Male science students ‘ignore and belittle’ female classmates

As many as half of women on STEM degrees report being victims of sexism, with universities’ response seen as falling short

December 7, 2023
A female science student hides her face
Source: Alamy

Female students on science degrees are twice as likely to experience sexism as their peers on non-science courses, with as many as half of women studying physics reporting having experienced gender-based prejudice or discrimination, according to new research.

The findings – taken from a survey of 2,757 UK students and graduates aged between 21 and 22, part of a wider cohort who have been tracked through their education in a longitudinal study – suggest that, while there has been a significant focus on getting more women to study science at university, greater attention needs to be paid to their experiences once they are there if they are to continue on to careers in academia or other sectors.

Overall, 15.3 per cent of women on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees in the survey reported experiencing sexism at university, compared with 7 per cent of non-STEM students. However, sexism was found to be much more prevalent on certain courses – reported by 50 per cent of physics students, 30 per cent of engineering students and 20 per cent of computing students.

The perpetrators were typically identified as being male students on their courses, who were most often described as patronising or ignoring their female classmates, or not taking them seriously.

Louise Archer, Karl Mannheim chair of sociology of education at the UCL Institute of Education and principal investigator of the Aspires longitudinal study, said that physics probably had the highest rate of reported sexism in part because it had one of the most unequal male-female ratios among its enrolment. Just one in five physics students is female, and only one in three across STEM degrees more broadly.

However, Professor Archer continued, the subject’s culture was also likely to be to blame. “Sometimes being good at physics is associated with these performances of what you can call muscular intellect, the sort of ‘Jeremy Paxman mode’ of very assertive, almost aggressive forms of intellect,” she told Times Higher Education.

Professor Archer said that, although other female students on other degrees reported much lower levels of sexism – as low as 3 per cent in maths, for example – this did not mean that prejudice was not occurring. Instead, she said, a masculine culture might be so ingrained in a subject area that female students might not label such behaviour as sexism.

In follow-up interviews with 10 female STEM students, the researchers found that when women tried to challenge belittling or patronising behaviour from male classmates, tutors would often “just stand there and let it go”.

Female science students thus often reported feeling that they needed to work twice as hard to prove themselves to their peers by getting high grades.

In a second paper that is currently under review, the Aspires project team write that this perception of having to exert more effort than their male peers “may exacerbate women’s attrition from STEM fields” and might make female students less likely to pursue careers in academia.

“It’s not a pure, direct correlation, but I think it’s definitely part of the package – it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Professor Archer.

Professor Archer said that there was little discussion about female experiences on STEM degrees, compared with the amount of attention that was paid to access.

“In terms of STEM, we know there’s a huge drop-off between STEM degrees into the workforce, particularly among women,” she said.

“It’s part of the puzzle that we need to recognise. It’s not just that women don’t find these areas interesting or they’re not good at them – there are these things that are pushing back against them.”

The UCL researchers said that universities needed to support and encourage academics to challenge troubling attitudes among male students, and they have developed resources to encourage young men to be anti-sexism allies.

“We don’t think there’s been enough focus on changing the behaviours of the young men who are doing this,” said Professor Archer.

“Everything is always focused on women as the problem.”

Carolyn Jackson, professor of gender and education at Lancaster University, said the Aspires project took a “much-needed holistic approach” to explore the pervasive culture of sexism faced by women in STEM subjects.

“Ironically, sexism and sexual harassment can be hidden by their prevalence – they are so common they are normalised and often not reported,” she said.

“Sexism, sexual harassment and violence reflect a wider culture; universities need to challenge this culture and address the structural and systemic gender inequality that underpins it.”

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