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Being ethical is a good thing. Right? A new paper 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.”

The paper, “A Gendered Approach to Science Ethics for US and UK Physicists,” was published recently in Science and Engineering Ethics. Co-authors Elaine Howard Ecklund, Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences and professor of sociology at Rice University, and Di Di, a graduate student fellow in sociology at Rice, are interested in matters of gender and science and looked physics for this study because it remains one of the most male-dominated fields. 

Interviewees — who came from a mix highly selective and less selective institutions — numbered 55 from the U.S. and 66 from the U.K. The analysis focused primarily on open-ended responses to this question: ‘’Our research has a particular interest in gender and physics. In relationship to this particular topic of science ethics, to what extent – if any – do you think men and women experience issues of ethics or responsibility in science differently?” 

Ecklund and Di allowed study participants to “raise their own conceptualization” of ethics in their responses. The researchers paid particular attention to “themes generated by past literature — whether or not physicists think female professionals are more ethical than male professionals.” At the same time, they said, “we also adopted an inductive approach, focusing on themes that consistently appeared among physicists’ narratives but have not been systematically investigated in previous literature.”

Participants displayed different levels of awareness of the gender-ethics relationship, the study says. “Some of our respondents in both nations realize that male and female physicists have different approaches to science ethics. They claim that female scientists are usually more ethical than their male colleagues. Some of these physicists further posit that this feminine approach to scientific ethics reduces the competitiveness of female scientists because women waste too much time checking their data and are not assertive enough to assure they get credit for their work.”

The 121 respondents fit into three rough ethics clusters. Some 27 described the connection between gender and ethics as individual, with men and women having different ways of handling ethics, and women being generally more ethical than their male colleagues. One-third of that subgroup said that actually disadvantaged women, because it affected their productivity. 

Some 42 respondents connected gender more to “occupational-level” ethics, perceiving gender discrimination as an ethical problem affecting the community as a whole. 

The largest group of respondents, meanwhile — the “gender-blind” — did not see any connection between gender and ethics in science. They also tended to deny any gender stratification among scientists.

Women Are More Ethical…

The first group conceptualized science ethics as an “individual-level phenomenon,” believing that women better internalize ethical norms and are “thus more ethical scientists than their male colleagues.”

Moreover, “Such an approach was often framed as a matter of competition.” For example, the study says, a female associate professors at an elite U.S. institution said, "[T]here’s this kind of spectrum of people who are ... super responsible, maybe err on the side of not even getting anything done, versus the people who want to win at all costs. If you look at that spectrum, there’s probably a male curve and a female curve. And I admit that the sample size that I have of women is really, really small, so I don’t actually know for sure. But I would say that the small number of women, whom I am close to, are closer to the end of the spectrum — the kind of very responsible end of the spectrum.”

A male professor at an elite university in the U.K. also described female physicists as more ethical. “I have seen evidence that women are probably more responsible, less prone to assert things that they don’t absolutely know are true and therefore sort of can have a sort of better sense of responsibility and worry about things, you know, how things might go wrong and how they would cope with them if they did, and therefore not sort of, just pushing on regardless," he said.

Over all, the paper says, “In both the U.S. and U.K., physicists we spoke with described female scientists as ‘‘more careful and more willing to say ‘oh, I am not very sure about this’’’ and as ‘‘tak[ing] more responsibility for what they are doing,’’ whereas male scientists are ‘‘very bold about their statements’’ and ‘‘have a tendency to rely on somebody picking up the dirt behind them [rather than] dealing with the problems they have.’’

…And That’s the Problem

The rub, of course, is that ethics, especially with respect to competition, doesn’t necessarily advantage women. Among the 27 participants who acknowledged a connection between gender and ethics in academic physics, eight said that women’s feminine ethical approaches actually disadvantage them. A female associate professor at an elite university in the U.S university, for instance, linked ethics to productivity, saying, “I think the women probably are less prolific than men, and maybe that could be blamed on, ‘Oh, women don’t have as many hours to work because they are spending time with their kids.’And that might not be the answer. It might be because of this issue of wanting to really be sure it’s correct and doing careful detailed checks of everything.”

Similarly, another U.S. female associate professor at an elite university suggested that women’s ethical practices make them less competent in the scientific community. “When I was younger,” she said, “honestly, the fact that there was a woman, and there were so few of them […] I wasted time checking things many times more than I should have before I presented my case.”

Four British physicists said female scientists are less likely to take credit, a disadvantage in a community that seems to “value” competition. A male instructor at an elite institution, for example, said that “women who succeed in my field are the ones who are most male-like in some sense and promote themselves very strongly and sort of borderline take credit for anything they can[.]”

Among those who framed gender discrimination mostly an ethical problem affecting the community as a whole was one U.S. male professor who said that as a minority group in physics, female physicists experience bias. 

“There is a big imbalance of female versus male physicists and I would be extremely upset to see a guy using this to dismiss an argument of a girl,” he said. “I mean this is another example for which I think you have been very irresponsible and not ethical regarding scientific research is to use personal things [like gender] to ... pass an idea over some others.”

The largest group of physicists, meanwhile, did not think a scientist’s gender identity is related to how he or she handles ethical issues at work.

A male professor at an elite U.S. university said, for example, ’’I think everyone suffers equally” and that he was unaware of ‘‘individual instances where gender has played a particular [role] or where I can distinguish a gender specific component.’’ 

Another U.S. professor said, “You get a position like, that the university backs you, right? ... we had an adjunct faculty, she’s – and I will say, the people I had trouble with were all women. OK? ...we had a new assistant professorship in astronomy, and she was maybe 45 or so and teaching a while, and she applied for the job, OK? And so we – of course, the committee is totally confidential and we came up with a list of five finalists that we were going to invite to [interview]. And we didn’t include her. So somehow she gets the list of our five candidates, and decides that she’s better than all five of them, and that, because we didn’t pick her, we must be discriminating against her.”

A U.K. physicist said, “I only know a handful of women in my field, you know well enough to have discussions about this sort of thing. I don’t know, so on a day to day working basis when I’m working with them I don’t really recognize that they’re female even, so I have these moments where if we go to a social event or something, and I suddenly see them dressed up in makeup that sort of wakes me up to the fact they are of a different gender.”

When these physicists “deny” the differences in men's and women's approaches to science ethics, the paper says, “they are denying structural differences for male and female scientists.”

Future research should also examine the relationship between gender and ethics in other masculine high-status disciplines, such as engineering, the authors wrote. 

Implications? It Depends.

Theodore Hodapp, a senior advisor on education and diversity at the American Physical Society, said Ecklund’s and Di’s analysis was unlike any he’d seen. He called it an “interesting perspective, and not inconsistent with a number of other studies [on gender and science] that look at other factors beyond academic performance.”

Patricia Rankin, a professor of physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder and chair of the society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, agreed that the study was interesting, but stressed that “You can be competitive and ethical.” She had additional concerns about causation versus correlation but said she agreed "that if being competitive increases the tendency to take risks that this could correlate with unethical behavior."

Ecklund said via email that she and Di found "there is an image of an ideal scientist which means that  -- both men and women -- are subtly or overtly sanctioned for stepping outside of this image.” This can happen, for example, she said, “when they insist on double-checking, appear to be working too slowly, or exhibit behavior that seems to lack assertiveness.”

So should women become less ethical, or men more so? 

Ecklund said she and Di have been asked if women might benefit from “adopting a so-called ‘masculine approach to ethics,’” and that the answer depends on what the science community's goals are. 

“If the goal is to have a more equitable/ethical science community, then men could probably benefit from adopting the so-called feminine approach (slow, careful, self-questioning),” she said.


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