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Sexism in Science

While women represent a substantial portion of the scientific work force (for example, 41% of total scientists in the European Union), a large number also leave

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the profession at a higher rate compared to men. One contributing factor to the high turnover rate of women is the sexism they experience throughout their career.

Sexism affects the career of women scientists on multiple levels, from career trajectory to overall well-being. To read more on the topic, please head over to the PhD Balance website. Please be advised that there will be discussion about sensitive topics related to the subject at hand.

The multi-Grammy awarded singer and songwriter Taylor Swift wrote in her song “The Man”: “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can, wondering if I get there quicker if I was a man and I'm so sick of them coming at me again, because if I was a man, I would be the man”. She was talking about sexism in the music industry. She based this song thinking: if she did all the things in her past as a man, would she still be judged in the same way?

But sexism not only happens in the music industry, but unfortunately also in science. Females represent 41% of total scientists in the European Union, but they tend to exit more often when compared with men. This can be explained by many different forms of sexism suffered during their career. Cases can vary between women and their situation (Shipman, 2015).

One form of sexism presented to female scientists daily are what are called microaggressions. In Barthelemy (2016), female physics shared their experience with many subtypes of microaggressions such as: sexual objectification (related to be attractive and not intelligent), second-class citizenship (women do not deserve to have the same opportunities or resources), denial of reality of sexism (when there is a report from a student to a supervisor and nothing is done), invisibility (men are not interested to listen to my ideas, but if another men says the same it is well taken), sexist jokes (jokes about domestic violence), sexist language (two types of field: “physics” and “lady physics”), assumption of inferiority (needing to prove themselves all the time) and restrictive gender roles (women should not do science because they should be taking care of babies). Fields such as: physics, engineering, mathematics are already known to be more “masculine designed”, so cases of sexism are quite often. But that does not mean that in other fields this also does not happen. In Serio (2016), a professor of molecular and cellular biology at University of Arizona describes encounters she had with male colleagues and professors as: doubting her math skills (“you don’t belong in a linear-algebra class”), lack of interest on giving her a post-doc position or asking if her expecting her second child “was planned”.

Shipman (2015) also shows many sexist related problems within the anthropology field. When in the process of completing the manuscript for her book, one publisher turned it down saying that the project was too controversial. One of the reviewers commented that she could have only received her PhD if she had slept with someone from her defense committee. In her paper, the author states that she was the most underpaid associate professor in her university. This situation was so pronounced that the dean had to raise her salary by 20%, and the reason that she was underpaid is that her husband was already well paid. Also, the paper showed that in 2014, the life sciences salary survey pointed out that in the US, Canada and Oceania there are huge differences in salary between women and men. Lastly, an extreme but not so rare form of sexism is cited at this paper: rape. There is a description of a case where a student was raped by an older male colleague, and also a situation where a supervisor booked a room for him and for his student. For many of these reasons, the author of the paper exited from the academic field.

Women also experience trouble receiving research funding and publication citations. In the Swedish MRC peer-review system, it was found out when comparing applicants, females got lower average scores when compared to males, because they apparently have less publications (number of publications and how many of them a person was the first author). The paper points out that women should be 2.5 times more productive to be able to reach the same points as males. With more males publishing than women, this can explain the fact why men often cite other men rather than women. Another variable that was observed is if the applicant has some form of affiliation with a committee member (clearly an ethical dilemma). Those results enhance judgement that women are inadequate when compared with men in science. This paper points out nepotism and sexism pardons on choosing projects (King et al. 2016; Wenneras, 1997).

A lot of women felt a decrease of their work performance and self-esteem being in a sexist environment. Because of this, female scientists develop not only psychological effects such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, anxiety, but also increase of physical disorders such as migraines, PMS (premenstrual syndrome) and others. They will carry this for the rest of their lives and also can lead to the decision of dropping out from graduate programs or faculty positions. Much of this happens partially because women often do not open about abuse. This maintains a whole structure of a vicious-cycle, and keeping is the worst part. But some effort has been made to bring awareness to this issue. Serio (2016) has created a website ( to share in an anonymous way some of the experiences that women have gone through in these situations. Also, after the case of 2015 Nobel prize winner Tim Hunt’s, who said in a science journalism conference about “trouble with girls in the lab”, a hashtag tool has created used on twitter #DistractinglySexy, #ILookLikeAnengineer, #GirlsWithToys, #ThatShirt, #ThankYouSTEMwomen, #ILookLikeAPhysicist to highlight sexist behavior at science. Sharing experiences between people, anonymously or thought online makes women feel they have a social support community. It is a tendency nowadays that movements ignite from online platforms. Because of this comment, Tim Hunt was resigned from his honorary professor position at the University College London. This was a big step to combat sexism behavior among men (Serio, 2016; Golbeck,2017).

But to effectively combat sexism it’s important to deconstruct a whole system that has been built as long as it is known. To do that, men and women must do their parts. Men should respect their female colleagues, in their sayings and actions; women must advise when men are trespassing limits and report when any misbehavior. Also, it is paramount that all leaders, from group leaders to higher positions at the university, do not ignore situations like this. The university board must have proper formalities to report sexism acts and correction protocols to apply to perpetrators (Barthelemy, 2016). It is still a long way to work on it, but it is hoped that someday in the future women will be treated equally as men.


Barthelemy, R.S; McCormick M.; Henderson C., (2016). Gender discrimination in physics and astronomy: Graduate student experiences of sexism and gender microaggressions. Physical Review Physics Education Research, v.12, p, 020119.

Golbeck, J.; Ash, S.; Cabrera, N. (2017). Hashtags as online communities with social support: A study of anti-sexism-in-science hashtag movements. First Monday, v.22, DOI:10.5210/fm.v22i9.7572.

King, M.; Bergstrom, C.; Correll, S.; Jacquet, J.; West, J. (2016). Men Set Their Own Cites High: Gender and Self-citation across Fields and over Time. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, v.3, p.10, 1177/2378023117738903.

Serio, T. (2016). Speak up about subtle sexism in science. Nature News, v.532, (7600):415.

Shipman, P. (2015). The Long View on Sexism in Science. American Scientist, v.103, p.392. DOI: 10.1511/2015.117.392.

Wenneras, C.; Wold, A. (1997). Nepotism and sexism in peer review. Nature, v. 387, p. 341-3.


Thank you so much to our editor Tatiana Moro for this piece!

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