From Inside Higher Ed:

Study after study finds that many women feel unwelcome in laboratories and science departments, even after considerable progress in encouraging women to study science and technology fields. As these studies come out, there are almost always skeptics who say that whatever gender imbalance exists could well reflect different choices made, on average, by men and women, or who say that individual men are rising on their merits, not sexism.

But a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers evidence of bias among scientists — male and female scientists alike — against female students.

This is an amazing introductory paragraph followed by PROOF.

Women, for a VERY long time, have been saying over and over again that their personal experiences as participants in the science and technology fields are riddled with moments when they are passed over or discriminated against or belittled because they are women. And even though there have been studies (“study after study”), “skeptics” continually say, “that evidence and the combined weight of all of your personal experiences does not prove a thing.”

But now there is a “new study” that has evidence. And Insider Higher Ed thinks that finally, maybe, we have the “smoking gun on sexism” in Science.

This entire thing is so condescending to women scientists and women more generally.

The fact that we need a scientific study to prove true what women say about their experiences shows already that there is bias. Implied in this entire exercise is that women are liars (or, at the least, constantly exaggerating and complaining). Women scientists have been lying for a long time about whether they are discriminated against so, once again, someone has set out to discover whether they are actually lying.

Of course, the people who did the study may have done it purposefully to show that women are not, in fact, liars. But that does not negate the fact that women scientists saying they are discriminated against is not, in and of itself, proof that women scientists are discriminated against.

What’s that, all you lady scientists? Bias? I don’t know. Do you have PROOF?

Having to “prove” that women are discriminated against in Science with some kind of scientific proof just shows that women scientists are treated as outside of Science. I literally cannot imagine if an overwhelming group of male scientists all agreed about “what it means to be a man and a scientist” that there would need to be proof that their claims are true. Their experiences would be treated as normal and right. The proof would be in the collectivity of voices.

Women scientists do not get that benefit. And if you need proof that I’m right about that last statement, it is found in the endless release of these scientific studies about whether there is bias against women in Science (and those prove that bias does, in fact, exist).

I am not a scientist. But it’s not a stretch for a lay person to see how this overall mistrust of women scientists doesn’t just end with discussions about discrimination. The entire practice of science is built of the trust of experimentation and evidence, that a scientist will do the work correctly and record the results without altering them in any way. 

What does it mean then when Science treats women scientists as if they are liars or prone to exaggeration about their own basic experiences within the field? In other words: when women scientists claim that they are discriminated against and the field doesn’t take them seriously, it shows that the field easily questions women scientists’ ability to be truthful and thus proves that women are lacking in a crucial area when it comes to being a good scientist. And then who wins?

These studies, each and every one of them, and the ensuing discussion about whether the study is correct and whether women are actually discriminated against just foster these insidious ideas about women. And then someone will set out to set the record straight by doing the real “smoking gun” study about discrimination and around and around we go.

And I’ll ask again, then who wins?

Update: As Veronica said in comments, the woman in charge of the study that may be the smoking gun in proving that scientists do hold bias against women must do this scientific work because without this work, all that would exist are the negative narratives that reassert that women are lying about being discriminated against. I agree with that 100%. If we have to have this discussion on this level in this framework (which, apparently we do), we need the stories that counter-balance all the junk.

Re-reading this post, I admit that it sounds like I am equally slamming this latest study as if it is as much a part of the problem as any other. What I actually want to do is question the entire idea of what counts as “proof” or, rather, “legitimate proof” and why we are okay with that.

I do think that the unending questioning either way on this topic does foster a space in which we get to continue to question whether women scientists are lying about their experiences. But Science works in such a way that there is little alternative here except to meet Science with Science. As Veronica says, we need the hard numbers.

What I am saying is that it is ridiculous that we need the hard numbers or that hard numbers somehow count as a more legitimate. It is very convenient that the very scientists who are being charged with bias can claim that without proof from their field (that we know actively discriminates against women), they don’t have to believe what women scientists are saying. And then there is a study but those numbers aren’t good enough. And then there are 15 or 20 or 40 more studies and those numbers aren’t good enough. And FINALLY there is a study and the numbers ARE good enough (hopefully) and then the entire system and need for numbers to quantify experience is re-affirmed as good. But there is a fundamental problem when we participate in the broken system without addressing that the system is broken, and that our participation in that system validates the very system that we want to show is broken.

But I recognize that it’s easy for me to say this because I am not a woman scientist. Women who are trying to make careers as scientist need these numbers right now in this moment to validate their experiences. And for that reason, THANK GOODNESS FOR THIS STUDY. Shame on all the people who make this study necessary and make the results true. I do hope that in the end, this study helps change things. Sometimes people just need “proof” that will show them why they need to alter their behavior and which will make them more aware of what they are doing.

This is all so complicated. Science, on the outside, seems simple: here is a method, plug in the numbers, get results. Yet, when it comes to saying what people experience in their lives, “method” and “numbers” and “results” are not so straight forward. And it’s worth always remembering that, even if the results are finally what we want them to be and what they should have been a long time ago.


10 thoughts on “Proof

  1. I totally get your rage. But I know Dr. Handlesman’s work and she is totally on our side. Yes, the powers that be, the power system requires proof. it requires numbers. This study is powerful. I am also tired of having to read study after study that validates what women KNOW. But the other side is also churning out studies that say we choose this or we don’t want science careers.

