The ‘institutional’ discrimination of science

door handles for anatomy building at UCLPic: male and female door handles at UCL’s Medwar building (old anatomy building)

The Guardian asked me what I thought about a paper published in PNAS last week on the causes of women’s under-representation in science. This was my response.

For a more detailed overview of the paper, head to Gwyneth Dickey Zakaib’s piece in Nature (and be sure to read the scepticism of the comments too). Or the paper is open access, you can read it for yourself from the link above. Zakaib’s introduction summarises the paper’s major point very neatly:

Goodbye glass ceiling; so long old-boys club. The metaphor that best describes the challenge facing women in science today is the invisible web. Its multiple strands — some social, some biological, some institutional — can make it significantly harder for female researchers to achieve as much, as fast, as their male counterparts.

The authors argue that the under-representation of women in areas of science is not so much due to direct discrimination when women apply for grants or new jobs/ submit a paper, but more a matter of women opting out of the career-race to care for children, follow a partner or look after older relatives. We should not read this as blaming women who simply cannot hack it in science, or for choosing home over a devotion to science. Such women as often highly devoted to their scientific work, and could well still flourish in research careers if only the structure of such jobs allowed. As the paper concludes, universities could offer more flexible career development policies (part-time contracts, for example).

In the Guardian piece I dubbed this an ‘institutional’ form of sexism. This was the headline, so it’s the one everyone’s gone with, and not everyone understood. This is probably my fault, for which I apologise. I was in some respects echoing ‘institutional racism‘, an idea we have been familiar with in the UK since the 1999 Macpherson Report and refers to a sort of unwitting prejudice or ignorance which leads to disadvantage, often on the part of organisational systems as much as individual attitudes. The phrase has its own problems (not least: ‘er… just call it racism’) and I’m not a huge fan of conflating race and gender discrimination. Still, I thought it might help capture a point here, especially as I also wanted to fold in some points Athene Donald pulled out of last year’s Athena Survey on how women saw and were prepared for promotion procedures.

I’m keen to stress that such a culture/ structure for scientific careers can also put many men off the field, and that many women succeed across science. Gender can be a ready tool with which to play ‘spot the lack of diversity’, but it can be a rather blunt one too and there are many other questions to ask here (Imran Khan puts this better than I can though see also his notes on last summer’s A-level results).

Why does science get away with this? Simply: it is incredibly competitive. This some surprises people used to hearing about the relative paucity of science graduates, but this recent piece from the Economist on the ‘glut’ of PhD students and post-docs may help give some clue as to why. Universities and other scientist-employers of scientists don’t need to go through the hassle of offering part-time posts (something that’d benefit science in so many more ways that simply helping women to develop careers) because they’ll easily fill the full-time ones.

Please note, this isn’t about asking less of our scientists. It is about building more flexible frameworks for movement through scientific careers. If anything, it’s about being ambitious enough to question the status quo; to think about how we could make science better. Personally, I don’t understand why people don’t question it more.

4 thoughts on “The ‘institutional’ discrimination of science

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The ‘institutional’ discrimination of science « through the looking glass --

  2. Joana Andrade

    I’m really glad that you brought this up.
    A friend of mine posted a link to your blog in her facebook profile and it is depressing the quantity of young researchers, men and women, that come up with arguments like “people have to make choices” , “science is not for the lazy and non competitive”, “we all have to make sacrifices”.
    I think the problem is even more general, the way things are now, it’s very difficult for a woman with young children to have a job, it is just assumed that she will go home …if you are on a low income it is even worse because you simply can’t afford child care. I’m just amazed how people think it is ok to force people with children to become economically dependent or being forced out of the career ladder. And it’s even more unfair if you are a carer, which unlike having children, is not a personal choice

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