Issue 36 / 21 September 2015

A PROFESSOR of science at one of Australia’s sandstone universities told me a couple of years ago that his department head would routinely schedule departmental meetings for 8 am or 4.30 pm.
My informant had got into the habit of hitting “reply all” to emails about meetings to let the entire department know he could not attend at those times as he would be doing the school run.
Female colleagues thanked him privately, saying they felt unable to challenge their boss’s meeting schedule for fear this would further marginalise them in a male-dominated department.
The meeting schedule could have been mere thoughtlessness — although the man who told me about it didn’t think so — but it highlights one of the many ways a workplace can fail to encourage diversity in its employees.
Despite some standout exceptions, Australia has generally not done well in supporting women’s careers in the so-called STEMM fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.
“Most science disciplines are dominated by men in senior positions, despite the fact that roughly equal numbers of men and women study science and start science careers”, the president of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor Andrew Holmes, said last week, launching an initiative designed to redress the imbalance.
More than 30 universities and other science organisations have signed up to the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot program, which will rate participating organisations for gender equity and help them design strategies to promote and retain women.
Women account for more than half of PhD science graduates and early career researchers in this country, but hold only 17% of senior positions in the field, SAGE figures show.
In the US, research published last week showed the proportion of women achieving the rank of full professor in medical schools had not increased since the 1980s: only 12% of women had achieved that rank, compared with 29% of men.
There are, no doubt, many reasons for such disparities. You might, for example, expect there to be a time lag in representation at senior levels if fewer women entered a field in the past, though it’s worth noting that the US researchers found a substantial gap between the sexes even after adjustment for age, experience, publications and other factors.
Women’s careers may also have been more disrupted by family responsibilities than men’s. Of course, not scheduling meetings at 8 am might help by making workplaces more family friendly for both sexes.
But it does seem other factors are at play too. Among themselves, women researchers often lament the persistence of the “boys’ club” culture that offers more mentoring and opportunities to early-career men, fails to accommodate the needs of parents with young children and tolerates low-level or even overt sexism in the workplace.
And it’s more than talk — other US research published last week found junior women in biomedical research faculties received significantly less start-up support from their institutions than men.
Recent allegations of rampant sexual harassment in surgical circles are particularly shocking, though the Royal Australian College of Surgeons is making efforts to address these issues.
There have been persistent concerns too about what some see as entrenched gender bias in the peer-review process of some scientific journals.
Dr Tina Iverson of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in the US conducted unconventional research on that subject when she switched from submitting papers under her full name to using initials only.
Obviously, this has all the limitations of an n = 1 study, but the dramatic increase in Dr Iverson’s acceptance rate when she was not immediately identifiable as female does raise questions about the objectivity of the process.
It’s great to see the Academy of Science taking the lead in addressing some of these issues.
After all, as Professor Holmes said last week, it’s not just a question of fairness: “the loss of women from science also represents a very substantial cost to Australia in training, talent and opportunities for scientific innovation”.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.


Is there still a “boys’ club” mentality in the medical research and academic communities?
  • Yes – more action needed (52%, 31 Votes)
  • Yes – but is getting better (27%, 16 Votes)
  • No – hasn’t existed for a long time (22%, 13 Votes)

Total Voters: 60

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3 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Science sex bias

  1. Henry Woo says:

    The recent EAG Report from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons makes clear that there is a real need for cultural change within the profession. I would not be surprised if the Report findings will make women question as to whether they should consider a career in surgery. The RACS promises change and hopefully action will speak louder than words.  Having said that, I am quite concerned that change may not come in a hurry.  The elections for the RACS Council are happening right now.  An analysis of the candidates suggests that the public will continue to perceive the RACS to be a boys club depending upon how they choose to vote. Only 10 of the 38 candidates actually make mention of anything that is relevant to the EAG Report in their election statements.  This is disturbing as it is arguably the biggest ticket item before the RACS.  Of further interest is that 5 of the 6 women running for RACS Council make mention of issues pertaining to the EAG Report and this suggests that women take the EAG Report findings more seriously.  This emphasises an urgent need for surgeons to consider diversity of the make up of the Council. What we do not want is a RACS Council full of hand picked shoulder tapped more of the same. A more detailed look at the candidature can be found here:-

  2. Farmey Joseph says:

    I’m always amazed how all principles of evidence appraisal go out the window when there is a politically correct opinion to be advocated, in this case that disparities in scientific achievement MUST be due to sex discrimination.

    I took the liberty of reviewing that “research published last week” (Sege et. al.) which offers zero support for this theory.  It simply observes that there is a disparity, which is hardly groundbreaking and I’m not sure why it merited publication.  The research is not at all designed to assess the causes for the disparity, given (among other things) that “publication data [for the investigators] were incomplete and not included”, making any fair comparison impossible.

    If Jane is aware of high-quality evidence that unambiguously demonstrates that sex discrimination is the major cause of outcome disparities, then perhaps she would like to share it with us.  Otherwise, please save us the political correctness (which is readily available in thousands of other media sources) and get back to writing something interesting about medicine.

    (Note: the other topic of this article, namely sexual harassment, is a separate issue that needs to be addressed separately.  It is a hugely important issue, and it is not helpful for Jane to muddy the waters by confounding it with this perception of “gender bias” in academia.)


  3. CKN Queensland Health says:

    Sexual harassment and gender bias are not separate issues. They are expressions of the same attitudes toward women. Where you find one, you will find the other. Regarding them as something apart demonstrates a high level of obliviousness, further reinforced by the snide reference to “political correctness”.

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