Gender Bias in the Sciences & Skepticism


Every year various groups try to have promotional events to get more women involved, and the sciences do this a good amount. There are groups even for women, or a particular day is set to inspire women to get involved. CERN has done this, and I did a little bit to promote it.

But it looks like it will take a lot more than that to fix the big problems seen in STEM today: women still make up a smaller fraction of scientists, engineers and mathematicians than their percentage of the population. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has a new paper out: “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.” The double-blinded study sent out applications for positions at universities which had equal qualifications, but the only difference was the gender of the names (a similar study had been done with using traditional vs. African names in the US and how that affected call-backs for job interviews). And the study found a significant bias against women. Moreover, the study asked the reviewers of the applications to rank the persons whose applications they examined, and it was clearly in favor of men.

There are some things that make this even more stark to me. For one, this bias existed not only for males that reviewed the applications, but women too! So, it seems the title of this article is correct, that the bias is subtle, though the effect is not. Apparently there is some level of unconscious bias against women, perhaps due to stereotypes in the culture, and it will affect decisions no matter the gender of the person. This also means that a woman saying there is no gender bias cannot be given greater credibility than a man as she is just a likely to be “infected” as anyone else. 

On the blog for Scientific American, several other good points are made, including how none of the people that gave women a lower score used sexist language. The bias was couched in reasonable (perhaps rationalized?) terms. Perhaps this should be obvious; almost no one wants to be called racist or sexist, so those people will not use racist or sexist language. Nonetheless, the deeds speak for themselves. This will also means it will be very hard to fix the problem as most won’t realize there is one.

This is something I have been seeing in other groups, and it has been blowing up in the atheist community recently. There have been abject denials of a sexist problem at atheist conventions and the like, and even some claiming the need to defend the rights of men (boy, those words of privilege ring hollow for me). All the worse that when there is sexual harassment, it is the victim that gets much or all the blame. Almost a year ago I wrote in support of Rebecca Watson and the abuse she had received for her rather mild statement about how it is not in good form to make a pass on someone in a confined space at 4 in the morning after being silently in the background much of the night. But perhaps worse has been the back-lash about the lack of a sexual harassment policy at The Amazing Meeting (TAM), and the denial that there ever was a case of such harassment (the story of how this came to be known is detailed here.) The denial also came from D.J. Grothe, a great figure in the skeptic and atheist movement (current president of the James Randi Educational Foundation) and a gay man. So much how women can have circumspect reasons for seeing women as less qualified, even progressive men like D.J. can be in denial of the problems in his own movement.

The response in general has also been disheartening. The comments on blogs have been vicious, emails even more-so, and it has burned out many a good blogger. Natalie Reed, who talked mostly on transgender issues, basically discontinued to get involved in atheist topics because of the response she had gotten. Jen McCreight, a biologist with a PhD in genomics, also has been burned out from the comments and emails over months. Greta Christina also had been trying to get over the negativity, and Rebecca Watson must have some amazing stamina to continue what she does.

This is a problem that isn’t going to go away by ignoring it, and it may get worse before it gets better, though Greta has been rather optimistic about this conversation even with its horrendous tone. The reddit universe is also going to be a hotbed of misogyny as seen in this example. And while the Atheism+ movement wants to fix this, there has been a major push-back in calling what they do “divisive.” Such talk has caused many to fight against being a part of Atheism+, including Ronald Lindsay and John Loftus. But if saying we have a problem with sexism in the movement, shouldn’t part of the solution be to make those that cause the problem aware and have them feel shame for being irrationally sexist? Do we really want to have such people in the movement just because they agree with us on atheism but otherwise they are misogynistic pigs? (Richard Carrier has interesting points here about the use of insult, and here about being for or against Atheism+.)

The SSA group I am in will actually talk about women and secularism tomorrow at our meeting. We may not figure everything out, but hopefully we can at least gets the facts out there and discuss them the best we can. In the mean time, what are your thoughts?

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5 thoughts on “Gender Bias in the Sciences & Skepticism

  1. Pingback: Science, Skepticism, and Sexism–All Real | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

  2. Pingback: Getting Women Interested in Science and Skepticism | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

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