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?