Being ethical may be 'double-edged sword' for female scientists

Valuing competitiveness over caution, lingering sexism and 'gender blindness' hold back women in physics, study says

February 21, 2017
woman in front of hurdles
Source: Alamy

Studies have suggested that in many occupations women approach their work with more concern for ethics. But until now there has been little scholarly insight into how men and women approach ethics in a research context.

Researchers based at the department of sociology at Rice University, Houston decided to investigate gendered approaches to ethics in a highly masculine field: physics. Through 121 interviews with physicists based at US and UK universities, they uncovered three broad attitudes to gender and ethics, all of which hint at mechanisms by which women may continue to be held back in physics.

Many interviewees acknowledged that men and women often approach research ethics differently, with women being more likely to internalise ethical norms. A female professor of physics based in the US, for instance, admitted to having “wasted time checking things many more times than I should have". In contrast, male physicists were more likely to model themselves around the image of the bold, competitive “ideal scientist”.

“This image can mean that scientists – both men and women – are subtly or overtly sanctioned for stepping outside of this image,” said Elaine Howard Ecklund, Herbert S. Autrey chair in social sciences at Rice and lead author of the study: A Gendered Approach to Science Ethics for US and UK Physicists. “This can happen, for example, when they insist on double-checking, appear to be working too slowly, or exhibit behaviour that seems to lack assertiveness.”

If women in physics wanted to progress, an interviewee commented, they may try adopting a more traditionally masculine approach to research ethics. “A gendered ethical approach may be a double-edged sword for women in academic physics,” the authors write.

Other interviewees identified gender discrimination in the broader physics community as an ethical problem, while another group denied that ethical approaches to research may be related to gender at all. This "gender blind" group suggested that either gender was not meaningful in this context, or that ethical approaches were moulded by individual – rather than gendered – experiences. This group were more likely to dismiss the lack of gender parity in physics and some interviewees were inclined to blame women in physics for being overly sensitive about discrimination.

“In its ideal form, being ‘gender blind’ – if it were even possible – might mean that men and women are given equal opportunities in science,” said Professor Ecklund. “What we see more often in our research, however, is that adopting a ‘gender blind’ approach means that scientists are also ‘blind’ to gender-based structural disadvantages or discrimination against women in science.”

The reluctance of women in physics to be more assertive, continuing gender discrimination in the field of academic physics, and the neglect of this gender stratification by those who consider themselves "gender blind", the researchers suggest, provides three mechanisms to subordinate female physicists.

“If the goal [of the scientific community] is to have a more equitable or ethical science community, then men could probably benefit from adopting the so-called feminine approach: slow, careful, self-questioning,” Professor Ecklund said.

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