'Go Fix Your Make-Up, We're Working,' Female Science Students Are Told By Their Lecturers, Sexism Report Finds

Woman scientist touching DNA molecule image at media screen
Woman scientist touching DNA molecule image at media screen
Sergey Nivens via Getty Images

Females studying science, technology, engineering or maths are victims of "highly normalised" sexism, with one being told by a professor her good grades were down to her boobs.

One student had an abortion because she was worried having a baby would "ruin her PhD", a study into everyday sexism has found.

The report, by Bristol University students' union (BSU), also found 51% of students had at some point felt uncomfortable at university due to their gender, with 46% experiencing sexist comments.

The research showed how sexist comments towards females studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at university are becoming "highly normalised".

Students described how their male tutors have made sexist remarks such as "I've got all the blonde ladies to myself this morning", while another "made jokes about Rolf Harris and talked about the male students getting their female dates drunk".

One female student was told "go and fix your make-up, we're working," while another was informed her good marks were "due to having boobs/flirting".

Females are having to double check their answers are "definitely correct" before saying anything to avoid embarrassment or ridicule in front of their peers and lecturers.

One student explained, "men have seemed more critical when a woman speaks and certainly they find it funny if a woman was not to understand something or get something wrong". Another added: "[A] male lecturer said a female student's response to a question was 'women's logic' or something similar to indicate she'd misunderstood."

More than half of students felt they had to prove themselves to be as capable as their male peers, with 88% of staff believing it was difficult to balance an academic career with bringing up a family. Four fifths of staff say they felt uncomfortable in their place of work because of their gender while 64% had experienced sexist comments.

Daily sexism, worries about starting a family, lack of female role models and lack of support were all common concerns from university students and academics alike.

One student told researchers: "At my field site I had an abortion because [I] thought having a baby would ruin my PhD... More recently [I] had a big debate at this institution about.. whether women should have special funding or treatment. [I was] told women think differently and more likely to drop out of science for biological reasons, but [I was] given the message that women don't deserve extra help if they do want to stay in science and have a family…"

The student added she was "very confused" about her identity and value and worried her career would be over if she devided to have a family. "Wished I was a man so didn't have to face these complications," she continued. "Felt trapped between wanting to have a baby and wanting to stay in science, that it had to be one or the other’."

Another added: "my peers are all very friendly and welcoming. I find many of the professors to be in a 'boys only' club". Several female students are even told to treat breaks as a "chance to go to the gents", while another was told a task was "so easy a woman could do it".

One female had experienced "stereotyping female slurs from some lecturers, assumptions from technicians that I wouldn't want to do certain practical tasks because of my gender".

Another said her lecturer had made sexist jokes and "commented at his surprise if females perform better than their male peers".

Alice Phillips, BSU’s equality, liberation and access officer, said: "These findings illustrate that there is a real culture of sexism in STEM subjects that needs to be tackled.

"If universities value equality as much as they say they do, they need to start taking seriously the experiences of women in academia."

The findings follow Nobel prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt saying female colleagues "fall in love" in the workplace and "cry" when criticised.

"Three things happen when they are in the lab, you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry," he said.

The report concludes by recommending compulsory equality and diversity training be provided for all teachers of STEM subjects, including appropriate behaviour. The report's authors also want to see women tutors available in each faculty for women students who don’t feel comfortable going to their male personal tutor about a particular issue.

Bristol University said: "We will not tolerate discrimination, sexism, harassment or victimisation of any individual and any allegations are investigated and dealt with appropriately."

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