Professor Nicola Gaston, Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, University of Auckland, New Zealand, is the author of the book Why Science Is Sexist .
Here she talks to Dr. Vera Koester for ChemistryViews about her motivation to work for gender equity, why getting equity right from first-principles is so important, and the responsibility of every scientist to make sure that scientific processes are operating appropriately and properly.
You’ve written the book Why Science Is Sexist. What motivated you to do this?
It was a range of things. I would say the main part was having people I worked with ask me why there are not more women in science. And it was realizing that I couldn’t answer that question because I didn’t know. I am still in science.
This was when I was in my first permanent job as a research scientist. I realized that actually, maybe it would save everyone some time if I could try and figure out the answer, but that it probably wasn’t going to be something I could answer based on my personal experience.
The real catalyst was seeing a paper that was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) in 2012  that looked at gender flipping CV’s and demonstrating bias in their evaluation by scientists. In a randomized double-blind study, science faculty from universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position.
For me, this paper was a sort of catalyst for realizing that actually there is literature on this stuff. And I can go and find articles and read them because I have access to these as a researcher. That was how it started.
So then you wrote the book?
I first started talking about gender equity. I must have given four or five talks at different universities in New Zealand within maybe six months or a year. Then I started a blog, partly because I was tired of giving talks and I thought, I’m just going to write it down and then if somebody asks me, I can just say what you can read in the blog.
Ironically, the blog is why I got asked to write the book by a publisher. That then has meant that now I’ve been giving more talks again, which was never planned. It was just how things happened.
Are you more known for your book than your science?
Is it also beneficial for your science?
I think you have to see it as both.
I was the President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists for two years before I started really pushing things on gender equity. And so I was already quite engaged in the politics of the scientific community, such as funding issues. I guess I’ve always really cared about being part of a community that supports other scientists to have a healthy scientific environment. I think it’s actually really important that we do this work as scientists because nobody else is going to do it.
Most of our funding systems are based on the idea that we self-regulate as a community through peer review and so on. And so if we don’t step up and try to make things work better, two things are dangerous here: One is that it undermines the trust that the public has in science. They see that there are issues that are not being addressed by the community. Another is that there is a risk that there will be political solutions that are found and somehow imposed on the community. I don’t think that’s a good solution either. So I do actually think we’ve got a responsibility to work to make sure that scientific processes are operating appropriately and properly and that’s part of being a scientist.
So there is definitely a risk that doing any of this stuff can kind of supersede the science that you should be known for as a scientist. But I don’t see it as being a trade-off between the two. There have been times when I’ve been asked to talk about gender to the point where I’m tired of it, and I have to say no so that I can go and spend time on my research, and I feel like I’ve gotten that balance about right.
What’s more complicated is when people think that because I’m active in gender equity issues that I’m not spending as much time on my science. And so that’s a second-order problem, which is more about perceptions and reality. I do think that that’s probably true. But that’s something I’ve just decided not to worry about.
I kind of think we’ve all got limited bandwidth, and we should all have other things that we are interested in. So, I’m very comfortable that I spend the right amount of time on my research. I’m very comfortable that research productivity takes real time, as I like to call it, not just CPU time. You can’t parallelize a whole lot of science. That sometimes you’ve actually got to give yourself thinking time between getting results and writing your conclusions. So, yeah, I’m pretty comfortable with the amount of time I spend on my research, and I’m really committed to what I do around equity, and I enjoy it. And I think it matters.
What about your students? Are you a role model for young women? Is there an effect on the number of women and men wanting to work in your group?
I’m probably dreadful, and not around enough, and negligent. I don’t know. I mean, I think I struggle with running a research group in all the ways that everybody struggles with running a research group. Every student is different. So for some students, I’m probably too involved and ask too many questions about what they’re doing. And for other students, I’m probably not in touch enough, and so I think you kind of have to relax about those things a little bit.
What’s really interesting is that over time, my group has evolved to have many more women in it, so I do think that there was some sort of selection bias operating there. But it’s interesting because it’s not my bias. I’m very clear on that because typically, if I’m offering a Ph.D. position to someone or a postdoc, I keep records of who I offer things to, and especially, I think, perhaps being in New Zealand in particular, I’ll often make half a dozen offers and only three of those people will come. And so in the last few years, it’s been very notable that with male students or candidates, I have maybe a lower success rate. I’m not quite sure why that is.
