Sexism in Science Is Alive and Kicking

06/24/2015 09:38 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

Professor Tim Hunt, a knighted and Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, resigned from his position at University College London after making inappropriate, sexist comments about women scientists at a conference in Seoul, South Korea. All of his 72 years and the coveted award have not broadened his views about women scientists. His apology broadcast by BBC Radio's Today program, that he was "honest" with his remarks, but was "stupid" to make them "in the presence of all those journalists" says it all.

It is unfortunate that such opinions still exist and are expressed in public by white men who are the accepted standard for every determination, analysis, and conclusion. There is no place for such behavior in today's society. But whom are we kidding? From time immemorial, women in science have been treated as subservient to the men. From Rosalind Franklin, who contributed to our understanding of the molecular structure of DNA, but got little to no recognition from her male colleagues, who then went on to win the Nobel award, to Lawrence Summers, President Emeritus of Harvard University, who stated at an academic conference in 2005 that underrepresentation of women in science and engineering could be due to a "different availability of aptitude at the high end," sexism in science is rampant. Summers ultimately resigned his position, avoiding an imminent no-confidence vote by the faculty, but he remains a professor at the university. As a woman scientist, it is difficult to accept this bias, let alone grow immune to it, because there are no gender differences in intelligence.

Disparities in the number of women chairpersons and tenured women faculty in universities and the existence of archaic, non-faculty academic titles tailor-made for female scientists, are part of the attempt to keep women from attaining equality with their male counterparts. Women's perceived lack of aggression, our hesitance to speak up for due recognition, and the absence of a "leaning in" strategy in some of us are taken as signs of weakness, leading to systemic abuse. Even though women constitute half of the American work force, they hold less than 25% of STEM jobs. Women have been exploited for their ideas, for primary and corresponding authorships, for promotions and raises by male mentors and colleagues. Female scientists have to be on guard at all times lest their innovative ideas get scooped.

There's also a level of racism that intersects with the sexism in science that rarely gets talked about. For example, I, a female, non-white Principal Investigator (PI) had arranged to obtain autopsy tissue for research. When I handed the sterile tubes to transport the tissue to the male pathologist, he grabbed them from me, dumped them in the trash and said, "tell Dr. Davidson that we have our own sterile tubes here." He had assumed that I was a technician -- in his mind I could never be a PI.

Women have been yelled at for standing their ground, rudely interrupted during serious discussions, and have had to bear the ignominy of being treated like second-class citizens. In many cases there has been no peaceful solution because there is no acknowledgement of these problems. Given these impediments, some women struggle and progress at a very slow pace and have to be satisfied with crumbs that fall down. Their passion for science keeps them going. The landscape has to change and the playing field has to be leveled. To accomplish this, attitudes must change at the individual, societal, and government levels. Policies that are seriously targeted towards gender equality in the workplace have to be implemented. It will greatly benefit the individual, family, society and the country.