In high school, I was the only woman from my class on our academic team (a group like quiz bowl). My male teammates sidelined me in one competition when the questions focused on biology. As a woman interested in the humanities, I was pigeon-holed as inferior in the sciences. When I knew the answers to the questions they got wrong, I became frustrated. Why hadn’t I stood up for myself?

The reason might have been the entrenched stereotype, exemplified by the recent comments of biochemist and Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, that women and science don’t mix.

Hunt’s Comments and Twitter’s Response

At a conference in South Korea this week, Hunt described what he considers the “trouble with girls” in the lab: “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.” His overtly sexist talk led to immediate outcry on social media. A new hashtag, #distractinglysexy, became popular as women STEM students and scientists posted pictures that mocked his outrageous remarks. Though Hunt has resigned from his position as honorary professor at University College London, his statement of apology continued to defend his sexist generalizations.

Implicit Bias Remains in STEM

Most people agree that explicit comments such as Hunt’s are inappropriate—perpetuating Victorian-era gender stereotypes that women are hysterical sirens who have no place in the traditionally male-dominated STEM fields. However, more insidious forms of bias are harder to identify and eradicate.

The National Women’s Law Center’s report on Title IX and STEM draws attention to the stereotypes and institutional obstacles women face in the STEM field. As the NWLC report discusses, one phenomenon fueling this issue is stereotype threat. According to this psychological concept, women often “internalize pervasive stereotypes” that we are “not fit to succeed” in math and the sciences. While I didn’t realize it then, it was likely this kind of internalized self-doubt that kept me from asserting my competency in biology back in high school.

These kinds of stereotypes also contribute to girls being pushed from a young age towards certain areas of study. NWLC’s work on single-sex education highlights the problems with creating separate curricula based on “overgeneralizations about the likes and dislikes or strengths and weaknesses of boys and girls.” The research on gender segregation in schools and the workplace provides strong evidence to refute Hunt’s preference for single-sex labs as better for science.

Why It Matters

It must be a priority to address this implicit bias as “STEM women remain underrepresented in classes and fields that are pathways to high wage careers.” More women entering these high paid jobs will help to close the significant wage gap. In addition to the benefits for family economic security, improving the treatment of women in the STEM field is crucial for scientific advancement. In order to optimize the brainpower and innovation of the brilliant women physicians, mathematicians, and researchers, we must take steps to speak out against both overtly sexist comments like Hunt’s and implicitly sexist practices in our science classrooms and laboratories.  

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