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Taking the Long View on Sexism in Science

I am one of the many women who exited academic science. Decades later, too many others are still leaving for the same reasons.

Pat Shipman

My first lesson in the harmful power of sexual innuendo and stereotype was when I was a new PhD in the late 1970s. I wrote a manuscript for a book based on my thesis, an analysis of fossil animals in Kenya. A major academic publisher turned it down because it was “too controversial.” Stunned that this analysis could be seen as controversial, I pressed the editor for specifics. Eventually, he admitted that one reviewer had said that I could only have been awarded a PhD if I had slept with my committee.

Thinking of the one married and two unmarried straight men, the two gay men, and the bisexual man that comprised my committee, I decided this assertion was best challenged directly. I was confident my work was good. So I invited the editor to call my committee members and ask them. A long silence followed, in which I supposed the editor was blushing at the mere thought of asking these scholars such an insulting question. To my surprise, the editor admitted that he had done just that. Taken aback, I asked him what they had said. “They said there was no truth in the allegation,” he replied, but he still would not accept the manuscript.

Nevertheless, Harvard University Press did accept the book, Life History of a Fossil, which became a classic in its field. I wrote of this episode and others in a 1995 column for American Scientist.

After that column appeared, right up until my retirement in 2010, there were many more episodes of a similar flavor. Once, a younger collaborator of mine and I applied for the same job. At that point, all my collaborator’s publications were coauthored with me, except his PhD thesis. I had a number of independent papers, including a single-authored note in Nature and a book. I did not make the short list but he was hired.

A few years later, I discovered by accident that I was the lowest paid associate professor in my institution—the same year I began working as an assistant dean. My underpayment was so pronounced that the dean of the entire institution told my chair to give me an immediate 20 percent raise. A friend in administration, congratulating me, said she had once overheard my chair remark that he didn’t need to give me a raise because my husband was well paid.

2015-11PerspectiveF2.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageBecause of these and other experiences that eroded my trust in senior colleagues and in the institution of academic science as a place where my research could flourish, I quit and never again held a standard academic appointment. My story is all too typical, full of the kinds of problems that contribute to the “leaky pipeline” that lies between women in science and senior positions. In 1977, the number of women entering graduate school in anthropology equaled the number of men, but not until 1986 did the number of women receiving PhDs in anthropology equal the number of men, according to anthropologist Eli Thorkelson, who studies university culture. According to a 2013 report by the National Science Foundation, female trainees in science now slightly outnumber male trainees, but among the ranks of full professors they constitute only about 20 percent. There is some evidence of progress. According to data summarized in the Life Sciences Salary Survey of 2014, female assistant professors are now paid slightly more than their male counterparts, and at the associate professor level women earn almost as much as men. At full professor rank, however, females on average earn only 89 percent as much as males.

I have had a productive career on the fringe and have continued to research, write, and publish—but I gave up most of my opportunity to pass my knowledge and enthusiasm directly to students, not to mention forfeiting years of salary.

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