Science and Technology is Gender Biased

  • SumoMe

scien1.JPGThe year is 2008 and we have definitely come a long way socially, as well as, scientifically. A discussion on gender bias may seem totally out of place but the reality is that, unfortunately, fields of science and technology still seem to be “male–dominated”. The readers may feel skeptical, and would probably wonder about what I have said, especially considering the fact that women are now at an equal footing with men. The issue is not about how many women are earning their bachelor’s degrees in science; the question to be asked is, how many of them are actually active in scientific research?

Statistics reveal that women now earn 57 per cent of Bachelor’s degrees and 59 per cent of Master’s degrees. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2006 was the fifth year in a row in which the majority of research Ph.Ds awarded to U.S. citizens went to women. Women earn more Ph.D.’s than men in the humanities, social sciences, education, and life sciences. It is heart warming to know that women now serve as presidents of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and other leading research universities; but elsewhere, the figures are different. Women comprise just 19 per cent of professors in Math, 11 per cent in Physics, 10 per cent in Computer Science, and 10 per cent in Electrical Engineering. Furthermore, the pipeline does not promise statistical parity any time soon. Women are now earning 24 per cent of the Ph.D.’s in the Physical Sciences — way up from the 4 percent of the 1960s – but still far behind the rate they are winning doctorates in other fields.

Even in India, the story is not less different. Women scientists form not only a very small proportion of women in India, but also a minor proportion of all Indian working women. In India, most women scientists emerge in biology related fields. Even in these fields, their research is expected to be market driven. As a matter of fact, statistics of IIT Bombay show that out of the total students pursuing undergraduate studies only 7.9 per cent are girls.

The reality is that gender bias is well spread in the scientific community! In fact, they have actually come out in the open when top scientists have made indiscreet remarks. In 2005, President of Harvard University actually said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason that fewer women succeed in science and math careers. This caused a furore in the academic community and he was sacked the following year. But, the statistics also reveal that women make only 7 per cent of Harvard Professors.

Gender bias is made evident by the fact that only 34 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize since 1901, and only 2 in Physics.

One of the biggest achievements in science was made by James Watson and Francis Crick when they unveiled the double–helix structure of DNA, for which they got a Nobel Prize in 1962. Maurice Wilkins played a role as well, for which he shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Watson and Crick. Yet, there was one other person whose truly essential contribution to this discovery could not be recognized by the Nobel Committee in 1962. That person was Rosalind Franklin. Rosalind Franklin, whose name should be as famous as that of Watson and Crick for the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA. Franklin did painstaking studies of X-ray diffraction from DNA crystals, and discovered that the sugar-phosphate backbone of DNA lies on the outside of the molecule, not the inside as was previously thought. She even discovered the double-helical structure of DNA and only missed the part on base pairing between the two strands, which is, of course, the secret of heredity. It is well acknowledged that Watson and Crick could not have come up with their successful model without access to Rosalind’s data (given to them without her knowledge from the Randall’s Laboratory!). But Rosalind Franklin died in 1956 (two years after her work) without credit for her discovery.

Madame Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize for physics for the discovery of natural radioactivity with her husband Pierre Curie in 1903. The conditions in which she and her husband worked were grim, but the fact that she had her husband working along side her certainly helped Marie Curie’s standing in the scientific community. After his death she did win yet another Nobel Prize in 1911; however, ironically, the same year she was denied entry into the Academy of Science due to “hatred of foreigners and sexism”.(Raynal, 1995)

Barbara McClintock, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine and physiology for her discovery of transposable genetic elements, was also an outstanding scientist. Nonetheless, though she made her discovery in 1948, she was not awarded the Nobel Prize until 1983.

And, of course, how can I forget Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was never recognized for her discovery of the Pulsars. She discovered the first radio pulsars with her thesis advisor Antony Hewish, for which he won a Nobel Prize but she didn’t. The paper announcing the discovery had five authors, Hewish’s name being listed first, Bell’s second. Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Martin Ryle, without the inclusion of Bell as a co-recipient.

I feel that it is ironic that these women scientists either did not receive credit for their work, or if they did, it was later and after much turmoil.

Even today, the process of reviewing being followed is the Standard Single Blind Review System, in which reviewers are aware of the authors’ names and affiliations, while authors are kept in the dark about the identity of their reviewers. As a result, it makes it a lopsided method where the knowledge of authors’ identity—gender, nationality, research institution, level of experience in the field—can (and does) bias reviewers’ opinions on the merit of the research. Instead, we should have the Double-Blind Peer Review in which both authors and referees are anonymous. This way we can have uniform and meritorious judgments which will not cause women to be at the receiving end. In fact, the Publishing Research Consortium (PRC), after conducting a survey, have analyzed that 71 per cent have confidence in Double-Blind Peer Review and that 56 per cent prefer it to other forms of review. But then, it is strange that highly revered journals like Nature do not wish this system to be a part of their publication review system.

We need women scientists. It is the necessity of the hour. But if their work goes unrecognized or is not published at all, what are we heading towards? I can only hope that, at least in India, we can rise above the gender bias issue and tap the potential of immensely talented women scientists.

Aayushi Uberoi

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