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Sex cells

Thursday 28th August 2014

“STEM superstar” Dr Michelle Dickinson is a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland and an associate investigator at the MacDiarmid Institute. She has a Master’s degree from the University of Manchester and a PhD from Rutgers University in New Jersey, and runs New Zealand’s only nanomechanical testing laboratory. To put it simply, she’s an accomplished scientist.

She’s also a science communicator, with a regular spot on The Paul Henry Show to talk about issues and developments in the field. Recently, towards the end of a segment in which she discussed what facial expressions can tell doctors about our health, organic food and how to engage children with science, Henry brought up a photo Dr Dickinson had tweeted of her with Sir Richard Branson, taken at a summit in the Caribbean at which she was invited to speak on sustainable technology. “Did you sleep with Richard Branson?”

Dr Dickinson shrugged it off, but it was an uncomfortable reminder that sexism is still rife within not only science, but society.

Sexism in science has been a problem for a long time, not only in terms of a lack of representation in the field, but also in the treatment and recognition of the women who belong to it. The Royal Society’s report on women in science paints a bleak picture – and though it’s now a decade old, the more recent findings of the Association for Women in the Sciences suggest there’s still some way to go before women scientists in New Zealand achieve equality in representation and recognition. Though the gender pay gap is true of many if not most sectors and professions, there’s evidence that women with a BSc or PhD earn on average $30,000 less than men with the same qualification level.

The discrepancy is marked at the very top of the field – since the Nobel Prize was established in 1901, only 15 women have won the award in a scientific discipline – but not at the first rung of the ladder, with women better represented than men at an undergraduate level in science. In fact, more women than ever before are enrolling to study at tertiary level in general. So at what point between starting study and entering academic are women deciding to leave science, and why?

Dr Nicola Gaston, a senior lecturer at the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington (and, like Dr Dickinson, an investigator with the MacDiarmid Institute), says there’s a wealth of literature to understand why there are so few women in senior positions in science.

“There are a mixture of reasons why women decide to stop doing this really fun job – the big one that often gets brought up is family, but that’s definitely not the only thing,” she says. “There’s also some interesting research around how merit is evaluated when women apply for promotions and funding.” 

            LISTEN to Dr Nicola Gaston discuss why science is sexist:

Dr Gaston points to the number of female recipients of the Marsden Fund, administered by the Royal Society to support excellence in research – proportionate to the number of women who apply for it, but still low. There are different reasons for that, she says.

“One could be that scientists are encouraged to apply by their seniors and there may be bias in that process,” she says. “Also, the more senior you are in science, the more pressure there is to keep applying for funding. That means if you stay in a junior position, you’re not required to be putting your CV out to be reviewed all the time.”

In science, as in any other industry, senior positions and promotions are often appointed on the strength of a candidate’s CV and there’s plenty of evidence of the biases, many of them unconscious, that affect this process. A Yale University study in 2012, in which science professors were presented with identical CVs [pdf] for a recent graduate seeking a job as a laboratory manager, half for ‘John’, half for ‘Jennifer’, revealed a “pervasive bias” against female undergraduates. The academics that responded rated ‘John’ more highly than ‘Jennifer’, and offered him an average starting salary that just over 14 per cent higher – despite the two having exactly the same experience and qualifications. Researchers concluded it was probably a result of subconscious cultural influences, rather than overt or deliberate discrimination.

A photo of Dr Nicola Gaston
Dr Nicola Gaston

Photo: Supplied

“In principal, one of the ways to remove gender information from applications – if all we did was write down our track record, gender would be irrelevant,” says Dr Gaston. “But because credibility is assumed to be crucial in science, the idea of a double blind application process is thought to be impossible. You could do complicated things where you have one panel who just assess the research proposal and another who just assess the CV and you put those together to have an end score but then people tend to say ‘We’re a small country, and there’s extra overhead involved in that kind of process that we just don’t have’.”

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that women are over-represented in lower-paid jobs in science. And that’s if they have one at all – an American study found that 20 per cent of women with a degree in maths or science do not go on to work in a related field after graduating from university.

The question is not whether there’s a problem, but how do we solve it – and though Paul Henry’s comment was vile and inappropriate, it started a conversation about how we can make a career in science a more appealing option for young women.

While Hannah Twigg, a PhD student at the University of Otago, says she herself hasn’t experienced discrimination because of her gender, she agrees that society is inherently sexist, and that men are assumed to be more gifted and capable in the field.

She references Dr Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, who has experienced first-hand the biases and barriers that make it harder for women to succeed in science. He’s transgender, and has been active in biomedical research for over a decade. After one seminar he gave, he overheard a scientist say “his work is much better than his sister’s”.

“The sister was actually Dr. Barres, pre-transition, and they made all these judgments of her work – which was the same – purely because he was a woman,” says Twigg. “It’s beyond belief for me.”

As she expects to pursue a career in science, she hopes that that environment will change – but, just in case it doesn’t, she believes it helps to have a strong role model who can provide support and advice. Twigg’s inspired by her mentor, who she says is “passionate about everything she does, and doesn’t let anybody stop her”.

“There are a handful of female principal investigators in my department, and you’ll often hear them mention the ‘old boys’ club’ and how hard it is to see them reviewing each others papers during peer-review.”

The importance of role models, which Dr Gaston recently blogged about, was also discussed at the Association of Women in Science’s recent conference in Wellington, at which the question was posed: ‘Who is a woman in science?’

The association often prepares research and submissions on issues relating to women in science, most recently giving feedback [pdf] on the Draft National Statement of Science Investment. Twigg follows the association on Facebook and appreciates hearing of issues affecting her, and her place in the industry.

As Dr Dickinson wrote in her response to the incident on the Paul Henry Show, she hopes to be a positive role model for girls who want to be scientists, as well as to engage more young people in the field through her 100 Days of Science project, in which she introduces a new experiment every day. Role models like her are important if young women are to follow in her footsteps, fighting to be successful in a male-dominated field.

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.

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