Nature’s current special issue is a “Women in Science” issue which asks: why is science institutionally sexist? and what is being done about it?.   In this issue is a news story called “Inequality Quantified: Mind the Gender Gap”, and it is Oh, so that explains the difference in our salaries!frightening and appalling stuff. You can read the article here.  

I won’t go into details but basically the story is this: compared to men, women are under-represented, under paid and under-funded in all science fields. We’ve come a long way but we have a long way to go.

If you’ve paid any attention at all to the gender gap in science this will hardly be news to you (though I was surprised by just how large the gap can be).

The problem with cultural change is it’s a slow process and many gender biases are made unconsciously. But how long can we use these excuses? The studies quoted in the article are recent (within the last 2-3 years) and are from developed nations (the US and EU). We cannot be satisfied with “it will change over time” idealism.

The article says that women are under-represented in science, especially   in senior positions, because women are more likely to give up on academic careers.  The two main reasons identified are the lack of female role models and family.  The gender gap is most pronounced in areas of science that are traditionally male-dominated (physics and astronomy are the worst offenders) and I wonder if women’s choice not to pursue a career in science may also have a cultural aspect.

Earth science is definitely a male-dominated field.  It was a few years ago that I was first exposed to culturally-enshrined sexism.  

In 2009, I was at a workshop in Italy and there was a presentation that was basically an hour-long hero-worship of some old and now-dead geologist. I shan’t name names but let’s call him Fred. Fred did some great geology and laid foundations for structural geology in the European Alps or something (I wasn’t paying much attention).

What I remember most about this talk is an anecdote the presenter gave about Fred. He showed a 1970’s era photo of Fred in his office talking to a female student. The presenter told us who this student was (I forget her name) and about her glorious academic career. He then went on to say that he had asked Fred if he remembered that student, and if he remembered talking to her on that day when the photo was taken. Fred had replied “Of course! How could I forget such lovely breasts?!”

The audience laughed politely.

I can forgive Fred. Fred was from a different era. He may not have considered such a comment to be derogatory or inappropriate. He may have been being flippant when he said it. I don’t know.

But the presenter – he gave that talk in 2009. How can such an anecdote be appropriate in the 21st century? This was a person who had a great scientific career; she was not just a pair of breasts. Was this person a better scientist because she had nice breasts? Did her breasts have magical powers that helped her be a better geologist?

In short: what do her breasts have to do with anything?

And the audience laughed. That is what appalled me the most. I talked to some of the professors afterwards, and they seemed to think there was nothing wrong with that particular story. They did not see it as derogatory, misogynistic, or sexist. For them it was just a mildly diverting anecdote.

They were entirely unaware that encounters like this are not harmless and may make women think “this is not for me”. It showed me that there still exists a culture where it is ok to talk about female scientists in terms of their anatomy.

I wonder how the audience would have reacted if the story was about a male student, and Fred’s comment had been “of course! How could I forget such lovely testicles?!”