Tackling researcher sexism

To kick off DiscovHER, Nature magazine editor-in-chief, Philip Campbell, shares his views on gender equality in science.

Anyone who, like me, did his or her research in physics knows of the huge imbalance between men and women in that discipline. Despite many schemes to encourage mothers back to the lab following career breaks, females are woefully under-represented at all levels. The UK’s Institute of Physics identifies the following factors affecting girls in schools at the age of 13: self-image in relation to the subject, impressions and experience of physics at school, and the degree of support from their physics teacher. As a result of these factors, consistently less than 20% of girls take the advanced school exams in physics. These are chronically difficult challenges to overcome.

In an experimental test, female as well as male academics hiring new staff discriminated against women.

The percentages of girls at that level in biology are more balanced, but at later career stages, there are well known problems of imbalance. The many factors that diminish the number of women in the upper hierarchy of science have been much discussed. But for me the most sobering event in this context in recent years was a study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that revealed how, in an experimental test, female as well as male academics hiring new staff discriminated against women. There really does seem to be some corrosive inbuilt factor in our psychology and/or cultures (American in that case) that discounts the value of women in professional circumstances, even when we know rationally, from our own experience, that such a discount is totally misguided.

The journal Nature has publicly declared its determination to overcome such barriers, and to increase the presence and participation of women scientists in our coverage - with some success so far, but not enough.

It is a pleasure to acknowledge the steps that L’Oréal and UNESCO have pursued over the last 20 years with their For Women in Science program, and I congratulate the 2014 Laureates and Fellows. I wish this new publication DiscovHER every success.

For Women in Science

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