Sociology of Gender Bias in Science

A new study by Dr Corinne Moss-Racusin and colleagues has analysed the public’s comments in response to a prominent study on gender bias in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The researchers find that men are more likely to post negative comments in response to scientific findings about sexism in STEM careers. To provide a flipside illustration, I share some examples of what it is like to be a woman moderator of a large, international science community on Google+. This case study will illustrate the recurring arguments used to invalidate the science on inequality in STEM. These arguments are focused on biological (mis)understandings of gender; stereotypes of what motivates men and women; and a desire to police the boundaries of science. Denying that sexism exists is a common tactic to invalidating the science on gender bias in science, and attacking the social sciences is concurrently used to discredit findings on inequality, as well as support the idea that inequality does not exist in STEM.

Sociology of Gender Bias in Science
Sociology of Gender Bias in Science. Photos: Texas A&M University-Commerce, CC 2.0

Gender Bias in STEM

In a study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, Moss-Racusin and colleagues analysed 831 comments in the New York Times website, Discover Magazine blog, and the IFLS website, all of which reported on a highly cited and reputable study on the gender bias in faculty hiring committees. The original study was published in PNAS in 2012, and was also authored by Dr Moss-Racusin leading an interdisciplinary team of researchers. The PNAS study was chosen because it was the one science story on gender that gained the most online comments in 2012. The three websites were chosen for analysis because they have a high public following and because all three included a link to the original study, which the public could read freely should they have further questions on the findings.

The PNAS study involved an experiment where biology, chemistry and physics professors at research-intensive universities evaluated job applications for a lab manager position. They were presented with identical CVs with either a man or a woman’s name. The participants rated the male applicants more favourably along every measure and offered them a higher starting salary, even though the women’s CVs had the exact same information.

Science Inequality in Comments
Photo: Texas A&M University-Commerce, CC 2.0, via Flickr

In the present study, the researchers find that 433 comments were negative. That is, the commenters refuse to believe the findings on gender bias. Men are more likely to do so. There are eight types of negative responses, that draw on a range of justifications from biology to social conventions. Men especially used subjective and sexist observations about women’s supposed innate inability to succeed in science. Ideas that prevailed included “women get pregnant and leave their jobs!” Women’s interests are also cast as fundamentally different to men’s:

I think that a proportion of the gender divide can be accounted for by a division in interests.

Men also evoked ideas of personal choice, such as arguing men are “hungrier” for success and work harder than women, or that men work harder in STEM because women push them to make more money. (Men would not be sexually competitive, they argue, if they didn’t succeed.)

I note that in all these discussions, “men” and “women” are discussed as two discrete groups, implicitly drawing on biological narratives of gender. Transgender and alternative genders don’t feature; racial and other socio-cultural differences are not considered; and heterosexism prevails. That is, the discussion is centred on the presumption that everyone is heterosexual, and that all women and men want the same things.

In the study, men are more likely to deny that inequality exists, or conversely they blamed women for inequality and said that gender bias targets men (“I’ve experienced it in the opposite way so far.”). These men evoke a general discontent with affirmative action laws, or they raised other unrelated social issues as examples of “bias against men,” such as divorce laws and custody of children, and saying women get “the most stuff.”

Finally, some commenters dismissed the findings on the basis of its social science methodology, but without actually critiquing the scientific data or methods in any specific way. For example, “This report is JUNK science. There is no data here,”and “This is PC BS propaganda.” I will return to this further below.
In summary:
  • The majority of sexist comments against women are made by men (95%);
  • Between 79% to 88% of comments that justified bias using biology or social arguments, and those who blame women, are men; and
  • Men predominantly mentioned that sexism targets men and they overwhelmingly critiqued social science (68% to 85% of comments).

Gender Differences

Photo: Laurent Neyssensas CC 2.0, via Flickr
Photo: Laurent Neyssensas CC 2.0, via Flickr

Men are more likely to refute the science findings on inequality by stating that they work in STEM (75% of men’s comments). In comparison, women shared personal and detailed stories about the gender bias they’d experienced at work, but only 25% justified their opinions by saying they work in STEM. Women shared stories like:

Speaking as a female computer geek, who seems to be unemployed twice as often as my male counterparts – YES. Gender bias definitely still exists.

My instructor told me he generally believes women are bad at math but they’re great if they don’t catch you staring at their butt! Whatta jerk!’’

The gender difference here is that men use blanket statements about biology and innate differences, as well as using personal opinion (society is biased against men) to refute scientific evidence about gender bias. Conversely women use personal anecdotes to illustrate the scientific findings.

