The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Men (on the Internet) don’t believe sexism is a problem in science, even when they see evidence

Disappointing, but not surprising. (Steve Debenport/iStock)

As a follow-up to recent studies on sexism and harassment in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), researchers studied the Internet's reaction to the evidence those studies provided — and it turned out the way you'd expect, if you've ever been on the Internet.

Male commenters flipped out.

The new study's results were published Thursday in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly.

To see how different genders reacted to evidence of bias in science (on the Internet, anyway), the researchers looked at the comment threads of three articles about studies on the issue, and quantified the responses.

Several scientific studies have shown that a gender gap exists in science, technology, engineering and math fields, with women losing out all the way up and down the pipeline of academia and industry. In 2012, researchers from Yale published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that indicated unconscious gender biases in hiring processes for women in science academia.

Both male and female professors saw applications with female names as being less competent and hireable than identical applications given male names. There was a notable difference in salary offer, too.

When they controlled for all other variables, the researchers found out what was holding these fake women back from their dream jobs: All other things being equal, the academic hiring squads were rating the women as less competent than the men.

A 2014 study in the same journal found male faculty much less likely than female faculty to bring female graduate students into their labs — and the effect was even more pronounced if the male professor had won a prestigious award. Elite labs were overwhelmed by men, with male postdocs 90 percent more likely to be mentored by Nobel laureates than their female peers were.

And if women are lucky enough to get a foot in the door, one study indicated, they're likely to experience rampant sexual harassment and assault.

So the evidence is definitely there, and you'd think that seeing it would make people think about these issues. But the reader feedback on three articles written about studies like these (posted on The New York Times, Discover Magazine, and IFL Science) wasn't pretty, once numbers were crunched:

  • 9.5 percent of the comments argued that sexism does not exist; 68 percent  of these commenters were men.
  • 67.4 percent of the comments agreed that gender bias exists; of these 29 percent  were men
  • 22 percent  of all of the comments justified the existence of gender bias.
    • Of these comments, between 79 percent  and 88 percent  were made by men.
    • 59.8 percent  justified gender bias using biological explanations, 29.6 percent  used non-biological explanations, and 10.6 percent  justified gender bias stating that women perpetrate it by discriminating against other women.
  • 7.6 percent  of the comments argued that sexism targets men more than women; 65 percent  of these commenters were men.
  • 100 percent  of the comments expressing gratitude for the study were made by women.
  • Only .5 percent  of the comments mentioned that their minds were changed about gender bias after reading the article; of these 67 percent  were made by men.
  • 11.2 percent  of the comments expressed a call for social change; of these, 46 percent were made by men.

And there were sexist remarks in the comments, too (of course). Seven percent  of all comments contained such statements, with 76.8 percent  of them smearing women. The rest, I assume, were just the words "omg ban all men" over and over again.

But one thing proved truly equal: 50 percent  of the sexist comments against men were made by men themselves. So I guess we've got a little gender parity going, if only when it comes to misandry.

Nothing about this study is actually surprising — it's just yet another conversation starter for a little talk we should all be having. Evidence suggests that most online comments come from people who are rather terrible, and that seeing evidence contrary to one's strong beliefs can actually make you believe that wrong thing more strongly (this comes up a lot with people who deny climate change or refuse to vaccinate their kids — the evidence just makes them more defensive).

So no, it isn't surprising that a pile of evidence saying "sexism is a major problem in STEM fields" would make a bunch of male-identifying commenters foam at the mouth. But since commenting threads can produce a kind of herd mentality, and since evidence shows that their tone can influence readers' perspective of an article, it's troubling to see these results laid out.

Read more:

Why everyone is freaking out about this scientist's shirt

What kind of message are we sending to future scientists?

"Geek" language hurts effort to attract girls to STEM careers