Sexism in science is no secret. The field has been dominated by men since its creation, and continues in this way today. This is something I have been made aware of from a very young age, but I decided that despite this fact I would study a science degree. However, whilst learning all about cells and proteins and plants, I learned some other very important and unexpected lessons.
In group work, there have been numerous occasions on which my contributions have been entirely ignored, dismissed and even laughed at. Even worse, my dismissed answers have been repeated by a male group member who has been met with agreement and praise. In labs, male lab demonstrators noticeably question or overlook my work more so than the men next to me. Shockingly, when I received an offer for a science degree at Oxford university, several times I was told that being a woman had worked in my favour due to the university meeting certain requirements. There is stark contrast in the way that things are explained to me, assuming no prior or basic knowledge, even talking more slowly or patronisingly. For so long I dismissed it, telling myself I was overthinking it or being too sensitive. However, all these small things built up in my mind to a point where I would shy away from partaking in discussions or offering my answers unless directly addressed. Eventually it became too profound to overlook, making me confront the reasons I felt this way.
I didn’t initially conclude this hostility was rooted in sexism. I blamed myself for appearing in a way that didn’t demand intellectual respect, without realising it was because of my gender. This realisation was very hard to accept. It’s no secret to me that sexism exists and is real, having experienced its sly subtleties and glaringly obvious offences. However, perhaps because I attended an all-girls school, the classroom had always felt to me like a safe, protected space where people are merited on their intelligence and creativity. It didn’t occur to me, at least not until applying for jobs, that gender would ever be a factor. Sexism in science is something that is acknowledged and dismissed, having been slow in its progression thus far. Perhaps naively, I had hoped that my generation may represent a step towards a more equal platform, however women are still being dissuaded from the field due to the undeniable bias present.
There is, and always has been, an attitude towards women in science that they are biologically inadequate. There is no gene on the male chromosome for scientific excellence. There is no male hormone that grants scientific genius. Girls perform just as well as boys in science subjects at school. The discrepancy between the two genders in the scientific field is not a reflection of intellectual difference, but a reflection of the unwavering narrative of our misogynistic society. Women are reluctant to enter a field in which they are deemed unworthy, inadequate and unwelcome. The sad truth is that a consequence of this is the loss of potentially groundbreaking scientific progress by female scientists, simply because of the hardship that it would entail.
This is not to say that this bias is not present outside of science. Women have always been seen as less intelligent. As women, we grow up in a world which tells us to derive self-worth from superficiality and attractiveness. Men, however, are praised for their intelligence, strength and drive. This inequality needs to change to allow women to build confidence based on their capabilities and not their ability to perform as a wife and mother. We need to be appreciated for the contributions we can make to society, not what we can do for the men spearheading and dictating our societal progression. The classroom is such an obvious and pivotal time in which attitudes towards women and of women towards themselves are formed. Men have a responsibility to become more aware of how subtle biased attitudes can cumulatively impact the way a woman can feel, making her uncomfortable and unwelcome. Men are viewed as the stronger sex, and while physically this may often be true, I think women are the true reigning champions. We achieve the same things while fighting against a world of insults, prejudice and dismissal. Don’t underestimate us, appreciate us.