Gender Bias In the Sciences: What Do the Researchers Say?

Gender bias research
The 11th Annual FENS Forum of Neuroscience was held in Berlin, Germany from July 7-11. A special interest event on “Dealing With Gender Bias in Neuroscience” was held over the weekend, exploring gender statistics related to research funding, ways of combining career progress with family and parenting, and ongoing initiatives to support women and men in science.

“Although the scientific method is meant to be objective, science is not bias-free,” the event description reads. “Conscious and unconscious biases are a well-known phenomenon spanning through various aspects of our working life, from scientific research to research funding and academic positions. An example of this is provided by gender bias in research.”

Prof Dr Ileana Hanganu-Opatz, moderator of the event and professor at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, opened by saying she’d only begun considering gender bias in the sciences recently, when a Dean told her husband, who is also a professor, that he’d “married the wrong woman” since she spent so much time commuting to and from work. “My wife is a housewife,” he added.

Hanganu-Opatz underscored the point: “This is 2018 in Germany.”

In her talk on “Gender Across Evolution,” Belinda Pletzer explained her personal experience of growing up in Austria, where students receive marks not only for academic performance but for behaviour as well. She said a mathematics teacher had once given her low marks for being the best student in the class, outperforming all the boys.

Pletzer added that, over the course of her career, she’d struggled to receive funding for her research on hormone cycles and the brain, being told that the topic was “not of general interest” despite the fact that women make up fifty percent of the population.

Female researchers in Austria often face pressures to put their family before their career, Pletzer added. “I think there’s not just a gender bias in neuroscience; there’s a family bias in neuroscience.”

Theodorus Papazoglou, who presented statistics on gender bias in the sciences, said that although the European Research Council is responsible for creating policies around equal opportunity, it is ultimately up to the universities and research institutions themselves to put these policies into practice.

“In general, we have a very unbalanced presence in the physical sciences and engineering,” he said. But overall, for successful post-doc grant proposals among men versus women, the difference is negligible.

Belgian neuroscientist Corrinne Houart spoke about mentoring and networking among female scientists in London, lamenting the fact that for so many mentoring programs in the UK, the “underlying narrative is that there’s something wrong with us we have to fix.”

Houart called for mentoring on both sides, and for a clearer focus on “how to value female traits in leadership positions.”

“Some women,” she said, “are very male in their leadership style, and that doesn’t solve the problem.”

During the Q&A session, several intersex and queer members of the audience came forward to express their concern over the binary nature of the research. One audience member criticised Pletzer for “glamorising” intersexuality, as she had mentioned during her talk that “feminine males and masculine females make the best musicians” since their brains are wired for greater creativity.

Much of the Q&A discussion was centered around whether or not to create a “third box” on grant proposal applications. Hanganu-Opatz suggested that the whole point would be to eliminate these boxes altogether and evaluate candidates as scientists, but several intersex members of the audience disagreed, saying it was important to be recognised first, just as women have been as a result of the women’s rights and feminist movements, and then work towards a more neutral stance.



Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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