Sexism remains an everyday challenge for female science students

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When Mieke Guinan, a second-year medicinal chemistry student and the current treasurer of the Dublin University Gender Equality Society (DUGES), finished a difficult maths assignment well before a deadline last year, her male colleagues couldn’t believe a woman had worked it out alone. “They claimed that my boyfriend at the time, who studied maths in college, had done the work for me and I had slapped my name on the top,” she said. “They set out to prove me wrong, without allowing me to justify my work. It’s little things like that. Even now if I ask a female colleague for help, one of my male colleagues will butt in with the answer instead.”

Ms. Guinan is one of the coordinators of last week’s first ever Women in Science Week. The goal of the week was “to provide an insight into the scientific work carried out by women,” she told Trinity News. “We want to reach out to female students studying general science in particular, and show them the range of opportunities available to them. We hope to encourage discussion about sexism in science, and cause people to question their own bias.”

They claimed that my boyfriend at the time, who studied maths in college, had done the work for me and I had slapped my name on the top.

From the week beginning November 10th, lecture theatres in the Hamilton building were occupied by female lecturers from many different scientific disciplines. The lecturers spoke for about 15 minutes, during which they relived their own encounters with sexism and how they overcame it in their field of work. The event was not solely run by DUGES: Maths Society and Physics Society had also lined up their speakers for the week.

“The core aim of women in science week is empower and educate,” Ms. Guinan explained. “These issues are never raised in College. Most science courses are equal in terms of gender, but the problem lies further down the line; masters programs and PhDs.” Statistically more women finish an undergraduate degree in the engineering, maths and science (EMS) faculty, but there is this huge drop-off of progress after graduation. Men dominate PhD programs and industrial internships. Worldwide, only 30% of researchers are female. In Ireland, the figure is 32%. “It’s not to do with a woman’s ability, rather what is expected of her in society; family and children. Bias is still so inherent that men get chosen over women even with the same qualification”.

There is a huge lack of action in remedying the gender gaps in many science departments around the world. Dr. Natalie Cooper from the School of Natural Sciences highlighted one source of the problem in her public lecture on gender inequality in science last year: many people think that women are the minority, and that the focus should be on larger minorities.

“Women are not a minority, in fact we make up roughly 50% of the population and so we should occupy 50% of the positions,” explained Dr. Cooper. Even now, there is still a huge wage gap in EMS employment. In a 2012 study carried out by Jo Handelsman and her research team in Yale University, a board of evaluators in the fields of biology, chemistry and physics at six leading universities were given résumés from potential candidates and the evaluators would have to recommend a salary for the candidate. What they didn’t know was that the application was modified randomly to change the name from ‘Jennifer’ to ‘John’, without altering any other details. On average, ‘Jennifer’ was awarded a salary worth 12% less than ‘John’, for no conceivable reason: the only difference was the gender of the applicant. Moreover, the 12% gap only applies for white women. Female scientists of colour make considerably less. “Many people don’t think they are actually part of the problem, and they don’t realise their own gender bias at all,” Ms. Guinan says.

One anonymous graduate from another Irish university spoke to Trinity News about how she had great difficulty in finding a job after college, even though she had graduated with first class honours. “I started sending out my résumé at the start of last year, but I was getting no replies or interviews, even after five months,” she said. “I asked my colleagues to have a look at the CV which I had been sending out, to see if there was a major issue with it that I couldn’t find. They all recommended that I stop using my first name and instead just use my initial, as then an employer wouldn’t know my gender from the top of my CV. I took their advice and changed my CV. I started getting interviews and I was employed by the end of October.”

What is College doing to change things?
Shifting the focus back to College, I ask Mieke about the past science-based gender equality projects. “The topic of sexism in science hasn’t come up much in DUGES,” she said. “Interaction with the EMS faculty is and always has been very low, which makes Women in Science Week all the more important. However, Trinity itself is definitely combating the issue. There is a gender equality officer in the Students’ Union, College now has a gender equality commission and International Women’s Week has been incorporated into the academic calendar. Just last April, College hosted Soapbox Science; an event where female lecturers stand up on actual soapboxes in a public place and give short speeches about their field of work. The event has been running in the UK for a few years but last year was the first Irish instance.”

Apart from these events, there are scholarship awards reserved for female students, such as the Women in Physics scholarship which awards outstanding junior freshman women. The current state of affairs is still grim with regard to gender bias in science, but with progressive events like Women in Science week it is hoped that equal work will soon actually yield equal pay.

Dylan Lynch

Dylan is an SF Medicinal Chemist studying at Trinity College Dublin, and is the Science & Technology Editor.