A gender-diverse lab is a good lab

18 09 2017


Another little expurgated teaser from my upcoming book with Cambridge University Press.

My definition of a ‘lab’ is simply a group of people who do the science in question — and people are indeed a varied mob. I’d bet that most scientists do not necessarily give much thought to the diversity of the people in their lab, and instead probably focus more on obtaining the most qualified and cleverest people for the jobs that need doing. There are probably few of us who are overtly racist, sexist, or otherwise biased against or for certain types of people.

But the problem is not that scientists tend to exclude certain types of people deliberately based on negative stereotypes; rather, it concerns more the subconscious biases that might lurk within, and about which unfortunately most of us are blissfully unaware. But a scientist should be aware of, and seek to address, these hidden biases.

I acknowledge that as a man, I am stepping onto thin ice even to dare to discuss the thorny issue of gender inequality in science today, for it is a massive topic that many, far more qualified people are tackling. But being of the male flavour means that I have to, like an alcoholic, admit that I have a problem, and then take steps to resolve that problem.

There is now ample evidence that science is just as biased against women as most other sectors of professional employment, even though things have improved since the bad old days of old-boys’ clubs. For example, journals tend to appoint more men than women on their editorial boards, and editors display what is known as homophily when selecting reviewers for manuscripts: the tendency to select reviewers of the same gender as themselves.

Likewise, scientists in general rate men-authored science writing higher than women-authored ones, and academic scientists tend to favour men applicants over women for student positions. Women academic scientists also tend to have more administrative duties, and hence, less time to do research; they also have fewer opportunities for career development and training, earn lower salaries, hold fewer senior roles, and are less likely to be granted permanent positions.

It might be tempting to tell yourself that, of course, these general trends are not because of your own biases, just of the scientific community in general. This is called denial. While the first step is to accept that gender bias does exist in science, you should at least entertain the notion that you are biased as well (as I have recently done).

A cold, hard gaze in the proverbial mirror is therefore recommended, and not merely because it might be a ‘look good’ to your peers. In fact, there is now a growing body of evidence that gender equality is good for all involved, including men. Overall, a better gender-balanced workplace leads to higher employee happiness, satisfaction, and even health, and men are less prone to violent behaviour when gender equality is promoted.

Given that it is in the lab’s best interest to be composed of a group of healthy, satisfied, happy, and non-violent scientists, moving toward a higher gender equality is only ever going to improve your lab’s efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness. Furthermore, gender equality stimulates innovation, and I’m sure you’ll agree that that’s a good thing for science.

Giving your students, technicians, and research fellows a more gender-balanced workplace will therefore provide an environment more conducive to good scientific output and minimise the likelihood of social problems that might arise in the day-to-day grind of running a lab.

CJA Bradshaw



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