Men are better at Science than women : a case of gender bias in Academia

Imagine a scenario of an aspiring woman Physicist,  attending a workshop on gender issues and underrepresentation of women in Physics and an invited speaker gives a talk on how women are worse at Physics than men and that Physics was invented and built by men. How would that woman and many others sitting in the audience feel? This is what happened last year in October when a prominent Italian scientist, Alessandro Strumia,gave a talk at one of the biggest Physics facility in the world, CERN,  claiming that women are underrepresented in Physics because they are “under-performing” to a group of women starting their careers in Physics. 

One of the major claims he made were that Physics is not sexist against women, but against men. He produced various half-baked studies claiming that women were hired and promoted in positions unfairly and that women scientists receive less citations for their publications as compared to male scientists which prove that males perform “higher quality research”. 

His talk was condemned widely worldwide and CERN issued a statement describing his talk “highly offensive” and that CERN stood for diversity. First thing that came to my mind was how he was allowed to give the talk at the first place. After reading more about it I realized that the organizing committee did not have access to his slides beforehand and his talk was supposed to be on gender bias in citations which was an important issue to be addressed.

He himself told in his talk that a woman with considerably lesser citations than him was given a position which he believed he deserved which makes me think that this talk was more a result of anger. Then the main basis of his talk was the number of citations. Citations are not a good measure of scientific performance as number of citations depend a lot on peer-review and there have been numerous studies suggesting that peer review process is biased against women . A statement was issued also by Physicists from around the world, condemning his talk and pointing out each and every point where he was wrong and concluding that his talk was fundamentally unsound.

There have been similar incidents in the past and there might be more in future but I think inclusive pedagogy is something that can play a big role in reducing these biases and addressing the underrepresentation of women in STEM. There needs to be an inclusive culture in classroom which can help women believe and trust that they are as good as everyone else and that Science is above all these biases. Everyone can do science and nobody should feel excluded by gender. To end this post on positive note, one of the most ironic things that happened in the same week as this CERN incident was that a woman scientist, Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2018. This shows that good work will continue to be recognized even if these biases exist.

33 thoughts on “Men are better at Science than women : a case of gender bias in Academia”

  1. Hearing about that talk and his bullsh*t studies made me red in the phase. It’s just so disgustingly misinformed while purporting to be an expert in the scientific method. I hadn’t realized the promotion part was personal, which is an even larger red flag! Thank you for that infuriating tidbit. Do you know if they ended his talk early when they realized what he was saying? I have been meaning to look into this more and always forget when I have the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think they ended it early Brad ! He did finish his talk. Some of the attendees tweeted about the talk, and that’s how the whole world and probably also the organizers came to know about it. But there definitely has been some negligence on part of the organizers for letting it happen at the first place.

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  2. Thank you for the post, even though it did infuriate me on multiple levels. Other than the misogynistic aspect, I found it really frustrating that citations seemed to be the big measurement of quality. This idea that being a better researcher means you have more citations and more publications is very outdated. The same applies to publication in high impact factor journals, which just seems to perpetuate elitism and classism in the research community. I am glad that CERN seemed to address the issue, but I think the first mistake they might have made is giving a man the stage to talk about this topic, when a woman, who has had the experience of being biased against, would have a better insight and would be more qualified (even if she doesn’t have any citations on the matter). Thank you again for the post!

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    1. I totally agree with you Connor. This mindset about higher citations and higher impact factor needs to be changed. CERN organizers were definitely at fault for allowing such talk.

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  3. I am so happy you talked about this topic! I was reading this story last week and was naturally infuriated. Several weeks ago I was having a conversation about sexism with male colleagues. We concluded that it will only get better because our generation has grown up with working mothers, women in the workplace, in college classrooms, and as professors. Though other countries still lack behind and women are still experiencing sexism on a daily basis, more and more men are allies and aren’t going to stand for it. Furthermore, I don’t know many men our age that would say or do the things that were being done to women in years past. While we still have a long way to go, we have gone somewhere.

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  4. Thanks for the comment, Deb. I agree with you that we are on a path of improvement. Coming to US, I felt that there was really this thing called women equality because back in India, sexism is a big issue, starting at birth itself. It’s improving there as well, but I agree that we have a long way to go.

