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Sexism in science: one step back, two steps forward

The call for a male author on a paper was met with outrage from within the scientific community and the general public. Keoni Cabral/Flickr, CC BY

Sexism in science: one step back, two steps forward

Two postdoctoral researchers took to the internet last month after having their research paper rejected for publication on laughably sexist grounds:

Fiona Ingleby of the University of Sussex, and Megan Head of ANU were advised by an anonymous reviewer from journal PLoS One to “find one or two male biologists to work with”.

The reviewer supposes that having a male co-author would improve the paper, reasoning that men work more hours per week on average, “due to marginally better health and stamina”.

The reviewer added that:

Perhaps it is not so surprising that on average male doctoral students co-author one more paper than female doctoral students, just as, on average, male doctoral students can probably run a mile a bit faster than female doctoral students.

The sound of foreheads being slapped rung out across the globe. The internet was ablaze with righteous feminist fury, collegiate sympathy and words of support.

The results of Head and Ingleby’s research would perhaps fail to surprise the reviewer as well: after surveying 244 people with PhDs in biology, they found that on average men had better job prospects than women. They suggested institutional gender bias was to blame, though perhaps the reviewer might put that down to women’s “natural” disadvantage.

PLoS One has since sincerely apologised, sacked the reviewer, sent the manuscript to a new editor and called for the resignation of the Academic Editor who handled the review.

One step back

This incident confirmed two things for me: first, that sexism is alive and well within the scientific community; and second, that we’re making progress in its rectification.

Deplorable as the review was, its discussion and the attempted mollification of the wronged parties suggest reasons for optimism. To me, it is an indicator of very real progress within the scientific community.

The dominant assumption used to be that scientific research is self-correcting, and therefore incapable of bias. It was thought that the process of scientific research enables, or ought to enable, a “view from nowhere”. This is the notion that science is neutral, so it doesn’t matter who does the research because the results will be the same.

In living memory, arguments have floated around in the mainstream that science doesn’t need social diversity because of its inbuilt neutrality. This assumption squashed the potential for honest confrontation of bias within scientific research.

Since the mid-1990s there has been an upward trend of both qualitative and quantitative research into gender segregation within science, as well as ongoing efforts to address the existing gender imbalance.

Gender in science has become an academic discipline in its own right, producing primary research as well as countless historical, philosophical and sociological insights from universities across the world. Head and Ingelby’s work is in fact a part of this burgeoning discipline.

Various organisations have formulated initiatives to address the now well-documented gender imbalance in science. The Royal Society, for example, has taken it upon itself to become better informed about its own gender bias. At home, the Science in Australia Gender Equity Forum is engaged in continuing discussion as to how to address this problem.

Stanford science historian Londa Schiebinger is the project director of a huge and ongoing research project called Gendered Innovations, which was founded in 2009. The project provides governments and the scientific community with practical methods for sex and gender analysis in science.

Schiebinger has been talking about the relationship between gender and science since 1989. She remarked recently that even twenty years ago, “nobody wanted to listen to me”. Progress might be slow, but the cry for gender diversity certainly isn’t being ignored anymore.

A kind of progress

The public’s reaction to the PLoS One review is testament to our commitment to eradicating gender bias within the scientific community. The backlash caused by this event was not because we want to see these two particular researchers published, but because we will not abide their rejection purely on the grounds of their gender.

Ironically, even the blameworthy PLoS One reviewer is concerned about gender diversity in scientific research. The reviewer was concerned that the research may be in danger of “drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically biased assumptions”.

The justification for the reviewer’s request that a man co-author the paper was patently ludicrous. Yet among the garden-variety sexist nonsense there lies a glimmer of hope. The reviewer’s comments were pointed particularly at combating potential gender bias.

While this review serves as one among many examples of real and variegated sexism within the scientific community, it also shows how perfectly ordinary it is to show concern or criticise a research paper for potential gender bias.

Over the last two decades, the public and the scientific community have come to understand how diversity enriches the quality, and the very content, of scientific research. Achieving diversity within the scientific community is the best and only way to ensure that inevitable biases within research are recognised and countered.

While the PLoS incident was deplorable, the reception of the review by the researchers, the journal and the broader public reveals just how far we’ve come in our attitudes towards gender and its potential impact on scientific research.