Are Ethics Holding Women Back in Science?

11 February, 2020

Physicists are more likely to describe women as ethical scientists, but in ways that potentially limit their productivity and competitiveness.

“A Gendered Approach to Science Ethics for US and UK Physicists,”, a paper published in Science and Engineering Ethics, based on interviews with more than 100 physicists in the U.S. and Britain, suggests that ethics may be holding women back in science.

While physicists “value science ethics,” it says, “conceptions of science ethics intersect with the masculine disciplinary culture in academic physics and become a locus that disadvantages female physicists.”

More specifically, “Both men and women physicists that we spoke with frame male physicists as having a masculine way of approaching science ethics, characterized by assertively engaging in scientific competition.” In contrast, “female physicists, they argue, adopt a more feminine science ethics approach, characterized by being more cautious with data and conclusions drawn from data.”

Crucially, “[s]ome of these physicists further indicate that male and female scientists’ differing approaches to professional ethics actually influence their scientific productivity.”

In the U.S. and the U.K., there are also many ‘‘gender-blind’’ physicists who perceive no differences in ethical practices, according to the paper, but who “are also blind to gender stratification in physics more broadly.” Such views tended to be more “extreme” in the U.K.

Gap in the Research

There’s some prior research suggesting that women professionals may be more ethical in the workplace — namely the U.S. business world. In for-profit occupations, the study says, “such as finance, accounting, and business, scholars find that, compared with their men colleagues, women are less likely to engage in unethical behavior — such as using shortcuts for estimating a method or inappropriately claiming an extra travel expense — and are less tolerant of professional misconduct.”

Yet there’s little to no research on what role ethics and gender might play in science — a “significant gap,” the study’s authors assert, since science so often involves ethical questions. 

And while discussions about scientific ethics often center on research ethics, such as plagiarism or other kinds individual misconduct, the paper proposes that the ethics of competition and community should be part of the story, too. 

Scientists compete with each other to obtain resources, “such as prestige, funding, students and influence that enable them to survive in the scientific community,” it says. “The severe competition in science contributes to scientists’ ethically gray conduct, such as the temptation to pressure students or do scientific research and publish results too quickly, all in an effort to help scientists get ahead of the competition.”

Read the full article here.

Via Inside Higher Ed, 24 February 2017

Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash