Why it's hard to prove gender discrimination in science

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Lack of transparency and unconscious biases make it hard to spot inequality.

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Credit: Salk Institute for Biological Studies

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, asked a judge on 11 May to dismiss portions of three gender-discrimination lawsuits filed by senior female scientists there in July 2017. To prove their cases, the plaintiffs are seeking to compel the Salk — a private research institution — to disclose information about how funds and laboratory space are allocated, as well as about complaints concerning sexual harassment and the unfair treatment of women.

The plaintiffs’ quest for evidence highlights how difficult it can be to identify and demonstrate discrimination in science, especially when information about salaries and the division of resources is confidential.

To prove gender discrimination in court, plaintiffs must show that they were denied opportunities or rewards because of their gender. Harassment can also be a sign of discrimination when the people responsible are in positions of power. However, recognizing and remedying these problems in academia is challenging for reasons that are deeply entrenched in the culture of science, and in how institutions have long operated, say legal and social-science scholars. For example, scientists pride themselves on objectivity, and may therefore be slow to see how unconscious biases alter their judgement and actions.

“Gender discrimination is everywhere,” says Christine Williams, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “But what makes the experience unique among scientists is their almost unflappable belief in objectivity and meritocracy.”

Leaky pipeline

The scientists who are suing the Salk — molecular biologist Beverly Emerson (whose contract was not renewed in 2018) and cancer researchers Katherine Jones and Victoria Lundblad — allege that systemic bias at the institute shaped how it distributed resources such as pay, laboratory space and research funds over decades, and even now. And the journal Science reports that some female scientists with ties to the Salk have claimed that Inder Verma, a cancer biologist who sat on the institute’s most powerful committees, had in the past forcibly groped and kissed them. In her lawsuit, Lundblad alleges that Verma made “numerous overtly derogatory comments” to her about tenured female scientists at the Salk.

The institute denies the allegations of gender discrimination levelled against it in the lawsuits, but is currently conducting an internal investigation into the allegations against Verma. He denies the claims made against him. In a statement to Nature through his lawyer, he writes, “I have never inappropriately touched, nor have I made any sexually charged comments, to anyone affiliated with the Salk Institute”.

If the Salk cases go to trial it will be up to the court to decide whether there is any evidence of discrimination at that institution. But the issues raised in the lawsuits fit into a wider discussion about implicit biases and how they might partly account for why many women leave academic science — a phenomenon known as the leaky pipeline.

According to the most recent data available from the US National Science Foundation, women accounted for 45% of doctorates in science, mathematics and engineering in the United States in 2015. This figure falls to 42% for female junior faculty members, and to 30% for female senior faculty members.

Many women who have made it through the ranks say that less-overt forms of discrimination — as opposed to outright harassment by a few people — hampered their research in ways that were so hard to pin down that they did not recognize them until later in their career.

Some researchers have tried to investigate subtle forms of discrimination in controlled experiments. A 2012 study of more than 100 biology, chemistry and physics professors at US universities found that they judged men who applied for a fictitious laboratory manager’s job as being more competent and more deserving of mentorship and higher salaries than were female applicants — even though the application materials used in the experiment were identical except for the names identifying them as male or female1. And a 2016 analysis of more than 1,200 letters of recommendation submitted by applicants from 54 countries found that when male postdoctoral researchers were praised, the letters often used superlatives such as ‘brilliant’ and ‘trailblazer’, whereas positive letters describing women contained terms like ‘hardworking’ and ‘diligent’.

Personal perspectives

Some scientists might be slow to consider that the system could be rigged because it implies that their own accomplishments might not be totally deserved, says Deborah Rhode, a legal ethicist at Stanford University in California. They might also be less willing to see how helping their closest peers might simultaneously exclude others. In fields dominated by men, such behaviour can create the proverbial ‘old boys’ club’. The Salk lawsuits use this term, and say that certain senior male faculty members networked with one another and with donors at social events to which female researchers were rarely invited.

In response to accusations of discrimination, some universities have become more transparent about salaries, promotions and research funds. For example, in the late 1990s, Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, co-authored a report documenting long-standing inequities there that were holding back the careers of women. The university then instituted policy changes, including a rule that required salaries in each department to be reviewed by at least one tenured female faculty member in order to spot inequities and fix them. “Opaqueness is death,” Hopkins says.

In other cases, external assessments have helped to illuminate injustices in academic institutions. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) programme collects data on hiring and promotions from more than 140 participating institutions, and then ranks them in terms of how well they attract and advance women in their careers.

These are the kinds of data that the plaintiffs in the Salk cases are seeking to obtain to support their lawsuits. If the plaintiffs and Salk don’t reach out-of-court settlements, the cases will go to trial in December. In the meantime, researchers who have fought for decades for gender equality in science say that discrimination remains widespread and under-reported. “There has been so much progress,” Hopkins says, “but the progress is uneven.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05109-w
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  1. 1.

    Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J. & Handelsman, J. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 16474-16479 (2012).

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