Cannon who created the modern Star Classification system.

This pattern of recognition (or lack there of ) is known as the ‘Matilda Effect’  – or ignoring female scientists in a research study or field. This was previously known as the ‘Matthew’ effect of giving credit to people with prior name recognition who often had little or less to do with a study than others (hence the biblical reference).

This sociological effect is one of the sources behind women losing out on scholar grants, lower odds on becoming a full professor, winning awards, sitting on scientific award boards, and as previously stated, receiving recognition for research. Studies on this situation reveal that:

‘although overt gender discrimination generally continues to decline in American society, our research is consistent with other studies that document the culturally held belief that women’s scholarly efforts are less important than those of men’

This effect is further verified by studies that have shown gender bias favoring men in accepting applicants for scientific research.  Faculty members (both female and male) rated male student applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the same female applicant. The results also showed male applicants receiving a higher salary and benefits.

Marie Tharp presenting her map of the ocean floor - an incredible effort since she was barred from oceanic expeditions because she was a woman.

Marie Tharp presenting her map of the ocean floor – an incredible effort since she was barred from oceanic expeditions because she was a woman.

So a cultural belief still exists in scientific fields that tends to ignore the contributions of women in science and considers them less important than those of men.

Is this the source of the relatively frequent sex assault cases in scientific field research?

Conclusions: Until the Right Structures and Cultures Exist

As is usually the case when we examine social issues, there is more than one cause to the issue. The preexisting culturally held belief that women’s scholarly efforts are less important than men’s has many causes. A long history of sex discrimination and treatment of women as second class citizens in the U.S. probably form the backbone of this belief.

Professor Elizabeth Blackburn discovered Telomerase, an enzyme that protects that ends of Chromosomes (telomeres) during replication

Professor Elizabeth Blackburn discovered Telomerase, an enzyme that protects that ends of Chromosomes (telomeres) during replication

But another issue that is telling is the exclusivity of scientific research and academia. The smaller percentage of females as managers or directors of research helps to keep workplace cultures  in the status quo – which as we’ve seen from the research studies done is discriminatory towards women. With less women and change at the top, modifying the workplace and research sites to include codes of conduct and sexual harassment training (and you know, regular respectful treatment of everyone, ie. Golden Rule) probably takes a back seat.

As is well known, women are significantly underrepresented in several scientific fields especially in engineering and physics. But even in scientific fields where women are the majority, such as psychology and primatology, bias persists – driven by organizers of scientific symposia – where women are given less time for presentation of research and participation. Cultures tend to be male dominated when there are less women around, but change of culture requires more than just female involvement.

This culture needs to change; No matter how many women are at a workplace, they deserve the same treatment and respect as any other employee. The change of culture starts at the top. For directors of research not to have a reporting mechanism in place or to ignore reports of sexual assault or discrimination is despicable. No employee or student should fear reprisal for being a victim of assault.

Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposhkin, the first woman to receive full professorship at Harvard

Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, the first woman to head a department at Harvard completed important research on the composition of stars by correctly interpreting absorption spectrums

By actually implementing and applying codes of conduct and sexual harassment laws beyond the campus to research sites and by adding more ways to report incidents (as required by law), there will be an improvement to the numbers and hopefully the culture.

Until the next revealing study spurs conversation and change,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

 

Sources and Further Reads:

http://www.nature.com/news/how-sexual-harassment-changed-the-way-i-work-1.14293

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/context-and-variation/2012/01/30/from-the-field-hazed-tells-her-story-of-harassment/

http://kateclancy.com/

http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0102172

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/12/science/harassment-in-science-replicated.html?ref=science&_r=0

http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/09/opinion/urry-women-science/

http://www.slc.edu/offices-services/security/assault/statistics.html

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130519-women-scientists-overlooked-dna-history-science/

http://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.full

Isbell LA, Young TP, Harcourt AH. 2012. Stag parties linger: continued gender bias in a female-rich scientific discipline. PloS one 7(11):e49682.

 

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About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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One Response to What’s the Deal With Sexism in Science?

  1. Susan Barsy says:

    Nice assortment of photographs. I liked the one of Pickering and his assistants in particular. The US definitely needs to develop the math and science genius in the whole of its population, not just a part of it. I believe that if we could do this in schools early on, the problems you write of here would eventually diminish. And all those girls who are good at math and science would get to enjoy a fuller life and perhaps gain great distinction as adults.
    Thank you for another thoughtful post.
    Cheers,
    SB

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