Four Absurd Examples of Sexism in Science

July 22nd 2015

Hundreds of people in the science community have signed an open letter to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), arguing that a few incidents with its publications have set back "underrepresented groups" in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. The letter, which was just released to BuzzFeed News in full, highlights a pattern of events that alarmed many in the science community and asks the AAAS to do a better job protecting its publications and overall brand from promoting "harmful stereotypes."

Aradhna Tripati, a geologist at UCLA and one of the first to help write the letter, told BuzzFeed News that recent issues pertaining to the AAAS' magazine Science prompted her to pen the note. 

"I think the recent mishaps we’ve seen in Science journals and their associated columns and web forums reflect underlying societal issues relating to gender, race, and civil rights."

The letter addresses some recent events of concern for AAAS.

1. A recent article in Science Careers that many believed promoted sexist stereotypes: "I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist— worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities…"

2. The letter also references a recent, highly criticized advice piece in Science Careers. A woman wrote in asking what to do about the fact that her advisor looks down her shirt and Science Careers said that she should use it to her benefit, "As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can…..His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice." The piece was ultimately pulled.

3. The pattern began last July when Science used a cover photo featuring transgender women's bodies under the headline, “Staying a step ahead of HIV/AIDS,” with some arguing that it insinuated that the trans women were sex workers. Then-editor of Science Careers Jim Austin went on to dismiss the negative response to the cover by tweeting, "Am I the only one who finds moral indignation really boring?" He has since resigned from his position, according to BuzzFeed News.

"We request that Science’s editorial staff and reviewers work more diligently to ensure that Science’s web and printed material does not reinforce harmful stereotypes that hinder the advancement of underrepresented groups in STEM fields," the letter reads. "Such material is counter to the AAAS’s stated mission to: 'advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.' In particular, we suggest STEM diversity training for Science and Science Careers editorial staff and additional scrutiny of published materials, columns, and comments that are posted on Science’s online blogs and Twitter feeds, which illustrate the opinions and priorities of 'the world’s leading outlet for scientific news, commentary, and cutting-edge research' and 'the world’s largest general scientific society.'"

4. Not included in the letter, this comes shortly after 2001 Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt was widely criticized for saying that women pose distractions to men in science and should work in separate labs. He made these comments at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea and eventually resigned as Honorary Professor with the University College London (UCL) Faculty of Life Sciences.

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls," Hunt said at the conference. "Three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”

Hunt's controversy launched the viral hashtag #distractinglysexy, as many felt his remarks were especially discouraging given the shortage of women in STEM careers. Last year, writer Kelly J. Baker noted in an article that 71 percent of female scientists have reported experiencing sexual harassment and assault. Women were also much more likely to be assaulted on site.

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