Sex discrimination in the sciences


in Politics, Science, Writing

Please note that much of the following is shamelessly stolen from a blog called Pharyngula: a stage in vertebrate embryonic development where all species look similar. This post, specifically, made me aware of the issue and most of these sources.

A letter in the July 14th issue of Nature draws attention to the possibility of sex discrimination in the European Young Investigator Awards, issued by the European Science Foundation. The awards provide up to 1.25 million Euros for research, but only 12% of them went to women, despite more than 25% of applicants being female. The chances of that distribution occurring as the result of random variation is less than 0.05%. The September 8th issue features a response, but it isn’t terribly convincing.

Of course, it is possible that the work submitted by women was less worthy of funding. Further research, however, suggests that this is not the case. A study by Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wold (“Nepotism and sexism in peer-review,” Nature 387, 341−343; 1997 – Oxford Full Text) includes some very dispiriting findings. The study looked at applicants to the Medical Research Council in Sweden. As part of their consideration, applicants are given a score for ‘scientific competence.’ In the Wenneras and Wold study, the productivity history of male and female scientists in Europe was evaluated using ‘impact points.’ For example, a publication in Science or Nature is worth about 23 points, whereas “an excellent specialist journal such as Atherosclerosis, Gut, Infection and Immunity, Neuroscience or Radiology” would be worth three points. Based on this approach, Wenneras and Wold concluded that “a female applicant had to be 2.5 times more productive than the average male applicant to receive the same competence score as he.”

That’s really awful. Indeed, it goes a long way towards discrediting the notion that the scientific community is capable of unbiased appraisal. While the study doesn’t tell us whether problems extend beyond the Medical Research Council, it certainly seems to warrant further examination. A lot more studies are discussed in this article.

Would it be feasible or beneficial to introduce a system wherein those reviewing scientific work could be kept from knowing whose work they are assessing? While that is possible for individual articles, it doesn’t seem possible in the context of grants or promotions. I would expect that most scientific disciplines are small enough that reviewers could pretty easily identify the source of work, even if personal details are removed from the copies they examine. That is especially true in the context of choosing who to promote within a particular university department. How, then, could greater fairness be achieved? I would be especially interested in suggestions from women doing academic work in the sciences.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan Laing January 10, 2007 at 7:13 pm

On a not unrelated note, the package of texts I sent you should be arriving soon.

Milan January 10, 2007 at 9:39 pm


Thanks for sending those. I will let you know when they arrive.

Edward January 11, 2007 at 3:57 am

Milan, excellent commentary, as always. I have a few comments:

1) Although I agree with you that women in science are still under-recognized for equivalent work, I would point out that the article you cited was published in 1997, using data presumably from before 1997. That’s almost a decade ago. I might be wrong, but I’d hope that we would’ve made some progress by then.

2) You write:
“While that is possible for individual articles, it doesn’t seem possible in the context of grants or promotions. I would expect that most scientific disciplines are small enough that reviewers could pretty easily identify the source of work, even if personal details are removed from the copies they examine.”
— This is most definitely true. Even though there are hundreds of articles published in medical science every day, the individual branches are still small enough that there are only a handful of researchers that work on one particular subset of molecule(s) for one particular subset of cells in one particular subset of organ systems using one very specific model system. Since those evaluating the research presumably know something about the content of the research, it would not be at all difficult to identify the principal investigator by name most of the time based on the research alone. That said, I don’t think men – or women, for that matter – consciously put gender as a factor in their minds while evaluating another’s work. It’s subconscious, passive, and unintentional, which probably makes it all the more difficult to fix.

Milan January 11, 2007 at 1:08 pm


Good points. I don’t know if you read the linked article by Barbara Fazekas, but there is some really interesting stuff in there about gender schemas, and experiments that show gender biases in both men and women.

Edward January 12, 2007 at 7:03 am

No, I hadn’t read the article, but thanks for linking to it. It was a good read. I found the following sentence most disturbing of all:

“But even women without children advance more slowly than men.”

What possible explanation could that have, other than blatant discrimination (subconscious or otherwise)? None that I can think of, apart from there being less of a pool of applicants to choose from (once those who choose to have children are removed). A very weak argument at best. (But better, I suppose, than Laurence Summer’s boneheaded remark about women in science.)

It just shows that there is still progress that needs to be made, even in the liberal arenas of academia.

R.K. January 18, 2007 at 1:08 am

The bit about how men and women demonstrate similar biases when experimented upon is really interesting. For instance, how they both assume that a male member of a group shown in a photo is probably the leader.

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