What is Sexism & How Does it Work in STEM?

What is Sexism & How Does it Work in STEM?

This post covers the scientific and legal definitions of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. We include an overview of the different ways in which sexism is described, such as hostile, benevolent, accidental or unintentional. These qualifiers of sexism can sometimes confuse people, as they invite people to see sexism as an individual or subjective idea. Sexism is neither – it is about how the collective interactions that happen at the everyday level are connected to institutional practices of harassment and discrimination. We provide examples of how sexist culture operates in at various levels of STEM, from undergraduate courses to gender inequality in pay, science publishing and recognition of women’s achievements. STEM Women seeks to move beyond superficial arguments about what sexism is and isn’t. The scientific evidence, some of which is included here, has established that inequality exists. We are looking for practical solutions to address inequality and lift the participation of women in STEM.


Original Photo Science Arizona via Flickr CC 2.0. Adapted by STEM Women

The word “sexism” is often confused in everyday conversations because its used in different ways by different people, often removed from its scientific and legal definition. Sexism describes the ideology that one gender is superior to another. To put it another way, it’s a system of ideas, both conscious and subconscious that people hold onto either through their socialisation, their family upbringing, their culture or their institutional setting. Sexism includes the attitudes, beliefs, stereotypes, and other types of bias that perpetuate the idea that women are somehow lesser than men. These attitudes may or may not be voiced overtly, but they nevertheless guide social interaction and behaviour.

As sexism is a mental attitude, it is often taken for granted by individuals. Our attitudes are deeply ingrained through socialisation that they are not always explored deeply. People mistake the idea that sexism is something specific that’s said with the intent to physically harm or violently dominate or punish a woman. This is a narrow, individualistic view of sexism.

Individuals now make distinctions between different types of sexism. For example, hostile sexism, is the idea most people have in mind when they think of sexism as a problem. This includes cases where someone makes an overtly sexual move on a woman or where they say obviously nasty things.

Benevolent sexism is pervasive, but not readily recognised as sexism. This is where women are expected to put up with sexual advances and comments about their looks as a “compliment” or alternatively as a “joke,” and where men act as if women are too fragile to undertake certain tasks. “He’s only trying to help!” The person is supposedly acting from a place of good will. The lack of malicious intent is supposed to excuse sexism.

Accidental or unintentional sexism work similarly, where people say they believe in gender equality, but perpetuate sexist culture by doing and saying things that undermine gender equality. This includes saying that sexism doesn’t exist or acting as if sexism is an inevitable part of life. It also includes otherwise trivialising women’s social position. This includes cases where someone says a person did not intend to be sexist, and so this ipso facto makes their actions non-sexist. This also encompasses times when a woman speaks up about something that made her feel uncomfortable, excluded or demeaned. The typical sexist response is that she should not have taken as an offence or that someone is being “politically correct” or “too sensitive.”

The distinctions between hostile, benevolent, and accidental/unintentional sexism are superficial. There is, in fact, only one type of sexism. Sexism is a term already encompassing a broad range of attitudes that dismiss, undermine or threaten the importance of women’s social position.

In fact, the concept of everyday sexism captures the idea that everyday social exchanges, whether they’re “unintentionally” or “accidentally” sexist, are actually connected to broader issues in sexist culture, such as sexual harassment and institutional discrimination. Sexism is more than the things that we say and do: it’s about the prejudices that underpin sexist culture. It’s about all the individual and collective things we do and say that makes possible sexual harassment and discrimination.

 Sexism in STEM is not: Subjective; “Just a joke"; Accidental; Political Correctness Sexism in STEM is: Institutional: Exclusion; Hurtful to progress; Damaging innovation
Sexism in STEM is not: Subjective; “Just a joke”; Accidental; Political Correctness. Sexism in STEM is: Institutional: Exclusion; Hurtful to progress; Damaging innovation

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment describes the behaviour where people act on their sexist attitudes. It includes unwelcome sexual comments, gestures and physical contact towards another person. The law explicitly addresses other issues such as uninvited comments about a person’s looks, questions about someone’s sex life and other innuendo. For example, sharing sexual images or other materials that demean someone’s gender. The legal definition of includes any words, jokes, taunts, actions, requests for sexual favours, or inappropriate content that “makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.”

