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‘I Wouldn’t Say it’s Sexism, Except That … It’s All These Little Subtle Things’: Healthcare Scientists’ Accounts of Gender in Healthcare Science Laboratories

by Valerie Bevan, Management Learning and Leadership, Lancaster University, and Mark Learmonth Durham University Business School

What’s the Problem?

Gender issues in the workplace aren’t always as obvious or as clear cut as they might be. Research has long suggested that women are subtly disadvantaged in science in general; now in an interview-based study, Dr Valerie Bevan and Professor Mark Learmonth set out to understand why and to identify ways in which some of the difficulties they face can potentially be addressed. 

By adopting a feminist perspective and interviewing a range of workers – both male and female – in healthcare science, Valerie and Mark have pinpointed some of the subtle differences in attitudes which may contribute to the underachievement of women in healthcare science, where female under-representation in senior posts contrasts markedly with their majority representation at a junior level.

Identifying Workplace Discrimination

The researchers chose an in-depth interview process enabling them to study some of the subtle sex discrimination within the workplace which is generally regarded as being normal and natural – to the extent that even those subjected to it don’t realise its impact or extent. 

The interviews reveal patterns of behaviour which show that men support other men while excluding women from the decision-making process and that men generally tend not to engage in support work, leaving that to their female colleagues. Characteristics such as confidence or assertiveness, which the study shows are thought to be more widely associated with men, appear to be valued more highly than skills in working cooperatively and in communicating with people – seen as more characteristic of women.

Analysis of the transcripts reveals that men subtly treat women as inferior and that women, accepting this as the norm, tend not to challenge this status quo: the use of language (including referring to women by such terms as ‘girls’) reinforces the underlying feeling (shared by most men and women) that women are better suited to a role as subordinates rather than managers in science.

Where Next?

So where do these findings lead? Studies such as this, which indicate the depth and mechanisms of perceived roles within the workplace, can be used to feed in to policy making and contribute to a wider knowledge and understanding of gender balance and relationships within the healthcare science sector and beyond. 

Furthermore, by adopting an explicitly feminist approach the authors hope that they can “challenge the taken for granted” and make women ask questions of themselves and their roles. They believe that their findings add weight to a requirement for pressure for change from women scientists themselves, as well as from policy-makers, if positive change to the gender balance in science is to be achieved. Indeed, they hope to inspire women (and men) to seek – and achieve – that change.

The full article can be downloaded for free at Sage Journals.

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