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Sexism in Science 101: Mythbusting

20/03/2014 14:30 GMT | Updated 20/05/2014 10:59 BST
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In the afterglow of International Women's Day on 8 March, and right in the middle of Women's History Month, feminist issues are making a lot of headlines right now. Having recently set up a group of UK female science journalists trying to address issues of sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace, I've been thinking a lot about the powerful senior female scientists I've interviewed over the years.

These are formidable women and I'm always keen to know how they forged their career in a male-dominated world. Whatever we happen to talk about during the interview - from stem cells to malaria vaccines - I often ask them whether they've encountered any sexism in their career. Their answers are disappointingly revealing of how sexism in science is brushed under the carpet. Either they tell me that they've never experienced sexism at all (something I find a little hard to believe given that many of these women started their careers in the 1960s and 1970s when women were just starting their fight for equality), or that they have experienced sexism, but believe women shouldn't worry about it and should just brush it off and get on with their careers.

While I acknowledge that some women genuinely haven't experienced it, the fact that so many senior women scientists refuse to engage with feminist issues bothers me deeply - not because I'm a blinkered women's rights campaigner, but because equality in science matters to me. Even in 2014, the gender balance of roughly 50/50 of men and women at graduate level drops off at postgraduate level, and tails off even more alarmingly at senior positions such as heads of laboratories or universities.

Sexism in science is still talked about in hushed tones in corridors - either people want to pretend it doesn't exist, or they feel too uncomfortable talking about it. But without getting too Oprah about it, being silent is doing none of us any favours. So I'd like to bust a few long-held myths about sexism in science. If you think I'm wrong, tell me in the comments section - more than anything, I'd like to see more debate about these issues.

Myth 1: It's a man-bashing exercise.

Men, it's not all about you. When I wrote recently about sexual harassment in science journalism, a really common response from male colleagues was "Don't tar us all with the same brush, we're not all like that." To which I'd say: "Men, relax and keep your egos in check". Just because I'm talking about a few men, it doesn't mean I'm talking about you, and you really don't need to feel threatened. If you're a decent male scientist or science journalist who treats female colleagues with respect, that will be obvious. This is not an attack on men everywhere, just the ones who behave inappropriately.

Myth 2: Feminists are a tedious bunch of shrill angry women.

There's nothing more depressing than hearing a female scientist say "I'm not a feminist, but...", or making statements like "I'm not a feminist, but an equalist". Perhaps this is the pedantic journalist in me, but let's clear this up once and for all. A feminist is someone who believes in equal rights for men and women. That's it. It really is not any more complicated or overwrought with nuance than that. And yes, believe it or not, this means that men can be feminists too.

But while we're talking about this, I openly admit to being angry - but the thing is I don't feel like I have to apologise for my anger. This anger isn't irrational rage, it is genuine ire borne from taking a good hard look at the world around us. In an era where equal rights and treatment for people with disabilities has brought us the beauty of sporting events like the Paralympics, and we have a Black President of the United States, why is misogyny in society (such as the tacky Robin Thicke 'blurred lines' variety) or sexism in areas like science still frequently unchallenged? It's 2014, for heaven's sake, and I think I have every right to be angry that it's still an issue.

Myth 3. I've struggled to get to top in my profession, so I really don't need to worry about this.

It may be true that if you haven't felt like you've endured a particular struggle, you don't necessarily think it's a major issue. I'm ethnically Indian, but I don't go out of my way to encourage more Indians into science. But that's only because if there's one area where Indians aren't struggling for representation it's science and medicine. Having said that, if I was asked to talk about how to attract more ethnic minorities into science, I would do my best to intelligently engage with the issues. Ignoring inequality, especially in an egalitarian field such as science, is just not an option. Just because a few women have made their way to the top of their scientific field, that's not to say that hundreds haven't fallen by the wayside for lack of support.

Ultimately, sexism and harassment, like any form of discrimination is about power. The more sexism against women in science is left unaddressed, the worse off science is an enterprise.