Naming the Demon – Sexism in Academia

[This post inspired by Ada Lovelace Day, a woman with confidence in her abilities – “This brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show.”…]

A while ago I was chatting to a male colleague and the subject of Athena Swan came up. Athena Swan, if you haven’t heard of it, is an initiative to get Universities to commit to supporting women in science. The colleague pointed out that if we looked around the room, actually as a male he was in the minority, so questioning why Athena Swan was such A Good Thing.

Now, I’ll admit, in this instance there were more women than men in the room. In fact, in my career this has usually been the case – I worked in Psychology, now in Health Services Research, both female dominated. But in this case my learned friend wasn’t being very learned. Because the minor issue he neglected was that the majority of the men there were Professors, and the majority of women there were research assistants, associates or admin staff. It’s pretty clear – I think – that the issue of women in science isn’t just about the numbers. It’s about the inequality in levels of success and career progression. As one piece I read recently put it, given that more women are on the ground floor in these subjects, when you look at the top levels they’re still dominated by men. So where, exactly, do all the women go?

The obvious answer, perhaps, is that they just leave, and there is evidence of this, with female PhD students apparently less confident about their chances of an academic career and a lack of supportive female role models higher up for them to emulate. Often the impact of maternity leave on career prospects is raised as well, and Athena Swan is certainly concerned with these issues of mentoring, support and helping women who take maternity leave to re-enter academia.

But I’m going to go a step further here, and suggest that women aren’t just self-selecting out of these higher roles, but also that there are more pernicious forces working against them. Consider these two studies:

  1. An experimental study gave a group of scientists the same academic job application (in this case, for a lab manager) but varied whether it has a female name on it or a male one. The application with the male was rated significantly higher than the female one in terms of ‘hireability’, competence and how much the scientists would be willing to mentor the new recruit. As a kicker, the female applicant also got offered a lower starting salary.
  2. Another study retrospectively reviewed 3000 articles published between 1980 and 2006 to look at whether the gender of their authors impacted on citations.  Papers with an all-male author list were cited more frequently than papers with all-female authors (an average of 5x more), even when controlling for factors such as how prestigious the author’s university was and how high ranking the journal.

Depressing, huh? I have to say, I find these results pretty convincing that women don’t just give up on careers in science – science seems to be giving up on them first.

But here’s something really important: In both study 1 and study 2, women scientists were as guilty of this bias as men. Another male colleague of mine, when I pointed out what I considered to be an instance of sexism at work, responded that the person responsible was female, as if this somehow means it’s not about sexism at all. Of course, women are perfectly capable of being sexist – just as men are perfectly capable of being feminist. This isn’t about out-and-out man vs. women gender wars, it’s something both more subtle and more pervasive, and harder to spot and change. I’m sure there are some scientists who are explicitly sexist (both male and female), but the majority of us – and I mean ‘us’ – are more likely falling prey to biases that are much harder to see. In study 1, none of the scientists said “I’m not hiring some skirt to run my lab.” Instead, it was their judgement of the lack of the competence of the female applicant that was shown to mediate their response. But we know, thanks to the experiment, that the female applicant had exactly the same objective competence on paper as the male applicant – but the perception of it was skewed.

Rather than outward misogyny, it’s likely these biases are hidden, loitering in our subconscious or in the socio-cultural set ups we find ourselves in (this post talks about how social psychology can help us examine these effects, for example looking at ingroup vs outgroup effects and implicit associations.) So women and men who favour equality are in this together – because women are operating under these biases just as much.

I think that’s exactly why work like Athena Swan is important – to encourage us to look for those biases, and think about what we can do to correct them. Perhaps the essential first step though, which again Athena Swan is supporting, is to start recognising these issues. I respect all the colleagues I’ve worked with, and I call a lot of them friends, and so of course it’s uncomfortable to start talking about prejudice and bias and inequality. But in fantasy novels, a lot is set by the power of names – you name the demon, and take away its power. I want this to be the reality in science and academia – let’s name sexism for what it is, and perhaps then we can start to chip away at its power.

Let’s finish again with a quote from the Countess, about optimism for the future even if our current vision is clouded:  “Though I see nothing but vague & cloudy uncertainty in the foreground of our being, yet I fancy I discern a very bright light a good way further on, and this makes me care much less about the cloudiness & indistinctness which is near. – Am I too imaginative for you? I think not.”

 A final note: I think it would be wrong of me to finish this post without acknowledging there *are* more explicit cases of sexism in science and academia (and we’re just as bad at calling them out as well). Two examples would be the absurdly misguided ‘Science – it’s a girl thing!’ campaign, driven by the idea that women would seek out more careers in science if we just showed them how pink it is and how many male scientists would be around to ogle their high heels,  and, much more disturbingly, the recent revelations about sexual harassment in the sciblogging community.

A final, final note: If after all this talk of biases you’re feeling like walking into traffic, try this – a fantastic parody of the Girl Thing video by some Bristol Neuropsych students who, quite frankly, should be RUNNING SCIENCE.

UPDATE October 27th 2013: An excellent post here by Chris Buddle about harassment and inappropriate behaviour towards women in academic science, including a list of actions we can all sign up to now to start changing things, like helping foster a culture of openess to talk about problems when they occur, and learning about the policies and procedures available to act on them.

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