August 13, 2022

Stop using anecdotal evidence in conversations about gender

Two researchers work at the special techniques laboratory in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Two researchers work at the special techniques laboratory in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Women represent only 33.3% of researchers and 12% of members of national science academies worldwide, including in Brazil.Credit: Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty

In our experience as two Brazilian female scientists, we have seen some colleagues — most of them men — rely on anecdotal evidence to conclude that sexism is not a problem in the academic environment. Quotes such as “There are too many women in my department” and “My superior is a woman” are often used to justify their belief that there is no gender gap in science.

Some of our fellow researchers tell us that our complaints about gender bias in academia are exaggerated. Yet women still experience different types of harassment, including unwanted advances to coerce sexual activity, and comments, gestures and other insults1,2 that threaten our health3. When L.M.D.-V. was taking her first steps as a researcher, for example, she was told: “I will not respect a woman with red-dyed hair and tattoos’; “You are not worthy of this position”; “You have no capacity to write a project”; “Your study is a disservice to the field”; “You are stressed, perhaps you need a boyfriend”; and “You are like a steam roller, and this is bad for your co-workers”.

Some sexism is more nuanced — masquerading as concern or even reflecting sincerely held viewpoints. For example, J.H. has been told during her career: “I did not invite you for this work because you have a baby” and “Do you really want to be in this position and have less time to be with your family?”

Follow the data

Despite our personal experiences, these examples alone are not proof of persistent academic sexism. As scientists, we must always seek empirical, not anecdotal, evidence to test hypotheses. There is ample documented evidence of gender discrimination in the academic environment: from differences in salary to under-representation on editorial boards, scientific committees and faculty positions, especially senior ones4.

In some ways, it is reassuring that our personal experiences are reflected in the data: women are still discriminated against in fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)5. Historically, this has resulted in an intensively leaky academic pipeline, mostly in the later stages of women’s careers4. According to the 2021 UNESCO Science Report, women attained 45–55% of the bachelor’s and master’s degrees and 44% of PhDs globally. Yet they represent only 33.3% of researchers and 12% of members of national science academies worldwide, including in Brazil4.

Male scientists are also more likely to collaborate with other male scientists6,7. Consequently, this gender bias is seen in scientific publications8. In the biological sciences, less than 40% of publications have women as first authors, and less than 30% have female senior (last) authors8. In ecology and evolution specifically, our field of research, only 11% of top-publishing authors are women9. Such empirical data highlight academic sexism, challenging our colleagues’ anecdotal evidence of scientific gender parity.

Humans think in stories, and personal experiences are likely to be more powerful ways to get our points across than citing dry statistics. However, those who perpetrate sexism — knowingly or not — and those who seek to unmask it would both do well to remember the data: it’s there that the larger story is told.

How can we change this picture? Solutions include having more women in leading positions, having neutral academic spaces where sexual harassment can be reported and verified, and finding other ways to avoid discrimination in STEM5.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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