Category: Gender Diversity 101

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.

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Recognising Sexism: Boobs to ‘Broteomics’

A few days ago, UC Davis Professor Jonathan Eisen raised a provocative question in his blog post, “Is Sexxing up your scientific journal okay? The Journal of Proteomics seems to think so.” He was referring to a graphical abstract published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, The Journal of Proteomics, depicting a woman holding up two coconuts against her presumably bare chest, linked to a paper titled “Harry Belafonte and the secret of the coconut milk proteome.”

Science: You're doing it wrong. When scientists use a provocative picture of a woman hoping to make people pay for article access, the marketing gimmick is sexism
Science: You’re doing it wrong. When scientists use a provocative picture of a woman hoping to make people pay for article access, the marketing gimmick is sexism

The scientific community responded, and there are many excellent summaries of the events that took place. Scientists established the fact that this Journal has engaged in this sexist behaviour multiple times, leading entomologist Alex Wild to satirise the publication’s title as the Journal of Broteomics.

This collective protest led to the graphical abstract eventually being removed. But this incident highlights a larger issue at hand. We want to take a broader perspective on the sexist culture within STEM, with a special focus on scientific publishing. This latest example from Journal of Proteomics raises two key issues: 1) Scientists do not have a clear understanding of what sexism is. As such, sexism is reduced to a subjective understanding, divorced from its legal definition and its accompanying institutional practice. 2) Science publishing needs to have in place better safeguards against sexism.

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