I work in the physics department, and the female students are very strongly localized in my group and the group of another female academic. So it does tell you something about the dynamics that are going on. I don’t want to say it’s not healthy because it’s healthy to the extent that it works for people. I think, ideally, it would be more natural for things to be less segregated so as to not have these little dynamics. But then I think social networks are very normal and natural, and sometimes how students find supervisors is by talking to somebody who they trust to give him or her a good opinion. And so who else is in the group does matter as much as the Principal Investigator (PI) sometimes.
At the moment, I’m just happy. I have good students to work with. I love them. Maybe that is all that matters.
You said that for a long time you didn’t think too much about bias and so stayed for long enough in science to be established. Do you think this is true for many women?
That’s actually been my experience talking to several women who have remained in science and have had successful careers. Gender bias is often not something that has been obvious at the beginning. But it’s something that has emerged later.
What did you learn from this?
I think probably the biggest thing that I’ve learned is that some of the interventions that we need to put in place to fix bias, and to fix biased systems, are interventions that maybe aren’t something that I would have wanted for myself but that would have worked for other people. I think that is important to realize.
What would you think is the most important thing that should be done?
I think the most important thing is probably still education. If people understand the need for change, the change is more likely to be constructive and positive. But I don’t think that that means that education on its own achieves much. Education is still a precursor to some sort of systematic change.
I’m really struggling to answer the question clearly because I don’t think there is any one thing. If it was just one big barrier to progress, then it would be easy to fix. But the science system doesn’t just operate by getting all the woman in a room and then gives out red cards to half of them, and they’re the ones who have to go. It’s a much subtler mechanism of bias. Maybe just 2% harder here or 5% harder there. I think this makes it hard to suggest a single intervention.
We have much better tools for the collection of data and the implementation of processes to make evaluations more gender equal. You can look at success rates in funding, for example. You might not get the same number of applications from women as from men, but you can make sure that the probability of success doesn’t show a gender bias. In this way, you can look at data and you can be transparent about it. This is the education side of what needs to change. Having a commitment to do something is a start in the right direction.
Why is fixing the very small things of being a bit harder so important?
I don’t want to minimize the impact of actual directed sexism. It is real and certainly, in different parts of the world, it is more real. Direct sexism, for example, somebody saying you’re not good enough because you’re a woman, in some ways seems like a much bigger thing. But that’s probably a less common occurrence. Certainly, in my experience, it’s not a common occurrence at all. But it can happen, and you can have really unpleasant interactions. There is also sexual harassment found in science as well. However, it tends to be more likely a one-off issue. It’s relatively localized in time.
When you’re talking about the unconscious bias mechanism, so something that might only be a 2 % disadvantage in the evaluation of a paper or your CV, then that accumulates over a career because every time you have a slightly harder time publishing a paper that effects your profile. This effects the likelihood that you are invited to do further things, for example. And the scientific community kind of operates on a model were a scientific career, or your expertise is judged by the sum total of what you have done. I think we have an overemphasis on these kind of career metrics. And that means that these very small biases, these 2% of things, but that happened maybe 10 to 20 times a year to an individual, they become, actually, the bigger problem than the one-off more major incidents. I mean, that’s an impossible thing to prove, but that’s how I see it.
What do you think of special activities for women such as special issues for women, women’s breakfasts, etc.?
I think there are a few different things to consider. If women are in a minority in a particular community, having specific ways for them to engage with each other is really positive. And so women and science breakfasts and so on, can be useful especially to combat the feeling of isolation that can happen, which I know is experienced, in particular by woman in physics departments and other departments I’ve spoken to where the numbers can be particularly small, and maybe in particular in a country like New Zealand, where the departments are small and there is only a very small number of people. So networking is really important. Having safe places for people to discuss these issues and feel like they’re not alone and they can share their experiences safely is really important.
