Some sporadic insights into academia.
Science is Fascinating.
Scientists are slightly peculiar.
Here are the views of one of them.

Monday, 15 June 2015

#DistractinglySexy. Gender Bias in academia.

Distractingly Sexy

An incorrect assertion

“'Let me tell you about my trouble with girls.Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry." Prof Tim Hunt (attrib).

The first I knew about this story was an email from my Dad saying to be careful of what you say and to whom and the trouble you can get yourself.

Sensible Advice.

That I will now ignore and blindly enter the minefield of writing about women in science as a man. I cannot fully appreciate all of the challenges associated facing women in the workplace and there are obviously better informed people than me who have done more reading and research on both the problems and the solutions. So why write this? Because the system is broken and we need to fix it, because I am inclined to value my own opinion and want to share it (one of the defining features of being an academic) and because I want to add my voice to people saying things need to change.

The fault in our stats


Figure 1. Staff at UK HE providers by occupation, age and sex.
Taken from Staff in higher education 2013/14 (
The comments attributed to Professor Hunt reflect a wrong, but not unique view in science and therefore underlie a massive problem in academia. This bias is then further exacerbated by the uneven numbers of women and men in senior academic posts. This data from HESA (Higher education statistics agency) demonstrates the current situation. 45% of academic staff were female, but at senior levels women made up 22% of professors, and 33% of other senior academic staff. The majority (63%) of non-academic staff in 2013/14 were women, including 54% of managerial, professional and technical staff and 82% of clerical staff.

Why do things have to be like this?

A question is why is there such an imbalance? In part it may reflect a historical bias, with the environment in the 1980’s and 1990’s being even less supportive than it is now. I had the privilege of knowing Prof Ita Askonas, who passed away a couple of years ago, a truly remarkable, supportive academic mentor, who rose to the top of her field in a generation when this was far from the norm, but she was one of a very small handful of female academics in her generation. There is some evidence of an upward trend – in 2004 only 21% of clinical academics were women, slowly rising to 26% in 2011 and 28% in 2013, with professorships at 11% in 2004 and at 17% in 2013 (, but it is slow progress.

But historical bias is not the whole story and there are other factors. I would put children and childcare near the top of the list. There is still a perceived bias in expectation towards mums taking time off rather than dads. This is a whole complicated issue and which someone should address separately in a well rounded, but witty blog post . The MRC’s recent change to make fellowship eligibility independent of time post-PhD is a big positive step in this regards. There are some well described unconscious biases in recruitment, job advert writing, interviewing. There are self-reported biases in science by academics of both sexes (good nature op/ed article here). But the prevalence of gender stereotyping may unfortunately be propagating this bias. For example, Larry Summers (then President of Harvard) infamously commented on aptitude and gender (for fuller details see here) and a very brief dip into the interweb brings up, for example, an article about the coconut genomes from The Journal of Proteomics. An unlikely source of sexism, until you see the graphical abstract depicting a woman holding up two coconuts against her chest for no obvious reason (from

I will re-iterate, opinions about the relative aptitudes of people based on what they are, are wrong. People make good (and terrible) scientists, regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation or background. It is also wrong to stereotype about lab personalities, for any given “but type X people are more likely to behave in Y way”, I can give you multiple examples of the opposite. These are wrong views and as trainers of the next generation (and parents of the one after that), we need to dispel them. At the end of the day, science – and the world that depends on scientific progress, needs the best qualified/most able people to deliver it.

It’s my laboratoire

The fact is that for multiple reasons it is harder to be a woman in science. Therefore things need to be done to level the playing field or we will not get the best people. However, it is easy to see why some people may not (consciously or subconsciously) want the status quo to change. Full disclosure: I am a white, privately educated, Oxbridge graduate, man. If 2 men are appointed to every 1 woman, then my chances are much improved. Any levelling of the playing field, could make the path harder for me and those like me. Whilst I assume my genius, social skills and zingy personality got me where I am, I have had every possible advantage from a loving home to extra golf lessons. There are some schemes and support networks, for example Athena Swan and awards targeted at women, or women coming back from childcare breaks but they are few and far between. Sadly, it is not uncommon to hear young male academics/ post docs/ PhD students complaining about how unfair these schemes that preferentially support women are. Interestingly these type of comments tend to tail off with age as these same young men see the problems their friends and loved ones go through juggling children and work. Optimistically, I think these complaints are a direct consequence of the terrible funding situation rather than the next generation of bigots being made. There is so little money available, that any factor that puts you at a perceived disadvantage seems outrageous. I do my best to point out the error of their ways, but it is a view point that needs to be changed. It probably doesn’t help that one of the schemes is sponsored by Loreal (brilliant Mitchell and Webb sketch on this).

We found love in a hopeless place

Was there any truth in the comment: "you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you". Yes, some people do fall in love in lab settings – I met my wife doing my PhD and many of my friends met their partners in science. But then again, many of my other friends met their partners in the army, being doctors, accountants, lawyers etc and then others met in bars, on Tinder, Grinder and Gap years in Africa. If you put people together, some of them will end up sleeping with each other.

Boys don’t Cry

Science is stressful, repetitive and mostly doesn’t work. PhD’s are more so, because you are learning and feel under a time pressure. Hindsight and experience are potent – of course I wouldn’t have done it that way, I would have included that control, I would have put the right chemicals in in the right order. Except when I am actually doing the labwork and adding my own unique cock ups to our long list of ways to fail at ELISA (we are currently at reason 20 – wrong species: long story/ different blog). Bosses are unsympathetic, under stress themselves and often just had a grant rejected. Even worse, Bosses also have a rose tinted view of how easy lab work was in their day, which with incomplete hindsight it possibly was, what was cutting edge to me is now provided in a kit to my students. All of this can add up to toxic interpersonal interactions. Some people cry, some people smash keyboards, things happen, to everyone. So again, an incomplete observation.

Amazing pithy conclusion

Sadly I don’t have one. There is a sex bias in academia (and many professions). It may (or may not) be improving. Changes need to be made, to make it fair so that selection is entirely on aptitude and ability, because science as a career is hard enough, without disadvantaging 50% of scientists. On the minus side there is still bias out there: on the plus side (some) people on twitter are provocatively funny (#Distractinglysexy), reminding us that the more we discuss workplace biases and educate the next generation the less likely it is to be perpetuated.

Post:Script Backlash against 140 characters

I have slightly amended this piece since I first posted it, due to the toxic backlash against Professor Hunt and the complexities of understanding what someone said when you only see a small snippet of it. I put this down to my naivety of social media and not truly understanding the impact it can have until I read Jon Ronson's brilliant - So you've been publicly shamed. The changes I made have left the sentiment intact (academia should be more fair), but in a less accusatory tone.

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