Comments don’t have to be explicitly sexual for it to be legally considered harassment. This could include voicing broader attitudes that are demeaning to women or “offensive comments about women in general.” Sexual harassment in the workplace can have adverse career effects on women, not just when women are fired or actively held back from progressing or benefiting from opportunities. Harassment addresses broader workplace culture. It encompasses verbal and non-verbal behaviour that stops someone from fully participating in their workplace. This doesn’t just mean their physical job. It can also include working in a trade union, membership of a professional body, an institution that provides qualifications or other trade or professional bodies. The laws in most nations explicitly address harassment that creates a demoralising, antagonistic or aggressive working environment that has “the effect of, violating your dignity.”

Sexual Discrimination

Sexual discrimination is the act of excluding one gender from benefiting from employment, public services, communication, civic participation, as well as from other forms of patronage and services. At work, this includes recruitment actions (the process of hiring or being fired), remuneration (not being paid equally to colleagues), and opportunities (in types of job responsibility, leadership, skills development and training, promotions, and fringe benefits). Sexist culture enables people to make individual excuses for sexist attitudes. Left unchecked, these beliefs are exercised as harassment and discrimination. Let’s tease this apart as it relates to the working culture in STEM.

Sexism, Harassment and Discrimination  in Science

Photo by LindsayT... via Flickr, CC 2.0
Photo by LindsayT… via Flickr, CC 2.0

Sexism is the reason why women were kept out of science’s most prestigious institutions for so long, and why in the present day, less than 3% of Nobel Laureates are women. (Not to mention the fact that there were no women Nobel winners in 2013.) In many parts of the world where equal opportunity is not strictly regulated, STEM careers are organised in a way that make it difficult for women to succeed.

Women make up less than a third of the world’s researchers and in most countries women are the minority in senior positions (only 20% of professors in the UK, for example). Internationally, women’s pay is also affected by the fact that they working mostly in government and higher education, while men work largely in industry. In countries with stronger gender policies, however, the outcomes are better. In Norway, for example, the Government oversees senior appointments, and so 43% of vice chancellors are women.

Women researchers are more likely than men to face sexual harassment in the field. Campuses are not friendly towards the needs of new mothers. In some fields like engineering, women are expected to exhibit higher resilience or they will otherwise feel forced to leave their STEM careers within 12 years. Men don’t “leak out” of the STEM career pipeline in the same way.

Even in areas where women excel, such as amongst young people with high mathematics skills, girls are less likely to pursue a STEM career because they don’t think they’ll get much support. In other areas, such as engineering, women with strong STEM abilities are twice as likely to drop out as men because they lack role models and they’re expected to go along with a masculine culture if they are to succeed.

In science publishing, research shows that when the gender of an author and reviewer are known, less women are published, indicating a clear discrimination against women researchers. This research shows that women represent only 26% of single-authored papers since 1990. Women are also less likely to be listed as first author in prestigious journals. Major publications such as Nature have addressed the under-representation of women in their authorshipThe double-blind peer review process conceals gender along with other social markers. This actually results in a significant rise in the acceptance of women’s journal articles.

Despite the fact that sexism is prevalent within STEM, lay understandings of sexism leave some women wondering whether their experiences of harassment are actually sexism. This is the confusion caused by so-called benevolent, unintentional and everyday experiences of sexism.

Moving Forward

People offer many excuses why more women drop out of STEM even when they have strong technical skills and knowledge. They deny that sexual harassment is a big problem or they look for other explanations catering to benevolent and accidental sexism. They explain away why women are paid less, why they’re less likely to be promoted to senior positions, and why they’re less likely to be published in high prestige journals. Some people even resort to arguing that discussion of sexism, especially at the everyday level, is nothing more than political correctness gone awry. Looking at the evidence, however, we see a pattern in STEM; a pattern that people don’t want to recognise, which is that sexism is pervasive.

We want to help to make progress by moving beyond arguments about whether inequality exists, or whether something is sexist, and whether or not someone meant to be sexist. Subjective ideas about sexism, as we’ve shown, are counter-productive. A better way to ensure gender equality and inclusion of diverse perspectives in STEM is to support the careers of women, listen to the challenges they face, and speak up when you see sexism, in whatever form it takes.

Read more about our aims here. Would you like to write for us? You can do so anonymously or under your own name. Learn more.

Definitions of Sexism
Definitions of Sexism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s