Science Is More Interesting Than Sexism

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Little girls are told they can do and be anything. But it’s still a big deal to see evidence of that maxim in the real world. As a former little girl and a current woman, I know this to be true. I also know that many ambitious women don't have time—or any real desire—to fret about their standing compared with male peers.

In some cases, they’re busy running goddamn space missions, for example.

Many of the women on the New Horizons space mission said as much when I interviewed them for a story earlier this year: Of course they care about diversity, of course they want women to be leaders in their field, but the science comes first.

I thought of them today as I read a story from The Boston Globe about a study that found male scientists received a median of $889,000 in funding to support their work, while women received just $350,000. Ughhhhhh.

The Globe quoted Dori Schafer, an assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of Massachusetts medical school: “I’ve gotten the impression that women don’t stand up for themselves and negotiate and say, ‘No, I need this,’ as much as they should.” Schafer may be right. There’s lots of research that shows women don’t negotiate as aggressively as their male counterparts. (There’s also plenty of evidence that women are penalized for being pushy in the workplace, while men are praised.)

Why does the burden have to be on women? There are (at least) two layers of unfairness here: The discrimination that happens in the first place, and then the fact that women are told it’s their fault. I get that problems as complex and systematic as sexism in the workplace won’t get solved by ignoring them and focusing on the work you love—but I do understand the impulse to take that approach.

Many of the New Horizons scientists I interviewed spoke eloquently about how hard it can be as a woman in science. But all of them were most fired up about the science itself. Here’s how the astrophysicist Kimberly Ennico put it: “To be in a room full of more women than men or equal number of women and men? First of all, it feels normal, which is wonderful.”