The first strategy – to deny the science on inequality – is used largely by men to invalidate science on sexism in support of the status quo. The other strategy, used mostly by women, supports the science using personal experiences of bias to challenge the status quo. Neither approach is scientific as personal anecdotes are not science, but the first approach rejects science evidence, saying things are fine the way they are, while the other approach embraces the science, to say things are unfair and should change.

Social Science of Inequality

Photo: Ben Seese, CC 2.0, via Flickr
Photo: Ben Seese, CC 2.0, via Flickr

One strategy that men used to invalidate the PNAS study was to establish themselves as a science expert, by saying they work in STEM. Men also critiqued social science but did so on moral grounds and using emotive language. Social science is often categorically excluded from the umbrella term of STEM. Social scientists rarely use this phrase to describe their practice. While sociology was set up by our early founders to mirror the practices of the natural sciences (for example Durkheim), more recent traditions are expressly critical of the natural sciences for contributing to the marginalisation of women, minorities and vulnerable populations (Foucault is a key critic).

Nevertheless, social science is very much a scientific practice – we offer valid methodologies for the critical study of society. We collect data and use established theories to draw conclusions about the social influences on behaviour. Unlike the men who refute the science on gender bias in science, we do not use emotional arguments to dismiss scientific studies. We draw on our training and credible peer reviewed science studies.

I run several science communities, and no single issue (other than climate change) draws more heated debate than posts about social science studies on science inequality. I present examples of posts that I’ve authored, all of which draw on social science research, as well as a couple of other examples from other social scientists and non-social scientist women who write about inequality. The common denominator is that whenever inequality in science is raised as an issue, this is immediately met by cries of bias, almost exclusively by men. When the authors are women scientists, we encounter even more push back.

Case Study: Science on Google+

Science on Google+ is an ever-growing community with over 503,300 members, most of whom are general members of the public with an interest in science. We also have host a Google+ page with over 521,200 followers, many of whom are scientists. Even with a slightly higher following, our page rarely descends into personal attacks, possibly because our followers are predominantly science practitioners who use Google+. Our community generates many excellent discussions as we have practising scientists who share their posts, but posts about gender almost always become unruly.

Royal Society

Consider a post where I discussed the Royal Society’s own data that showed gender inequality in their science fellowship program. When I shared this post on Science on Google+ it did not take long for a man to angrily cry that I was asking for special treatment for women simply by writing about women’s experiences of inequality.

New York Times

Via STEM Women
Via STEM Women

In another post which I authored for STEM Women, social science is also called into question in a most illogical way. I had presented a scientific critique of a study published in the New York Times. The study argues sexism is dead in academia. I showed that the study’s methodology was flawed. In the Google+ discussion, a man argues that my analysis (of a social science study) is biased because of my sources (also social science studies). Another male mathematician posted the original NYT article and used it to attack psychology as a science, but he also offers his personal experience saying that the authors (both psychologists) are correct in their assessment that there is no sexism in academia.

In these examples, we see how social science is malleable to the public and non-social scientists alike, who either attack the study based on its argument (that gender bias exists) or discipline. Social science findings are welcome when they match someone’s world-view that inequality does not exist.

Nobel Prize

Image: STEM Women
Image: STEM Women

In a post I wrote for STEM Women, I discuss data published by the Nobel Prize committee, showing that less than 3% of laureates have been women. Again, men (and some women) cry foul. One man does this by calling into question my scientific credentials, even though he is not a scientist. He wants to argue that women may simply not be good enough to win Nobel Prizes but he has no data to back this up.

True scientists would not discard the politically-incorrect possibility of intellectual differences out of hand. (My emphasis)

I have presented scientific data. He has presented a “possibility” that the science is wrong and argued it with great emotion (see the thread). He persists in arguing that I and my fellow women science moderators (who are biologists) are simply being “politically correct.” He then goes on to copy paste a series of statements from Wikipedia. As it turns out, he is inadvertently referencing a series of social science studies. He tries to dismiss the social science studies he doesn’t like, by using other social science studies he thinks support his argument that women are inferior to men. The problem is he hasn’t actually read these studies and he is not trained to read them critically. I am. So are my fellow women scientists. As we show, not only has he cherry picked his examples, but the studies actually validate my original argument about inequality in science. Other men show up and give the predictable examples of “My wife has a PhD…” Personal examples are used to try to discredit the science.

Confirmation Bias

Another post by diversity specialist and lecturer, M. Laura Moazedi, on the science of confirmation bias (how stereotypes are used to justify outcomes by men and women) leads a man to argue she is being biased.

What about confirmation bias of “scientists” searching at all costs the gender inequality in stereotypes, while ignoring biology?