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  5. Adbhut, thank you so much for writing about this issue! As Deb mentioned, it’s so great that more and more men are allies, and it’s clear from this topic choice that you are one. However, I wanted to take this comment to mention how scientists (especially those in social science and neuroscience) need to be better allies as well. Frequently, an interesting and publishable finding is a sex difference. However, there is rarely any impetus from the journals for you to explain why the sex difference exists. This bothers me, because usually there is a cause that is not simply or merely biological. For my undergraduate Honors thesis, I wanted to examine a classic sex difference in psychology to uncover its mechanism. Specifically, the finding that boys/men outperform women in mental rotation. In my sample, this finding held, but I also uncovered that what is more predictive of mental rotation is personality factors. Certain personality factors are encouraged more in boys than girls, so this difference could be the result of socialization. So often this difference has been touted as biological (people have even researched whether male infants outperform female infants at mental rotation to “prove” this point!), but it, along with many sex differences are not–they are the effects of a patriarchal society. I think there needs to be more recognition of that, so the onus is on social scientists and neuroscientists to reconsider whether a sex difference alone is truly an interesting finding in and of itself. When we stop saying “yes” and instead focus on the mechanisms, then we can better educate society on how to alleviate these differences.

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    1. Wow, thanks for your comment Heather ! This is indeed interesting and something to dig deeper into. I am really happy that you took this topic as your undergrad thesis and explored the reason to why these differences originate at first place. As your findings suggest, these are not mere biological differences but have a lot of other factors attached. I am glad that there are people like you who want to get to the root of problem and I am sure more studies like the one you did will help people understand more about these biases and overcome them. Thanks for sharing this.

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  6. Wow. This just makes me shake my head in disappointment. How can someone be so biased? I am pretty sure that this person is still presenting such stuff in conferences and spreading wrong theories and ideas. And importantly, as you mentioned he has this bias just because of a deserving woman got a position instead of him. Interestingly, he knows that he is biased but still does not care.

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    1. Hey Jap, I don’t think he is presenting this thing at conferences anymore. He was a guest professor at CERN before this incident and just a couple of weeks ago, his position was taken away. After he received worldwide criticism, I don’t think he would dare to present it publicly and moreover, no one would let him. But the whole incident was quite disappointing.

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  7. Hi Adbhut,

    Wow! Reading this post about this physicist’s talk was quite shocking. The whole time, I was imagining a Vaudeville (shepherd’s) hook coming out from the side of the stage to pull this man away from the mic. Good on those women in the audience to live-tweet and bring attention to the blatant gender bias. And good on you for being a voice for gender equality and equity in science!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment Sara ! I am not sure why was he not taken off the stage once people knew that he was not going to talk something that makes sense.

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  8. I find it horrendous that the talk had to get persona. My curiosity did get the better of me and I had to check out the slides you posted just to get a feel of what was displayed during the talk. I had a conversation with a friend about this post where we went down a rather long rabbit hole. The one question we posed at the end was “Where do you draw that line between “acceptable” discrimination (in the name of equality) and “unacceptable” discrimination (where the favoritism is unwarranted/unfair)” came up. It is just food for thought, but I wonder if on the swing to reduce gender-bias we first go a little far to eventually get it right. While the presentation and slides are of very poor taste and class — I think we need to be careful on how things are handled when gender is involved.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment Tim. I think you pose interesting questions here. And I totally agree that care must be taken while handling such sensitive things.

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  9. This reminds me of pro-diversity arguments made by former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. Complicated as he is, he made some provocative suggestions in his autobiography “Being Brown”, which I believe Dr. Strumia would have found to his dislike. To paraphrase, if we have the opportunities to hire women or persons of color (or people from any minority group), then we have an obligation to do it so that we can elevate the human race. Yes, you want the best person for the job, but if given a choice, choose for diversity. Brown goes further to say, even if the applicant is slightly under the qualifications of another, to what degree? – how damned important are a few more citations over another? – can they do the job, yes or no?
    To the person who wasn’t hired, they will still find a great job because the status quo continues to exist in most places. You who are mindful are the one who can make the difference.
    This argument is getting Brown into some current trouble with Kamala Harris, but he stands by his work. She’s running for president because he gave her an opportunity to shine. And shine she has! What if Dr. Strumia had gotten the position instead of the female physicist? The cycle of bias would have been perpetuated, and the darkness of his mindset might not have come to light.
    Great post, Adbhut!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Ben, I kind of agree with Mr. Brown but in this case we don’t know if the woman candidate was less deserving just because her citations were less. You will be surprised to know that the woman in question here was sitting in the audience when Dr. Strumia was giving his talk and blatantly saying that a less deserving woman was hired instead of him. So, you can imagine that his talk was mostly manifestation of his personal anger. But I totally agree with you that if he was recruited at the first place, we wouldn’t have been able to know about the dark side of him.

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  10. Adbhut,

    Thank you for sharing this! Your title was so provocative, at first I didn’t know where this post was going!

    That man’s reaction to ‘a woman taking his job’ is so common especially in the sciences and IT communities. Those that are passed up for jobs and promotions that women get instead are left feeling like something must have gone awry. With women making up more and more of the workplace than they had in the past, it is likely that more and more women will get those promotions and jobs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment Aislinn ! I think you are right, more and more women will get those promotions/jobs and its high time that this mindset is changed that if a women got that means something must have gone wary.

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  11. Thank you for your post! It’s really disappointing that we even have to have these discussions, but they are necessary until these pervasive issues in society/industry/academia are fixed. In a weird way, I am glad that this gentleman gave this talk. We all know that sexism/racism/etc exist, but it is easy for detractors to say it’s a non-issue when they manifest themselves behind closed doors or under the guise of something else. Having such a recent, brazen display of sexism at one of the highest levels of science demonstrates how big of issue this really is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Matt, I agree with you that in a way it was good that he gave the talk and the world came to know about the issue but then what about the women who were sitting in the audience to had to hear through his biased sexist talk and the woman who got the job instead of him was sitting in the audience too. It is unfortunate that they had to go through this.

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  12. Adbhut,
    I love that your ear was to the ground about this good case study. I think the biggest thing that shocks me is that this guy tried to rationalize this idea with studies. I hope you can spur this idea of inclusiveness in the next generation you teach.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Great post, Adbhut! It’s a shame that some people still think like that in the 21st century. Unfortunately, many of his types still exist in our society today. It is our job as teachers to continue to change this narrative in the classroom by being inclusive to everyone, irrespective of their gender, race, nationality etc. I like the way you ended your post on a good note – I was depressed before that, lol. Great job with this.

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  14. Thanks for your comment Dami. Yes, it is sad that we have progressed so much in 21st century and yet time and again we are reminded of the areas we still need to work on.

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  15. Hi Adbhut, Thanks for sharing this. It is really shocking that this men was giving a talk about such topic! I am happy that a women (Donna Strickland) won the Nobel Prize. I hope that he (and other people like him) could change their minds, and never under-estimate (or judge) people, based on their gender, color, race, or any other thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Your post is AWESOME! I can not imagine how women in this conference felt during his presentation! This week I have submitted my first conference paper (yeahhh!). When I ask a professor to take a look in my paper before submission, one of his advices was not to include ANYTHING that suggests that i am a woman! I got a bit shocked. But he said that there are many bias cases against women to publish papers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Nayara, thanks for the comment and congrats for your paper. It is shocking indeed that the Professors even know that the process of publishing papers is biased against women. But this is wrong on so many levels. Why would anyone want to hide their identity? This needs to change seriously.

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  17. I’m curious what sort of socialization this scientist must have undergone to have been able to give this talk. Did he expect the backlash he received? How did his home department react to it? Is he still employed? More interesting yet, how many of his own colleagues agree with him, and what does that imply for the state of his field, much less wherever he works?

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  18. Wonderful post Adbhut, I am not sure how he can think about women like this. I really like how you linked this to the inclusive pedagogy in the conclusion of your post, and I think the inclusive pedagogy can make a huge change in these biases. Thank you for writing this.

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  19. Excellent post and great links to go along with it. It’s disgusting that some people try to justify their biases with science. I hope that this way of thinking really dies out as younger, more diverse scientists enter the field. Thanks for sharing.

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