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Blind Spots: Seeing Sexism in STEM

29th October 2014
By Katy Alexander

As part of Digital Science’s celebrations for Ada Lovelace Day, for the rest of October we are running a collection of blog posts featuring some of the great women that work across Digital Science and our portfolio companies.


Buddhini Samarasinghe is a molecular biologist, with experience in cancer research. She completed her PhD at the University of Glasgow, U.K. and then recently completed a postdoctoral position at the University of Hawaii. Her writing can be found at Jargonwall. She is also the founder of and co-contributor to STEM Women, an initiative dedicated to promoting and celebrating women in STEM.

As a passionate science communicator, she engages with the public by demystifying research in the life sciences. She is also involved in science outreach through broadcasts on YouTube and other social media sites, including Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @DrHalfPintBuddy.

blind-spots-sexismTwo years ago I created STEM Women, an initiative that celebrates the careers of women in STEM fields while highlighting the many challenges we face. It has been an illuminating, enlightening, and sometimes intensely frustrating experience. The initiative from its inception has sparked discussions which clarified and verbalised ideas that until then were only peripheral. I want to share some of the things I have learned as a result of my work with STEM Women.

Recognising the Problem

Sexual harassment is widespread in academic fieldwork. Microaggressions in the form of Everyday Sexism are even more so. Sexism is not an old professor with wandering hands; most people have difficulty recognising it. Sexism in STEM is subtle and insidious, intrusive and unasked for. The looks, questions, comments, jokes, impediments and double standards; the (perhaps unconscious) marginalisation of women from collegiate discussions, activities and spaces. Unfortunately, even well-intentioned male colleagues can perpetuate it. If we have trouble recognising sexism, we are not equipped to address sexism. Ostensibly even-handed comments — “maybe you misunderstood what he meant” — defend the abusers and cast doubt onto the victims. The trolls are easy to spot. It is much harder to point out the blind spots that fester in well-meaning colleagues who believe they are being fair.

Women Humans Have Children

One issue that repeatedly comes up is the work/life balance. The leaky pipeline is at its leakiest when women are forced to choose between their career and their family. It is perfectly normal for many women, at some point in their lives, to be intimately involved in nurturing children. Access to affordable, comprehensive childcare should be an ordinary perquisite of employment, just as health insurance or sanitation is. Instead we view this as a concession at best, available only to the privileged few that can afford it. This way of thinking needs to change.

Unconscious Bias

Even seemingly innocuous conversational topics can marginalise women: context makes a huge difference. It’s a disconcerting fact that men tend to talk to one another about their research but with their female colleagues they mostly discuss their social life. The bias is unconscious, but it is real, and it affects women in STEM. Worse still, even when men discuss research with female colleagues, they do so in ways distinct from their approach towards male colleagues. Male-male discussions leave the participants mentally boosted; male-female discussions end up demotivating women.  The male researchers genuinely feel they are being inclusive; but unconsciously they may monopolize the conversation, marginalising their colleagues and, by implication, belittling their colleagues’ contributions. Men must proactively  involve women in all conversations, and consciously reject gender stereotypes, even though it is not easy.

Redemption Stories

Derailing the conversation is another unfortunate tendency of titular allies. Media figures these days — even those who are (clumsily) supportive of equality —  have a tendency to pronounce on issues outside their expertise, displaying a touching, if frustrating, naivety towards the experiences of actual victims. “Don’t be pushy.” “Dress soberly.” But it compounds the problem when male colleagues, newly aware of the issue, derail the discussion by celebrating their new-found enlightenment. It is truly heartening to see supportive male colleagues become aware of the iniquities they are privileged never to experience; it is disheartening to see those selfsame allies shift the focus, grab centre stage and turn what was a productive discussion of measures to restore fairness into a festival of male redemption.

Active Listening

Actively listening to the needs of the people around you is an essential leadership skill, and it always surprises me how few people are able to listen to women sharing their experiences in STEM without feeling the urge to interrupt. A vital component of being an ally is the ability to listen to women without monopolising the conversation. This also extends to discussions about other areas of inequality, such as race or sexual orientation. The voice of the oppressed must not be drowned out by lectures from those who said they would listen.

It is easy to identify the misogynists, the trolls, the sexists who think women should simply stay at home instead of following their ambitions. It is easy to ignore these voices, because they are — thankfully — a shrivelling minority, and their views are so obviously wrong. We have made tremendous progress; a few decades ago it was a rarity for a woman to pursue a STEM subject. Yet inequality persists; it is now simply harder to identify. The issues we face should not be framed as simply a ‘woman’s issue’. It affects both genders; first we need to acknowledge it as such, and then together find ways to combat it.

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