People are often surprised to hear of the gender imbalance that exists in academic science. Despite some progress in recent decades, statistics show that female researchers still receive less funding, are paid less, and are more likely to leave a research career than similarly qualified men. This week, a series of stories emerged, which highlight the systemic discrimination that plagues the scientific community to this day. Whether we like it or not, sexism in science is alive and well, and until female academics have the same opportunities as their male counterparts, it is an issue that cannot be ignored.
The week's first inflammatory reports came courtesy of Dr. Alice Huang, a senior faculty member at the world-leading California Institute of Technology. A highly respected academic, she is also a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a regular contributor to the organisations flagship journal Science. On Monday, Huang authored a hastily deleted column in an online careers section entitled, "Help! My advisor won't stop looking down my shirt!".
In the eponymous "Ask Alice" feature, an unnamed reader approached the journal, seeking advice on the best way to deal with her supervisors repeated and unabashed attempts to look down her shirt. In reply, Huang suggested she should simply "put up with it", before adding that even though his attention on her chest was unwelcome, "you need his attention on your science and his best advice."
Dr. Huang is in her mid 70's and it is worth noting that she is likely to have spent large portions of her career in male dominated environments where tolerance could well have been the most palatable option. Despite this, her grin-and-bear it attitude is symptomatic of a broken system, where casual sexism is viewed as a drawback of the job instead of something to be publicly denounced.
In a second, related story, Nobel Prize winner and Fellow of the Royal Society Sir Tim Hunt garnered widespread media attention for a series of ill-judged comments made at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. Having first thanked female attendees for making lunch, Hunt went on to voice his support of gender-segregated labs, and remarked that his problem with "girls" is that they cause men to fall in love with them and cry when they are criticised.
Hunt's comments prompted a flurry of activity as various academic institutes raced to distance themselves from his toxic remarks. The Royal Society was first to react, issuing a statement late on Tuesday night. Soon to follow was Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick institute where Hunt is listed as an Emeritus Group Leader. In an email sent to all 1300 employees (below), Nurse emphasised the institute's commitment to workplace equality and stressed the importance of actively supporting women in their careers. On Wednesday, a remarkable day culminated with Hunt's seemingly involuntary resignation from an honorary professorship held at University College London.
Whilst acknowledging the severity of Hunt's actions is an important step in the right direction, it is amazing that in our current era situations like this are even able to occur. Hunt has a responsibility as both a role model and ambassador for our profession, and his disparaging comments perpetuate the gender stereotypes that drive talented female scientists away from promising careers in research. Perhaps more worrying is the fact that these stories of casual sexism are not isolated events. Whether it is the German research institute extolling the benefits of a robot that won't get pregnant, or the female-authored manuscript that is rejected through its lack of male authors, sexism in academia is the norm.
To counter this issue, a number of initiatives have been set up in recent years to promote the role of women in science. A joint programme backed by French cosmetic giant L'Oréal and UNESCO for example, awards fellowships to help exceptional female researchers pursue a career in academia and many learned societies, such as the British Society for Developmental Biology, award annual medals that celebrate the contributions of women. These gender-restricted initiatives are prone to criticism, generally from people claiming that such approaches unfairly antagonise the rest of the population. In fact, the opposite is true, what would be unfair would be to allow the current system to continue as it is. In an ideal world, there would be no need for positive discrimination, but our lack of progress in tackling gender inequality indicates that a proactive approach is required.
Sexism is a bad thing for everyone in research, regardless of gender. Whilst the effects it has on men might not be so obvious, as a universal problem it is important that everyone speaks up about it. Until we can prove that all talented scientists have the same prospects and opportunities regardless of their chromosomal make up, we must actively seek out parity. In light of recent news, we may have some way to go yet.