“Just don’t hire a woman”

Sexism in STEM fields isn’t as bad as you think. It’s worse than that, according to David Kent.

As many of our readers are aware, I have recently taken up a position as a group leader at the University of Cambridge, and in that transition from postdoctoral fellow, I have become even more acutely aware of the severe problems that still exist when it comes to equality amongst male and female researchers. These are not things that are said in public, but rather they are structural and personality barriers that stay behind closed doors. These actions are sometimes subconscious bias (which is difficult to fix at the best of times), but often they are outright bigotry – all of this at the houses of free thought known as universities.  Professor Fiona Watt – a real juggernaut in stem cell research – wrote a fantastic piece in eLife a couple of years back about her 30 years of experiences and interviews with female researchers. I encourage a read (and a cry).

As part of my new position, I have sought advice from colleagues from across the world and some of the advice received and conversations had have appalled me – and there seems to be very little recourse for how to enact systemic change. For example, I sat with another junior group leader discussing strategies for hiring a postdoctoral scientist. I explained that I only had one position and needed to be very careful about choosing the right person. He agreed, and then shot a knowing look at me and said, “Just don’t hire a woman, if they get pregnant, you’re screwed.”

Because men don’t have children, you see, it’s only women who do that. Stupid bitches. Don’t hire them.

My department’s faculty members (especially the more senior ones) are mostly male – this is not the exception and has had much ink spilled previously. Perhaps this will change with time, but my recent experiences suggest that there are many out there who passively discriminate against early career female scientists.

Just this month, I was at a conference drinks reception speaking with two male colleagues and the topic shifted to a rising star in the clinician-scientist world. This researcher was climbing the ladder quickly, was attracting lots of funding, and she was female. While I grant that her publication record may not have been as stellar as some in her position, the comment out of one colleague’s mouth made my hair stand on end – “she would never be so successful if she wasn’t a woman.” I wonder if this same person could even fathom a male scientist being in a position that he did not deserve relative to others’ achievements? Or perhaps that he only got his position because he was male?

It’s especially hair-raising (or funny, depending on your mood) in tandem with the “don’t hire a woman” remark. Don’t hire a woman because if she gets pregnant you’re screwed, and at the same time, that woman over there got all this extra success because she’s a woman. How did she do that, exactly?


  1. iknklast says

    I remember my brother insisting to my parents that he couldn’t get a job because he wasn’t a black woman. Like they were hiring only black woman history teachers in Oklahoma City. No, he couldn’t get a job because (1) he didn’t coach, an absolute requirement for a history teacher in Oklahoma City; (2) he didn’t bother to put on a clean shirt or take a bath before interviews; and (3) he didn’t keep his rather Nazi opinions to himself, and they could smell the lawsuits (along with the sweat).

  2. iknklast says

    The interesting thing about my brother in that regard is that, in addition to insisting that black women were the only ones getting jobs anymore, he also insisted that black women were all on welfare, and seemed to think they were the only ones on welfare. He hated women and he hated people of color.

    Sorry for the second post; I need to think before I hit post comment.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    How did she do that, exactly?

    Just ask iknklast’s brother, he’ll open your eyes!

  4. quixote says

    Right up there with “don’t hire them” and “successful only because female.”

    Way back when, 1950s? 1930s?, Macy’s Department store in New York though they’d hire some black retail workers instead of just whites. But they were worried about loss of sales, so they did a bunch of market research asking shoppers (who I’m guessing were all white) whether they’d buy from a black sales clerk. There was a large majority saying, “No.”

    For some reason, some sudden attack of leadership or something, they decided to go ahead and hire blacks anyway. Then they studied the sales figures. It made zero difference. Whites bought just as readily from blacks.

    A sociologist figured it out for them. The fact that these sales clerks were hired by Macy’s gave them the stamp and approval of authority, and that was all it took to keep the racism down.

    tl:dr; Nothing is ever going to change minds except quotas. Once people have no choice but to work with the hand authority has dealt them, they’ll suddenly manage to do it without any problem.

  5. anat says

    quixote, that approach works only as long as the authority in question is considered legitimate.

  6. freemage says

    Of course, the whole “if she gets pregnant” thing is a lovely case of self-fulfilling prophecy.

    1: Women get locked out of some positions. This forces them to accept lower paid positions, or to accept a lower salary than a male peer, in order to get hired at all.

    2: Frequently, when a couple has a child, they quickly determine that two salaries don’t go as far as you’d think when you’re paying for a nanny, and realize that, as a family, they will do better if one stays home, and the other continues to be the primary breadwinner.

    3: While it’s not a rock-solid rule, most people socialize, and ultimately marry, within their own economic bracket, in part because of commonality of interests and experiences. This usually means that in a husband-and-wife couple, the employment tier is about equivalent.

    4: Remember the wage-gap from #1? Well, it comes in hard, here. If you’re talking about sacrificing half your household income in order to not have to pay for a nanny, every penny counts. Even a small (say, under 10%) difference tilts the balance towards the higher-paid spouse–which is usually the husband.

    5: So the woman takes time off to get the kid to the kindergarten stage, and her former employer says, “See? I told you it doesn’t make sense to pay a woman as much!”

    Wash, rinse, repeat.

  7. =8)-DX says

    @iknklast #2
    What with the recent hubub in my country about taking in immigrants and refugees from *black*muslim*eevil* countries, a recent facebook comment really hit the spot:
    “Fuckin’ immigrants, taking our jobs and getting welfare!”

    I know Ironic Racism™ is bad, but my facebook feed is filled with Nonironic Racists™, and other people laughing at them and parodying their views. I’d rather be a relatively clueless hipster lefty wanker making fun of racists than those super-serial dudes who are worried about #creepingsharia.

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