Note the quote marks, which are used to discredit social science. The fact that the study is a piece of social science research rather than biological science is also used as a rationale to discredit the findings (even though it is a study of social behaviour) .

There are many more examples I can give from our community. (I will do a follow up post on how I manage these types of arguments.) The point I want to illustrate here is that when women speak up about science inequality, the science is dismissed. The responses are gendered in other ways, however, as our male colleagues generally face less push back. Nevertheless, resistance still rears its head when a woman scientist speaks up.

Men & Women Moderators

Lewis's Law: “Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” – Helen Lewis, journalist
Lewis’s Law: “Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” – Helen Lewis, journalist

Take this post by male moderator Dr Jason Davison, who speaks up about the level of sexism in our community. Most of the comments are positive until Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, a biologist, speaks up to confirm her experience as a fellow moderator of our community. She notes that, having to regularly manages sexism, she is reticent to reshare posts from STEM Women. Dr Samarasinghe is the second woman to post, but her response is lengthy and informed by her science practice. A man promptly begins to argue with Dr Samarasinge, saying the fact that STEM Women exists (a group she founded) is proof that sexism affects men more than women.

the fact that +STEM Women on G+ exists shows women have sexism problems against men, you are asking for the opposite.

He goes on to raise superfluous examples of women being biologically inferior and unable to join the military (in his eyes). The thread rages like this for a couple of days.

Compare these two posts about Dr Maryam Mirzakhani’s Fields Medal win. The Fields Medal is colloquially referred to as the “Nobel Prize for Mathematics.” Dr Mirzakhani is the first woman in the award’s history to be recognised. One community member simply posts the news of the win. The second comment is by a man commenting on Dr Mirzakhani’s looks. Another male community member calls out the commenter, asking if he’d make such a comment about a man. I step in as moderator and remind the original commenter about our guidelines that expressly ban sexist comments. A different man jumps in saying:

Zuleyka Zevallos your comments offend me. There was nothing derogatory in Vincents comments, neither was it sexist. You have taken it upon yourself to portray yourself as the almighty of the science discussion community group by suggesting that his free speech was not allowed. This may have been handled better by yourself had you possibly been complimented about your looks, i dont hold out for that compliment or the stepping down from your high horse. #neigghhhh (My emphasis)

I am chastised for enforcing our community rules, in my role as moderator, and I receive a sexist comment to boot. This discussion goes on for two days with my fellow women moderators jumping in. The thread only quietens down when a male moderator (Dr Davison) repeats our rules against sexism. Let me spell this out: the sexist discussion only comes to an end after a male scientist repeats my original point about sticking to the rules, which officially ban sexism.

In a second post about the Fields Medal win, this time written by me on behalf of our moderator team, it takes only 15 minutes for a sexist comment to appear.

In almost all of these cases, it is men who deny the science or who make sexist comments and expect these to be okay in a science community. These are, by and large, White males (or men who “present” as White from their photos). These men are heavily invested in protecting the boundaries of science to remain the exclusive domain of (White) men. Writing about inequality in science is critiqued for being “biased against men,” and social science is dismissed for not being biology, and when this tactic fails, other social science is evoked to (erroneously) discredit the original post.

“Focus on the Science”

On her personal Google+ feed, astronomer Dr Katie Mack noted that her large public following loudly revolts when she publishes on issues about equality in science. She notes that her followers shout to have her “focus on the science.” She argues this makes little sense since science is practised by human beings; therefore scientific practices impact on scientists.

So, no, I won’t just “focus on the science” at the expense of actual human scientists. I will keep talking about the ways we can make scientific culture better and more welcoming to anyone who has a contribution to make.

The idea that women should not talk about inequality in science dominates public discussions of science. This happens in science communities such as ours, which expressly state that sexism is grounds for being banned. Women who speak up about inequality are accused of bias or they are otherwise targeted for personal attacks. This includes the women moderators, who are practising scientists with PhDs and a strong knowledge of the science on gender bias. It also happens to women scientists writing about inequality on their personal social media profiles.

A rowdy sub-group, largely men, want to read about science and talk about how much they love science without hearing about what it means to practice science. They want to follow women experts but they demand that these women not discuss issues of inequality as a scientific concern. They want to be members of science communities without having to see posts on inequality, even when the community expressly supports such posts.

