The tragic hypocrisy of science's women problem

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Astronomer Geoff Marcy is the public face of planet hunters. He and his team are famous for discovering thousands of extrasolar planets. In the realm of science, he is just about as big a deal as there is.

Recently, though, Marcy has also become the face of sexism in science. It turns out that between 2001 and 2010, he repeatedly violated the University of California’s sexual harassment policy. As Buzzfeed reported, Marcy was accused of groping, massaging and touching both female graduate students and female undergraduates. (Marcy apologized for his behavior, but took issue with some of the allegations. He resigned but has since been given an emeritus position by UC Berkeley, in a great display of institutional tone-deafness.)

It would be bad enough if that were an isolated incident within the academic science community. But over the past three weeks, sexual harassment stories have surfaced in the astronomy departments of Caltech and ASU. On Twitter, women in astronomy spoke out about their experiences, using the hashtag #AstroSH. California Congresswoman Jackie Speier denounced sexism in science from the floor of the House. At Yale, the chair of the Astronomy Department circulated an e-mail acknowledging just how bad the situation really was.


“We must face up to the reality that predatory behavior is widespread,” it read, “we must all be on the lookout for signs.”

It's not just astronomy either—last week Jezebel detailed efforts by renowned geneticist Eric S. Landers to write two women out of the innovation of CRISPR, DNA-editing technology that is among the most important developments in the field of genetics in decades.


The question is no longer whether there's sexism in the sciences. (Enough versions of the resume experiment swapping out “Jennifer” with “John” have been done to know that there is.) The question is why a field that necessitates rigorous impartiality over bias has so much of it when it comes to governing itself.


Science is expected to be better. Science is supposed to be fair. The entire scientific enterprise rests on the notion that the quality of your work, examined and vetted by your peers, will prevail over any other considerations of race, class or gender. That’s the scientific ideal, at least.

The problem, however, is much broader than sexual harassment by famous senior researchers. In real life, science’s vaunted objectivity and fairness seems to be mostly reserved for men.


Women are frequently discouraged from pursuing science as a career, and when they do they are just as often pushed out or hindered from advancement. Even those women that do make it to the top face discrimination. Just take a look at the list of Nobel Prize recipients in “hard” sciences since 1901. In more than a century, a total of 17 women were awarded the Prize in the categories of chemistry, physics and medicine while 565 men received it. (Women have been awarded the Prize in those categories 18 times, but Marie Curie won it twice.) In the same vein, the Fields Medal for mathematics (arguably an even more selective distinction than the Nobel Prize), was first awarded to a woman just two years ago, in 2014.

Historically, the majority of scientists were men because of the conventions of the times. But the predominance of men in positions of scientific authority has only slightly abated since World War II and the entrance of women into the workforce. Senior scientists are still overwhelmingly male. They are still in charge of reviewing grant applications to dole out funding and deciding who gets to climb the career ladder. Consequently, female scientists still trail behind their male counterparts in salary, authority and prestige.


That science works this way, of course, makes sense. Science is a collaborative activity—a social activity. It’s something you do in a lab with other people, not somewhere quarantined off from the gendered biases that plague our culture at large. Scientific rigor can’t completely course correct for the biases of human beings. That’s why scientific fields are riddled with all kinds of other bias issues, like self-selection in research.

It is a net loss not only to knowledge but to society and humanity. How many potential female Einsteins or Von Neumanns have found themselves beaten down by institutional bias and slimy graduate advisors?


Beyond these utilitarian arguments, stamping gender bias out of science should be done because it is the right thing to do. It is the only logical thing to do given science’s self-professed standards of reason and truth.

In the field of Astronomy, a group of young astronomers created Astronomy Allies to provide safety and support during conferences, offering services such as a vetted colleague to walk women home late at night or safe space to air frustrations and concerns. On Twitter, other women have found solace and support through the #AstroSH hashtag. Congresswoman Speier is floating legislation to address sexism on university campuses.


The scientific community must get accustomed to greater transparency and scrutiny in matters of sexual harassment. Creating supportive communities and facilitating ways for women to speak up is an important step toward eradicating the gendered biases that threaten to undermine science. It is much harder to sweep sexual harassment under the rug when it is made public.

But the scientific community will also have to look inwards, to apply to itself the same rigorous scrutiny and logic that has enabled scientists to uncover new planets and cures for diseases.


And if we can find water on Mars, surely we can also find a way to treat female scientists equally to men.