June 14th, 2013

Sexism in Science: does it still exist?

By Stella Hartono


This week in Washington Post, Phyllis Richman published her reply to a letter from Harvard regarding her graduate school application. In the letter, she was asked to describe how she would balance a professional life in city planning with her responsibilities to her husband and her future family. Her response to this question will help determine her admission to the program since “[their] experience, even with brilliant students, has been that married women find it difficult to carry out worthwhile careers, and hence tend to have some feeling of waste about the time and effort spent in professional education.”[1] Her response – which was written last week – was quite interesting since this letter was sent to her 52 years ago in 1961.

            A recent Nature special explores the dismaying extent of how sexism still exists in science[2]. Although universities in US and Europe granted half of their doctoral degrees in science and engineering to women, only 20% of NIH investigators are women and less than 20% of tenured faculty positions are held by women. Why is the attrition rate so high? One of the explanations would be the additional hurdles that women faced to rise through the ranks due to pervasive bias against women. Shockingly, this bias is perpetrated not only by male, but also by female faculties of all ages.[3] Sadly, even I have to admit to this bias based on my performance on the Implicit Association Test (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo), which measures unconscious associations between concepts.

Hurdles facing women in science

Hurdles facing women in science - click to zoom. Adapted from Nature, Vol.495, p22–24 (07 March 2013)

             When I raise this intriguing issue for discussion, I find continued resistance to the idea that bias against women in science is still pervasive. One colleague argued that the gender discrepancy is the result of the residual bias of older faculties and that could affect the hiring decision, but would not affect other aspects, such as the evaluation of a manuscript. However, Behavioral Ecology found a significant increase in female first-authored papers following a switch to a double blind peer review system.[4] In the period 2010–11, the proportions of women authors in Nature News and Views were 17%, 8% and 4% for life, physical and Earth sciences respectively. Nature further admits that only 14% of its reviewers and 19% of its invited Comment and World View authors were female.[5]

                So how do we move on from here? I think admitting that gender bias exists is the first step in overcoming the problem. Things are definitely better for women now compare to the 1960s, but there are still significant rooms for improvement. A parting question I want to leave you with is why no one ever asks a man how he plans on balancing his professional life with his responsibilities as a husband and a parent. Let me know your thoughts.

Stella Hartono is a fourth-year M.D.-Ph.D. student in the Mayo Medical / Mayo Graduate Schools. In addition to being a mother to a 14-year-old daughter, she works in Dr. Joseph Grande's lab to elucidate the role of T-cells in renovascular hypertension.


[2] Nature. V495 Issue 7439, 07 March 2013

[3] Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students. Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2012 Sep 17.

[4] Budden, A. E. et al. Trends Ecol. Evol. 23, 4–6 (2008).

[5] Nature. V491, issue 495, 22 November 2012

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