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No doubt it is a reflection of my own background and insensitivity, but the question of sexism in science has never occurred to me, although I have worked supporting scientists for significant periods. I have missed a lot!
My initial thought when I saw the title was that there was a pretty massive assumption being made – that science was sexist. Fortunately, the author quickly demonstrated that there is sexist behaviour in science, and sexist attitudes. She demonstrates that women are under-represented at all levels of scientific study and inquiry, in all disciplines, and in all areas, including academia and professions, private and public services. She recounts the arguments that mental ability is gendered, although there is no actual evidence for that statement.
Nicola Gaston is a Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at Victoria University of Wellington, and President of the NZ Association of Scientists. The book is a very personal one, including her own experiences, opinions and reactions throughout. Starting from the widely reported incidents involving world-renowned scientists (including a Nobel Prize-winner), she gives many examples of the way that sexism plays out in the scientific world.
But the real question is ‘Why?’ Gaston delves into the research. Subconscious bias and stereotypes are examined. I found some of these alarming – do rational scientists really say things like that? Biological differences are assumed to exist despite there being no evidence for them. Women’s contributions are systematically undervalued or denied. Discussions about women in science are recounted which seem to be quite bizarre. The author demonstrates the considerable extent of our unconscious bias against female scientists, and warns of its damaging consequences for science and for society.
The author’s approach is interesting. There is a mix of objective research studies and personal observations. There are suggestions for positive ways forward, and her personal to-do list. Her call is to rethink attitudes not only to gender, but to scientific inquiry. The 93 pages pack in a lot of data, research, opinions and some conclusions. The writing is clear and the argument easy to follow – and so to accept or reject. But rejection would seem perverse in the light of the material here.
This is a book that raises many difficult questions, and offers some solutions. I found that it challenged some of my preconceptions, and has provided much food for thought. It’s short enough to read, think about and discuss in an evening: do it!
Reviewed by Gordon Findlay
Why Science Is Sexist
by Nicola Gaston
Published by Bridget Williams Books