Sexism and Science

As with any other deeply embedded prejudice, sexism is difficult to identify. When it is excavated for all to see, there is immediate resistance and denial. Instances of misogyny are often subtle and those who propagate them often do so without malicious intent. Such behaviors are commonly labelled microaggressions. These microaggressions emerge as comments that discreetly or unintentionally support a biased belief and are the result of “a substantial demographic skew” within any group. (Serio 2016) This behaviour is widespread and naturalized within our culture because of long-standing imbalances of power, privilege, and precedence that are only recently being challenged. Academia is no exception.

The endless bombardment of such prejudices has a chilling effect on merit-based growth and so should be of universal concern. Within science faculties, sexism against women is pervasive and underrepresented. A Yale study found that if presented with identical applications from a male and female student, both male and female participants viewed the female applicant as less competent, less hireable, and warranted a lower starting salary. (Moss-Racusin et al. 2012) While female scientists can contribute to the field in the same ways as male scientists, they are systemically undervalued and underemployed. As a result, sexism continues to metastasize throughout the sciences (particularly STEM fields.) For disciplines built upon empiricism and objectivity, social bias is a serious methodological threat and must be treated as such.
As with any specialty, one should seek out those with the most relevant training and expertise to address this issue. The logical answer would be female scientists, as they have a lifetime of experience with sex-based prejudice within an academic discipline they themselves are a part of. However, appealing to an exclusively female panel is viewed as a specialized topic that is relevant for other female scientists, but not for the average male scientist. This is a common but overlooked manifestation of prejudice that portrays the male as the default. A light-hearted series of photographs reveals how everything from magazines to deodorant portrays male as a neutral default and female as a specialized category. (Sharp 2013) As a result, the insights and expertise of female scientists are underutilized by those who are most at risk because they are not viewed as universally applicable.
Combating sexism demands a multifaceted strategy. The first and foremost concern should be dismantling the myth of the pure meritocracy within science. It has the same vulnerabilities as any other discipline, but they are compounded by a belief that biases cannot exist within that environment. During an interview, Trevor Noah said that “racism does not stand up well to contact.” (Breakfast Club Power 105.1 FM 2016) The same can be observed with sexism in academia. Integration should therefore be a primary concern so that the cues that drive and justify microaggressions are unmasked as subjective and culturally prescribed.
Science students should therefore be exposed to the expertise of female scientists as part of their basic training. Attending international conferences for women in STEM would become less of a specialized event meant for women and an event that is vital to the integrity of scientific inquiry. To expunge prejudice is not the sole responsibility of those who are directly affected, but is the responsibility of everyone who values the pursuit of knowledge.


Breakfast Club Power 105.1 FM. “Trevor Noah Talks Lomi Lahren, Donald Trump, Racism in America & More.” Youtube website, December 7, 2016. Accessed October 8, 2017.

Moss-Racusin, Corinne A., John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman. 2012. “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.” PNAS website, August 21, 2012. Accessed October 8, 2017.

Serio, Tracy. 2016. “Speak Up About Subtle Sexism in Science.” Nature website, April 28. Accessed October 8, 2017.

Sharp, Gwen. 2013. “Male as the Neutral Default.” TheSocietyPages website, February 16. Accessed October 8, 2017.


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