  2. Right. The problem is how studies and science work >> that somehow hard numbers reveal a “truth” that is lacking in the collective voices of women scientists. The entire exercise is inherently biased against women. There is no winning here.

    I’m not dissing the study or the work of Dr. Handlesman. I understand completely why this study is necessary but I also hate that it is necessary.

  3. I really, really dislike the framing in the Higher Ed article. I 100% agree with you, scATX – it comes across as “women have been saying this for years, thank gawd we have proof now.” As if all the other studies didn’t count as “evidence.” I will sit here and take comfort in the fact that there is a large body of literature that does treat lived experience as evidence of the discrimination that women face in male-dominated spaces, occupational and otherwise. And not one of those studies frames their data as “well here’s what the laydeez think, too bad we don’t know for sure.”

  4. A – frickin – MEN! to this whole post. But especially this:

    What does it mean then when Science treats women scientists as if they are liars or prone to exaggeration about their own basic experiences within the field? …it shows that the field easily questions women scientists’ ability to be truthful and thus proves that women are lacking in a crucial area when it comes to being a good scientist.

    and this:

    Women who are trying to make careers as scientist need these numbers right now in this moment to validate their experiences. And for that reason, THANK GOODNESS FOR THIS STUDY.

    I *am* a woman scientist. I’m in academia now, but have previously worked in both non-profits and government. And OMG was I ever happy to see this study, it’s incredibly validating.

    Women in all aspects of science – and whether you have a PhD or just a BS – are discriminated against every day, but nearly all of it is subtle. The kind of microagressions and suspiciously lower rates of job offers, mentorships, and lower pay rates that are easily explained away, as we’re all familiar with. If we point this out or – Maud forbid – complain, we’re marked as a whining complainer / harpy, and are even less likely to get that job / pay raise / collaboration that you really need to get ahead.

    So you keep quiet, and just keep doing your job, aware that you have to work twice as hard and present yourself twice as professionally in order to get the same respect as a man of similar qualifications. You’re careful to look attractive – male scientists, like all men, pay more attention to young and attractive women – but not too cute, or you’ll be written off and treated as a plaything for the senior scientists (seen that happen WAY too often!). You have to play up to the senior scientists to get the help you need from them, but always be careful to not be seen as flirting with them.

    Meanwhile, you have to listen to your male colleagues complain bitterly about the few female-only scholarships and opportunities that remain, because OMG THIS IS A POST-FEMINIST SOCIETY!!1!! You girls just have it sooooo easy!!!11! But don’t you dare point out the facts or get even slightly bitter about this (see above).

    I’ve had a senior scientist tell me straight up that he avoids hiring women faculty or taking on women as graduate students, because he doesn’t want to put that level of investment into someone who’s just going to leave academia to have children. Never mind that many women in academia have children *and* work just as hard as the men, or never have children at all (like myself).

    I posted this study on my FB wall in hopes that people (like the above-mentioned senior scientist and grad students) will read it. More male scientists need to see these results. Thing is, as much as I’d like to think that they should just accept women’s stories as valid, these are scientists we’re talking about – they’re far more likely to accept data than anecdata.

    Okay, wow, that got really long – obviously this is a hot-topic issue for me!

    tl;dr; – this PhD scientist finds this study incredibly validating, and hopes it will open up the eyes of at least a few male scientists.

  5. Pingback: Go Read scATX’s Post on Proof | Dermatographia

  6. It’s not that they needed studies. You always need studies, to prove even obvious things.

    It’s that it was treated like a non-obvious or even obviously false thing. That we know there’s bias throughout the rest of society, yet so many scientists thought they, and the scientific world, were beyond bias.

  7. Pingback: Seksisme houdt vrouwen tegen in wetenschap « De Zesde Clan

  8. I’m afraid that I rather firmly disagree with you about the women as liars concept proposed here. I’m a female graduate student in computer science, and I haven’t (yet?) experience any discrimination to my knowledge. It’s cases such as mine that makes scientists demand proof no matter what the question is. Stories and personal experiences vary so widely that they simply can’t be taken as evidence. If all the male scientists felt a certain way, I would hope that in addition to immediate efforts by some to change it (which there also are in this problem, though evidently not as effective as we would all wish), they would conduct experiments as well. That’s just how scientists think, and no matter what the question, no matter what the circumstantial evidence, we need double blind study results to be sure.

    You’re completely right in your anger that all the previous studies in all the previous fields hasn’t produced an appropriately sweeping response, but I think it’s very important that a study was carried out testing professors as well.

  9. Thanks for pointing me to this study. I would recommend reading another article in Scientific American ( that discusses how this study differs from previous studies. Previous studies looked at differences in outcomes, such as who gets tenure. This study looks at differences in opportunity given to potential students by faculty members, and it uses a controlled experiment to generate numbers that can be statistically analyzed.

    Why do we need a study to prove bias? Well, scientists want hard numbers on everything. I wouldn’t hold that against the academic community, I would expect them to hold this subject of research to the same standard as they do other subjects. The real question here is WHY, when there is SO MUCH correlational data, and so much anecdotal evidence, WHY is the the FIRST AND ONLY study to examine this? This is the question we should be angry about. The fact that this study is so new and groundbreaking stems from THE VERY BIAS that is discussed in the study itself. Scientists refuse to acknowledge the possibility of bias, and the few that are interested in studying it have to convince someone to fund their work. The result is that there are very few good studies out there that can actually prove a connection between gender and bias, as opposed to just documenting the existence of a correlation.

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