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February 17, 2011

Overt discrimination in science "pretty well gone"

The president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science will focus on diversity in the sciences in an address to the association's annual conference later today.

Speaking ahead of the event in Washington DC on 17 February, Alice Huang said that although overt discrimination for women in science was “pretty well gone”, attitudes remain which set the bar higher for women than men. Huang, a virologist at the California Institute of Technology, called the subconscious discrimination “human”, but something which activity was needed to counteract.

She gave the example that female researchers in their 40s or 50s were more likely than men to be viewed as “too young” for a position by nomination or promotion panels, she said.

Previously sure of the equal position of women in US society, she added that she had been shocked to see the country ranked as 84th in the world by a UN/World Health Organization gender study. “I realised my complacency was completely ill-founded,” she said.

A large problem also remains in getting ethnic minorities involved in science, she added. While Asian-Americans do well economically in the US, within professions like science and law, few still made it to the top levels of management.

Huang herself was born in Nanchang, southeast China, and grew up in the US.

The AAAS president will use her opening address at the conference of the world’s largest scientific society to talk about the conference’s theme, “Science Without Borders”, and is likely to include issues of science education and international collaboration.

Questioned over whether scientists should do more to show up “bad science” when it pervades society, for example through creationism or denying climate change, Huang said that “clearly scientists are not doing enough” in engaging with the public.

Although previously scientists who tried to talk to the public in an open way had lost credibility as serious scientists, this was an attitude that has faded away in recent years, she added.

(Editor's note: Elizabeth Gibney will be blogging this week from the AAAS in Washington DC)


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