Sexism (and racism) in science: How do we make it go away?

It seems like I read an article about sexual harassment or under representation of women in STEM fields every day. Frankly, I’m tired of hearing about it. Not because I’m a sexist moron, but because every time I read one of these articles I get absurdly angry. I just don’t want this to be a problem anymore. Women are perfectly capable of being scientists and they prove it every single day.

After reading this article over the weekend I posted this comment to Twitter

In the article, a fellow oceanographer tells of shipboard experiences with sexual assault and harassment. Many of the things that happened to her were horrible and some of them were illegal. When she tried to report them she was ignored and not invited back aboard. Nothing about that is right. No one deserves to face groping, snooping, and unwanted advances at work. Especially when you are stuck on a ship in the middle of the ocean with the offending party. All of that is bad, but what’s worse is that no one offered help. Did people just ignore these issues? Surely someone heard about or saw something sketchy going on. Why not speak up? It’s not that hard to tell someone “hey, stop being a creep.” I know I would. Think this is a one time thing or a rare phenomenon? Think again, 64% of women scientists say they have been harassed in the field.

To make matters worse, these are the only kinds of issues women in science (and life) have to deal with everyday. Recently, a peer reviewer wrote that a team of female scientists should consult male colleagues or add a male colleague to the author list in order to gain more credibility. As if gender actually has some sort of role in your credibility as an expert…

As much as we want to believe that it doesn’t, most people in the world seem to believe that it does. Based on survey results from that last link, some 67% of respondents from 5 major European nations don’t think women can hack it as top-tier scientists. There reasons are:

  1. Lack of self-confidence
  2. Lack of a professional network
  3. Lack of competitiveness (lol)

4.  Lack of ambition

5.  Lack of interest

6. Lack of perseverance

7. Lack of a rational mindset (yep, that was somehow an option)

While all of these things may keep someone from being a top-tier scientist, none of these problems are inherent to women. We all face impostor syndrome 

(, original artist unknown)

and we all struggle to get noticed in an academic world where we are just 1 of many faces vying for the same job.

Let’s not forget that earlier this year a Nobel Prize winner said women in labs were trouble because all they will do is fall in love with you or cry when you criticize them (both practices are distracting to men, apparently).

The fact of the matter is that women have a harder time securing upper level jobs in STEM (and other fields). Not because they are dumb, or illogical, or incapable, but because society thinks they are. Less than 30% of women with STEM degrees go on to have STEM jobs. 60% of graduate students are women yet only about 30% of full-time faculty at the university level are women. It also just so happens that even women are unconsciously bias against women.

Alright, let’s sum it up.

-Women cry a lot and might actually care about people so they are distracting (apparently)

-People (including women) think women aren’t smart enough or capable enough to do science

-There is an inordinate amount of butt touching and much worse occurring without much (if any) penalty to the perpetrator

Overall: It’s really hard for women to get jobs in STEM fields and the road to getting said job is not an easy one.

I am decidedly and most definitely not a women. So why would I care?

I care because I have morals and I have worked with some pretty incredible female scientists. As a marine scientist and biologist I am working with and for women pretty regularly (these are two of the most popular branches of science for women) and I can tell you a few things. These people are smarter and more capable than me in most arenas. Under no circumstance should they be punished for just being a woman. Want to know how great women can be at science? Did you know that around 25% of the team behind the recent Pluto mission is female? It made national news, this percentage is somehow remarkable. 25% is just not enough. Somewhere around 50% of all people are female, so it would make sense if that value were closer to 50%. Maybe even higher given the current percentage of graduate students who are female. Anyway, the women of NASA areawesome.

Maybe you’ve heard of Sylvia Earle? Well, she’s a pioneer in the field of marine science and she’s been to the bottom of the ocean more than once. You probably haven’t done that.

I met her a few months ago and she’s still very passionate about the oceans. Check out her documentary “Mission Blue” on Netflix. I think these examples show that women are perfectly capable of being successful in science (and pretty much anything else).  I think it’s very important for those of us in the majority to support underrepresented groups. Without a change of the status quo things will not improve. We have the power to help make improvements in the system and to be aware of our own biases and negate them. Implicit biases happen. that’s just a fact. But we can learn to recognize and be conscious of them so that we can attempt to make less bias decisions. I obviously identify as a feminist and am happy to continue to write articles such as these and to speak out on these issues. If that makes me unpopular or causes my career some sort of harm than that sucks. But I’m not worried about it. These opinions should not be unpopular and if someone refuses to hire me because I have them then I have no interest in working for them anyway. Any environment that doesn’t treat perfectly capable scientists of all genders, races, and sexualities as equals is not a place I want to work. If that makes it hard to find an academic job in America then so be it. I believe we need to make change to avoid these situations and I’m more than willing to help make it.

How to support woman in STEM initiatives:

Buy Cards Against Humanity

Check out these awesome Women in Science Lego kits

For more information see our 3 previous posts about biases, objectification, and the women in STEM pipeline.

Addendum: Due to the events of Monday and Tuesday, I want to take a quick opportunity to show support for other underrepresented groups in STEM. What happened to 14-year-old Ahmed in Texas is ridiculous. A kid who built something complex (and not dangerous) at home in his spare time at the age of 14 deserves a scholarship, not an arrest.

He didn’t get a scholarship (yet), but he did get a shout out from the POTUS and an invite to the White House

That’s great and I’m glad that this case is bringing biases to the forefront, but what happened to this 14-year-old kid is a terrible act of racism. America is better than that. The world is better than that. A kid with a muslim name and a homemade clock is not a terrorist. Nor should he be treated like one. Also, kids of all shapes, sizes, colors, races, and genders should not be discouraged from creating, building, tinkering, or researching. Like it or not, this world needs more people to look for creative solutions to our problems (and the problems of our parents and forefathers which we continue to ignore). Encourage every kid to explore the world and find their passion. Don’t call all muslim kids terrorists or make all girls play with dolls instead of read. It just doesn’t make sense.

If you want to share some words of encouragement for Ahmed and anyone else listening, please do so here.


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