Scientists read and react to peer reviewed research, making the pages of leading scientific journals like The Lancet a good venue to fight for gender equity, says Jessica Wade
7 February 2019
What’s the best way to tackle the equality and inclusivity problems in science? In a special publication of The Lancet, researchers are doing it with data. It couldn’t be more timely: from the gender pay gap to #MeToo, women are making their voices heard. The special issue is intersectional – it doesn’t only focus on gender, but considers its interplay with other protected characteristics.
As a woman in physics, I am all too familiar with the challenges of working in a male-dominated profession. Seeing many of those obstacles set out formally in print really hammers home how much work still needs to be done. In The Lancet special issue we learn that, as a woman, there are subtle biases at work in your medical education (78 per cent of the faces in medical textbooks are male), your success in securing academic funding (12.7 per cent success rate for men applying to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, 8.8 per cent for women applying to the same body), and even your chances of being invited to peer-review the work of other scientists (74 per cent of the peer-reviewers for The Lancet are men).
One of the new papers – co-authored by Esther Choo at the Oregon Health and Science University –should be a wake-up call to academic departments trying to reform their workplace culture. It outlines succinctly the obstacles responsible for inequity: “a punitive environment for whistle-blowers; minimal consequences for perpetrators of harassment or discrimination; and absence of standardised approaches”.
Full disclosure: I have been a fan of Choo’s work since I first came across her on Twitter. She uses social media to speak openly about the discrimination she faces as a woman of colour working as a doctor in the emergency room. Her viral twitter thread “Is It Gender Bias, Or Do I Just Suck?” used illustrations from the children’s book What Do You Say, Dear? to describe the psychological impacts of sexism in academia.
Of course, it would be bad enough if the problems were just about sexism. But they aren’t: as the papers make clear, workplace harassment is an equally – maybe even more – concerning issue. The problems begin even before people enter the workforce: a 2015 survey in the US found that 77 per cent of transgender students in elementary or secondary schools reported being assaulted, disciplined for defending themselves, or told to dress according to their sex assigned at birth. And in a recent survey of over 1000 UK-based students, the 1752 Group, which is campaigning for better policies to prevent staff sexually harassing students, found that 41 per cent of students faced unwelcome sexual advances from staff. The 2018 Lancet Commission on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for All reported that 1 in 3 women worldwide experience sexual violence.
I can well imagine that the issues discussed in The Lancet will make uncomfortable reading for many scientists, being so full of unpleasant truths. But the papers aren’t simply a rebuke. They invite all of us – whatever our career stage, gender or ethnicity – to take real steps towards a better tomorrow where fewer biases are on show in the scientific workplace.
Unfortunately, these biases and inequalities don’t only exist in academic institutions. I have spent the past year trying to improve the representation of women on Wikipedia, researching and writing one biography of a scientist or engineer a day.
Representation on Wikipedia matters – it is the fifth most popular website in the world, the go-to place for journalists looking for experts, and it is used regularly in education, particularly where access to textbooks is tricky. Once ridiculed for its lack of reliability, Wikipedia has now emerged as a trusted source of information, which makes it particularly unfortunate that just 17.8 per cent of biographies on the encyclopaedia are of women. The Lancet’s special publication is a welcome reminder that there is now a collective desire to combat such biases. It has renewed my inspiration to keep up the fight.
Journal reference: The Lancet, DOI: PIIS0140-6736(19)X0006-9
More on these topics: