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Monday, November 30, 2015

Unthinkable: Is science being skewed by a gender bias?

Photo: Helen de Cruz
"The status of women in science is distorting not just academia but knowledge itself, says Helen de Cruz." summarizes Joe Humphreys, journalist with The Irish Times, and author of the weekly ‘Unthinkable’ philosophy column.

“Many people were so impressed by Mary Somerville it made a difference.” portrait by Thomas Phillips.

It has been a sobering time lately for men who are being collectively accused of unconscious gender bias. 

The representation of women on ballot papers, in theatre programmes and on the airwaves is under scrutiny like never before, and it’s only right that this column join in that process of self-examination.

A count of contributors to the column since it began two years ago shows that only 19 of 79 contributors (24 per cent) were women. A reprehensible total, albeit today at least marks number 20 thanks to Helen de Cruz, assistant professor of philosophy at VU University Amsterdam.

De Cruz, who is addressing the annual conference of the Society for Women in Philosophy Ireland in Dublin at the weekend (, points out that biases are “difficult to counteract even if one is aware of them”. In this she references philosopher of science Helen Longino who, through her writings on the way in which knowledge evolves, provides today’s idea: “The greater the number of different points of view included in a community, the more likely its scientific practices will be objective.”

Your lecture at the conference is on “The Under-representation of Women as Science Communicators and its Societal and Epistemic Consequences”. What are those consequences? Helen de Cruz: “Women are seriously under-represented as science communicators. This counts for both the high-profile science communicators such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye “the science guy”, Stephen Hawking and so on as for scientists who want to communicate their own findings, where male scientists do this to a much greater extent than female scientists, even if you take into account seniority and position.

“When it turned out that the person behind ‘I fucking love science’ was a woman (Elise Andrew), there were lots of sexist comments, such as ‘You mean you’re a girl, AND you’re beautiful? Wow, I just liked science a lil bit more today’.

“For most people, the media - TV, internet and so on – are the only place where they hear about scientific findings. If the communicators of such findings are men, we’re likely ending up with a biased picture of science.

“These are the epistemic consequences, which have to do with what we can know. When women do not communicate their findings, their voices are effectively silenced.

“As for societal consequences, when science communicators are men it reinforces the impression that science is not for women or girls. This is illustrated by Mary Somerville, a prominent science populariser in the 19th century. Many people were so impressed by her it made a real difference. For instance, Somerville College, the second women’s college in Oxford, was named after her to allow women to have an Oxford education.”

How does unconscious gender bias affect scientific research? “There are several lines of evidence that gender bias affects scientific research. One of these is simply the range of topics that is being studied.

Source: Irish Times  

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