Under the Microscope
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The Independent Culture
It Is Very rare that I get truly angry. However two Swedish scientists have managed to turn my knuckles rage-white with a ground-breaking paper published in Nature at the end of May. It was not that they were reporting anything particularly surprising: everyone I have spoken to since has effected little surprise. Rather, the shock was to see definitive and objective proof that female scientists are considered less competent than their male counterparts.

Christine Wenneras, a microbiologist, and Agnes Wold, an immunologist, were attempting to discover why women scientists are about half as successful as men in obtaining fellowships from the Swedish Medical Council. Is female performance really so inherently feeble next to men on such a conspicuous, generic scale? No. The problem is not with how good a scientist an applicant is, but rather how they are perceived. Wenneras and Wold used a robust and objective measure to ensure that they could compare the success of men and women, who, to date, had been equally productive. They calculated an "impact" score based not only on how many scientific papers the applicant had published, but also on how many times that paper had been cited by other scientists; in other words, how important the findings were to the rest of the scientific community.

The results were staggering, and disgraceful. Women with the highest impact scores were rated, in terms of subjective views of scientific competence, only slightly above the very worst of the men. For a female scientist to be judged as competent as a man, she had to exceed his productivity by some 20 research papers. Taking my own field, somewhat arbitrarily, as representative, 20 more papers would amount to about 10 years more work, if, of course, one was lucky enough to get the funding. The only other factor that counted in mitigating one's lack of a Y chromosome was to be in cahoots with at least one of the reviewing panel. So as if sexism in the Swedish MRC is not bad enough, the situation is compounded by an old- boy system, again already suspected to be rife in the peer review system, but never before actually proven.

My anger on reading these figures was rooted in frustration. Earlier suspicions this time could not be tempered by the view that one was, at least in part, hysterical, strident, or paranoid. It is simply wrong. But brute prejudice is as hard to annihilate as it is ugly. What can we actually do?

The problem surely extends into daily laboratory life as well. If our "peers" perceive us as incompetent when on a panel, then the prejudice will come into play at the bench. And the distorted perception will not just go away because those of us with access to the media say that it should.

This study was performed in Sweden and some might argue it is different over here. Too right. We do not have the freedom of information legislation Sweden has, so records cannot readily be obtained. Indeed, even in Sweden, Wenneras and Wold could only obtain the relevant data after a court battle. How refreshing if British funding bodies voluntarily made their data available for analogous scrutiny. The story is made more dismal as Sweden was named by the UN as the leading country in the world with respect to equal opportunities.

When I gave a talk recently to a women's group at an Oxford college, the discussion threw up all number of seemingly trivial incidents - the backhanded comment, the dismissive body language, the ignoring of a comment. All in themselves too silly to protest about, yet cumulatively eroding confidence. Perhaps it is here, in this most basic of grass roots, that we have to take a stand against the assumption that unless we have worked for 10 further years, we are worse than most men. The authors' conclusion was that unless things change in science, "... a large pool of promising talent will be wasted." Quite an understatement.