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Sexism in science a daily reality for women

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data proves the bias against women in science, now steps are being taken to balance the biasBut now a growing body of data is beginning to quantify the extent of the bias.

From publishing results to performing tests in a lab and securing the funding to do the tests, women face more and higher hurdles to success than do men.

Personal anecdotes abound of instances of sexism against women within science and academia, and a growing body of data is beginning to quantify the extent of such bias.

As one anonymous academic, writing in the Guardian, said, ‘I have been asked to divulge my relationship status and future maternity plans in interviews.

‘I have even watched my professor refuse to interview astounding female candidates because they have a child.’

As promotion and tenure increasingly depends on the amount of grant funding each researcher has been able to accrue, ‘gender bias partly explains why, although women hold half of all bachelor degrees in Europe, only 10 per cent of professors are women’.

The reason is likely down to the peer review process, where applications for funding for research are reviewed by a panel of the scientist’s peers.

Much of the bias that has been revealed is likely to be the result of the perceived and assumed competence of men.

Researchers have found that ‘in the peer review process, women had to be two and a half times more productive than male applicants to receive the same competence score.’

And ‘when double-blind peer reviewing was introduced for academic journals, there was a significant increase in female-first-authored papers, and a 33 per cent increase in the representation of female authors more broadly.’

Sexism in science is so widespread and consistent that not only do many women expect it, much of the research itself is gendered and biased.

The United States’ National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently addressed this imbalance by introducing a set of new policies due to begin in October 2014, to ensure that all research contains an appropriate balance of male and female subjects.

Writing in the journal Nature, directors from the NIH said that ‘the over-reliance on male animals and cells in preclinical research obscures key sex difference that could guide clinical studies.

‘And it might be harmful: women experience higher rates of adverse drug reactions than men do.’

Such an ingrained acceptance of the predominant use of male cells and animals is because of the traditional belief that the female hormone cycle would cause results to vary too widely to be useful.

That belief, for the most part, has been clinically debunked; however, perceptions and beliefs have proven to be much harder to change.

Following the NIH’s announcement, the University of Wisconsin-Madison women’s studies department announced a new fellowship.

Led by Professor Janet Hyde, director of the women’s studies department, the fellowship will uncover and reverse the gender bias in biology.

Hyde led a similar project years ago, culminating in publication in 2005 of an analysis of 20 years of research into gender bias in psychology.

A significant finding of that earlier research was that there are far more similarities between male and female psychologies than there are differences.

In defending the new fellowship, Hyde said ‘Many scientists believe that science is very objective and factual, [which is] a wonderful aspiration, but it’s actually not true.’

While ‘strenuous efforts are being made to get girls to consider science, engineering and mathematical careers, further down the line there are a large number of disillusioned women leaving science and academia.

‘What are we doing about that?’ asked the anonymous academic.

Another anonymous academic article suggests two options – quotas and anonymous research grant applications.

Neither is the perfect solution, and there are well-developed arguments for and against both.

However, until the systemic bias running through nearly every aspect of science and academia is eradicated, unpopular solutions may be the best option women have for beginning to redress the gender imbalance.

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