Study after study finds that many women feel unwelcome in laboratories and science departments, even after considerable progress in encouraging women to study science and technology fields. As these studies come out, there are almost always skeptics who say that whatever gender imbalance exists could well reflect different choices made, on average, by men and women, or who say that individual men are rising on their merits, not sexism.
But a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers evidence of bias among scientists — male and female scientists alike — against female students.
This is an amazing introductory paragraph followed by PROOF.
Women, for a VERY long time, have been saying over and over again that their personal experiences as participants in the science and technology fields are riddled with moments when they are passed over or discriminated against or belittled because they are women. And even though there have been studies (“study after study”), “skeptics” continually say, “that evidence and the combined weight of all of your personal experiences does not prove a thing.”
But now there is a “new study” that has evidence. And Insider Higher Ed thinks that finally, maybe, we have the “smoking gun on sexism” in Science.
This entire thing is so condescending to women scientists and women more generally.
The fact that we need a scientific study to prove true what women say about their experiences shows already that there is bias. Implied in this entire exercise is that women are liars (or, at the least, constantly exaggerating and complaining). Women scientists have been lying for a long time about whether they are discriminated against so, once again, someone has set out to discover whether they are actually lying.
Of course, the people who did the study may have done it purposefully to show that women are not, in fact, liars. But that does not negate the fact that women scientists saying they are discriminated against is not, in and of itself, proof that women scientists are discriminated against.
What’s that, all you lady scientists? Bias? I don’t know. Do you have PROOF?
Having to “prove” that women are discriminated against in Science with some kind of scientific proof just shows that women scientists are treated as outside of Science. I literally cannot imagine if an overwhelming group of male scientists all agreed about “what it means to be a man and a scientist” that there would need to be proof that their claims are true. Their experiences would be treated as normal and right. The proof would be in the collectivity of voices.
Women scientists do not get that benefit. And if you need proof that I’m right about that last statement, it is found in the endless release of these scientific studies about whether there is bias against women in Science (and those prove that bias does, in fact, exist).
I am not a scientist. But it’s not a stretch for a lay person to see how this overall mistrust of women scientists doesn’t just end with discussions about discrimination. The entire practice of science is built of the trust of experimentation and evidence, that a scientist will do the work correctly and record the results without altering them in any way.
What does it mean then when Science treats women scientists as if they are liars or prone to exaggeration about their own basic experiences within the field? In other words: when women scientists claim that they are discriminated against and the field doesn’t take them seriously, it shows that the field easily questions women scientists’ ability to be truthful and thus proves that women are lacking in a crucial area when it comes to being a good scientist. And then who wins?
These studies, each and every one of them, and the ensuing discussion about whether the study is correct and whether women are actually discriminated against just foster these insidious ideas about women. And then someone will set out to set the record straight by doing the real “smoking gun” study about discrimination and around and around we go.
And I’ll ask again, then who wins?
Update: As Veronica said in comments, the woman in charge of the study that may be the smoking gun in proving that scientists do hold bias against women must do this scientific work because without this work, all that would exist are the negative narratives that reassert that women are lying about being discriminated against. I agree with that 100%. If we have to have this discussion on this level in this framework (which, apparently we do), we need the stories that counter-balance all the junk.
Re-reading this post, I admit that it sounds like I am equally slamming this latest study as if it is as much a part of the problem as any other. What I actually want to do is question the entire idea of what counts as “proof” or, rather, “legitimate proof” and why we are okay with that.
I do think that the unending questioning either way on this topic does foster a space in which we get to continue to question whether women scientists are lying about their experiences. But Science works in such a way that there is little alternative here except to meet Science with Science. As Veronica says, we need the hard numbers.
What I am saying is that it is ridiculous that we need the hard numbers or that hard numbers somehow count as a more legitimate. It is very convenient that the very scientists who are being charged with bias can claim that without proof from their field (that we know actively discriminates against women), they don’t have to believe what women scientists are saying. And then there is a study but those numbers aren’t good enough. And then there are 15 or 20 or 40 more studies and those numbers aren’t good enough. And FINALLY there is a study and the numbers ARE good enough (hopefully) and then the entire system and need for numbers to quantify experience is re-affirmed as good. But there is a fundamental problem when we participate in the broken system without addressing that the system is broken, and that our participation in that system validates the very system that we want to show is broken.
But I recognize that it’s easy for me to say this because I am not a woman scientist. Women who are trying to make careers as scientist need these numbers right now in this moment to validate their experiences. And for that reason, THANK GOODNESS FOR THIS STUDY. Shame on all the people who make this study necessary and make the results true. I do hope that in the end, this study helps change things. Sometimes people just need “proof” that will show them why they need to alter their behavior and which will make them more aware of what they are doing.
This is all so complicated. Science, on the outside, seems simple: here is a method, plug in the numbers, get results. Yet, when it comes to saying what people experience in their lives, “method” and “numbers” and “results” are not so straight forward. And it’s worth always remembering that, even if the results are finally what we want them to be and what they should have been a long time ago.