In all these cases, simply ignoring posts about inequality is not enough. Men feel a need to vehemntly disagree with science on inequality even when they have no data and when they do not understand the science. Why? As I’ve previously shown, the sociology of science shows that people are more likely to speak up against science issues in which they have an ideological vested interest. The science about inequality in science is polarising because it is tied to personal identity and deeply-held values. Some men want to imagine science as being uncontaminated by women. If inequality does exist, surely women are inviting it, by virtue of their biology, by their choices, by their mere existence. Women should just shut up and do science. Their science should be seen, but their experiences not heard. Above all, though, these women cannot be allowed to write about the science of inequality in science because this is an encroachment on White men.

It goes against nature that women don’t simply accept inequality. It’s unscientific to want to address inequality using science. It’s biased for women to talk about gender bias. It’s censorship to remind people not to objectify women scientists and to stick to community rules when talking about science. Or so the logic of sexism goes.

Moving Forward

Photo: Argonne National Laboratories, CC 2.0, via Flickr
Photo: Argonne National Laboratories, CC 2.0, via Flickr

The research by Moss-Racusin’s team presents a framework for thinking about why men react negatively to the science of gender bias in STEM. Being able to educate the public and STEM professionals to recognise personal gender bias is the first important step in making STEM a more equitable space. Moss-Racusin and her colleagues argue:

“Simply put, women are likely to perceive potential personal gain from research that may ameliorate men’s privilege, whereas men may believe that such research can only harm them. More broadly, because people are often more receptive to information that confirms their existing worldviews… it may be critical to understand participants’ pre-existing attitudes toward gender bias and diversity when creating effective interventions.”

In better understanding the types of arguments used to sustain gender inequality, educators, managers and policy makers can begin to target attitudes that undermine gender inclusion in STEM. I have shared some examples of the issues I encounter as a science moderator with the aim of further illustrating the flipside of Moss-Racusin and colleagues’ findings – what it means to be a woman dealing with these comments. I have more to say on this issue and will return to it again.

One take away message for now is that, despite the problems, it is worth speaking up on these issues. Moss-Racusin and colleagues’ study shows that comments on science sites are largely positive. Despite the negative experiences, continuing to discuss the social science on gender bias in science is important. First, because without social science data, the public would bicker about inequality using solely subjective examples based on dangerous stereotypes that undervalue women’s contributions.

Second, while there is plenty of evidence that gender inequality in STEM is not based in biology, we still need to keep elevating this science precisely because the message is still not getting through. A very vocal sub-group of people, most of whom are men, want to see women stay quiet on this issue. They see bias in social science but they see no bias in themselves. Why they feel a need to police the boundaries of science is central to moving forward. By crying out that scientists should just “focus on the science,” they are actually calling for the maintenance of White men’s dominance in science.

Lack of diversity in STEM impedes innovation. So, in fact, while these men disguise their bias as concern for science, they are in fact saying that they don’t want science to answer new questions. In a nutshell, by protecting men’s perceived dominance in science, they are, in fact, advocating for scientific stagnancy.

How much can one really love science if they are heavily invested in gate keeping scientific inclusion, thereby ensuring that new ideas will fail to flourish?

Learn More

To read more about how social science can be used to debunk gender myths in science, see my post, “Science Inequality in the News: Avoiding Dangerous Gender Narratives in STEM,” in Minority Postdoc.

Science Inequality in the News- Avoiding Dangerous Gender Narratives in STEM


Top image: photos 1 and 2 via Flickr.

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5 thoughts on “Sociology of Gender Bias in Science

  1. This is a great post. Thank you. At the same time, it disturbs me quite a bit to realize that my fellow male scientists (or at least men who represent themselves as scientists) cannot apply objective, rational thought to issues such as gender inequality in STEM disciplines, and other than arguing with them and trying to pound sense into their heads — metaphorically, if not physically 🙂 — I’m not sure what the solution is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment rhwoodman! The way to address this is to bring the conversation into the centre of STEM. At the moment, some men support gender equality actively, by speaking out against sexism on social media, or by joining groups that discuss these issues. Other men only support gender equality tacitly; they believe in gender equality but don’t really do anything about it. A minority of men call out sexism at work, but not enough do. Yet gender issues are not discussed as part of scientific training, and so we get chronic denial about the pervasiveness of gender inequality and how it affects women’s careers. Lecturers, Principal Investigators, Heads of Departments, and Chancellors at Universities need to make gender equality central to how we do science. By law, universities and research centres have gender equity policies in place, but we know from other research that these don’t really work as they are not actively enforced. We need gender discussions at every level, from undergraduate to postgraduate, and we need gender equity to be part of management’s everyday work. There is little accountability for managers to ensure that all staff understand gender issues. The Athena SWAN Charter in the UK is one model to watch. It sets out clear goals for universities and it ranks universities based on gender measures, making accountability transparent.


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