Beyond that, the idea that you have opportunities for women like special issues is trickier because you start doing that sort of thing and people feel like it’s unfairly promoting the work of women in some way, rather than something that is only there because there’s already evidence of a bias that is not correct. I do believe that, because we have so much evidence of the stereotypes that drive these biases that we all use and base our judgments on, anything we can do to change these biases and stereotypes is really important. I absolutely think that taking opportunities to highlight the work of women, such as with special issues is important. But I also completely understand why people are not always 100 % positive about that.
To look at what the consequences of this thinking is, look at 25-year-olds right now: one is a boy and one is a girl, and you ask me, do they have equal opportunities in a career in science? I have to say no. The data tells me: No. And that’s not fair, and so we should fix it.
How do we fix it? Well, we can change stereotypes. How do we change stereotypes? We do things within the scientific community that work to change these stereotypes. So I think, in essence, my answer is yes, these things are great, but they have to be done in a context where people understand the reason for them so that there isn’t too much backlash. Because if there is too much backlash then you’re actually making the problem worse. So it’s quite nuanced.
What do you think women should themselves do?
Women should be themselves. I mean, you know, some women talk a lot, and some woman don’t and some women behave like this and some women don’t. I think women are actually quite different. There’s quite a range of personalities in characteristics and behavior. There is not one situation for everybody. And we’ve actually got more in common across genders than we think. The mechanisms of bias don’t mean that we are two completely distinct populations. We are really not.
Be yourself. If you want to be angry, be angry. If you want to change things, there are ways to change things. If you want to leave science because that is the best thing for you, then that’s actually a good option as well. You don’t owe anybody anything, and this is something that I’ve had conversations with people about; women who have felt that they have to stay in science even though it’s personally difficult at some point, because they feel that they owe it to the community to be a woman in science. I think you have your life. You have to do it however it works best for you. And that’s the priority.
Thank you very much. I think this is great advice for everybody.
 Nicola Gaston, Why Science Is Sexist, Bridget Williams Books 2015.
 Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, Jo Handelsman,Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students, PNAS 2012, 109 (41), 16474–16479.https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1211286109
Nicola Gaston studied chemistry at the University of Auckland and Massey University, New Zealand, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, Dresden, Germany, before she returned to New Zealand to work at Industrial Research Limited, and later at Victoria University of Wellington. Currently, Nicola Gaston is Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence at the University of Auckland.
Nicola Gaston’s research focuses on understanding the physical properties of materials as a function of size, from few-atom clusters to nanoparticles and the bulk. She uses ab initio quantum mechanical techniques to describe electronic structure and aims to understand its relationship with properties such as catalytic activity, chemical reactivity, conductivity, and thermodynamic stability.
Nicola Gaston was President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists 2014–2015, she received the 2016 CMMSE (Computational and Mathematical Methods in Science and Engineering) Prize for her work on the properties of atomic clusters, and actively advocates for greater equity and participation in science.
- J. T. A Gilmour, N. Gaston, 5-Fold Symmetry in Superatomic Sc Clusters: Exploiting Favourable Orbital Overlap to Sequester Spin, Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys. 2020. https://doi.org/10.1039/C9CP05933D
- J. T. A Gilmour, N. Gaston, On the influence of exact exchange on transition metal superatoms, Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys. 2020, 22, 772–780. https://doi.org/10.1039/C9CP04229F
- K. G. Steenbergen, N. Gaston, Ultra stable superatomic structure of doubly magic Ga13 and Ga13Li electrolyte, Nanoscale 2020, 12, 289–295. https://doi.org/10.1039/C9NR06959C
- K. G. Steenbergen, N. Gaston, Thickness dependent thermal stability of 2D gallenene, Chem. Comm. 2019, 55, 8872–8875. https://doi.org/10.1039/C9CC03238J
- J. Schacht, N. Gaston, Cluster assemblies as superatomic solids:a first principles study of bonding & electronic structure, Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys. 2018, 20, 6167. https://doi.org/10.1039/C7CP06755K
- N. Gaston, Cluster melting: new, limiting, and liminal phenomena, Adv. Phys. 2018, X 3, 1401487. https://doi.org/10.1080/23746149.2017.1401487
- K. G. Steenbergen, N. Gaston, A Two-Dimensional Liquid Structure Explains the Elevated Melting Temperatures of Gallium Nanoclusters, Nano Lett. 2016, 16(1), 21–26. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b02158