Despite the social progress made in recent decades, we know that our society is intrinsically sexist. Masculine manifestations organize sermons on a daily basis and notice the organization of our systems around patriarchy.
It is no different in science. But misogyny in academia camouflaged itself, and took root deep in the minds of academics. Today it manifests itself silently and even unconsciously, leading us to believe that it does not exist.
In psychology and in the specialized literature we call it gender bias. They are nothing more than subtle judgments, quick readings we make of people of irrational perceptions, that influence our choices and decisions and are also unfair.
Cognitive biases are complex, and it is from their deep and unconscious aspects that the term organized masculinity arose. It is so structured that it is not always obvious or noticeable. And it really seems that we like to imagine science as an exemption territory, free from misogyny and other prejudices. Perhaps this is part of our confusion associating the rationality of thought and the scientific method with ethics. But human judgments are not entirely rational, our decisions pass through emotions and impulses rather than through reason.
How it works?
Academic systems are not immune to the implicit bias of academics, which is the most common manifestation of misogyny in science. It is easier to identify a clear masculinity, in which women are prevented from doing their jobs, receive less for the same work as male colleagues, or are evaluated and treated differently.
But, say, when I got my first internship, I heard I was a good choice because I decorated the room and left it fragrant. There was also a colleague who, many years later, commented on my postdoctoral stay at Harvard, speculating that it wasn’t a famous ex-boyfriend who put me there.
I can guarantee that pheromones and appearance are not included in the kilometric curricula that I feed each week on Plataforma Lattes (biographies of Brazilian scientists are public and hosted on this platform on the website of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development). Every scientist knows that the metrics used in evaluating us in funding and employment disputes are our curricula and our scientific publications, and the most important way to measure scientists’ output is the amount of scientific publications produced each year in good journals and publishers.
What is the cause of biases?
The most important question is: To what extent do these stereotypes harm our jobs even though we are very productive? Today we already know that the answer is: a lot.
Several studies document the pervasive effects of unconscious biases on scientists’ careers. In 2020, I and seven colleagues in the area presented the preliminary results of our investigation of biases in arachnology, our field of study, called this organization Support Women in Arachnology. Despite an equal gender presence, only 1% of the works exhibited were exclusively signed by women, while only 26% were authored by men. In the composition of the editorial board of scientific journals, 93% to 100% of editors are men, although there are many women equally or more qualified for the position.
Some celebrate that women in Brazil sign 72% of scientific articles produced, data from a 2019 survey, but fewer than 20% of us sign articles in the fields of zoology and ecology when the lead authors are men. Demonstrate that the method for evaluating the impact of bias should be sub-area-by-region rather than generalized.
Article from the year 2020 showed that review committees with strong implicit biases are responsible for a sharp decline in women’s advancement, and that their decisions disproportionately favor male scientists. This prevents women from attaining higher social and economic positions in the scientific hierarchy and, along with harassment and abuse, is also responsible for the great evasion of women in science.
The good news is that the same study reports recognizing its existence as a powerful tool to combat implicit bias. Committees that accept their existence make less proportional choices.
No one wants to be identified as macho or think they are one. Self-recognition within a misogynistic and unjust system is painful. This may explain the upset reactions, defensive behavior, denial, and even some aggressiveness in some people when discussing this topic.
But professionals are not honorable, and their ability and effort should not be diminished by their gender. Choices for internships and jobs are based on qualifications and aptitude for the job, and a successful track full of scholarly achievements is enough to be selected and invited to work in the greatest institutions of excellence and they deserve to be promoted.
We should all be uncomfortable and reactive, yes, but with injustice, even if it is unconscious practices.
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