On the internet, evidence doesn't always matter — and now there's evidence for that. A study published this week shows that men on the internet find it difficult to believe that sexism is a problem in scientific fields, even when its existence is demonstrated in studies.
22 percent of the comments justified sexism in scientific fields
To reach this conclusion, researchers looked at how internet commenters reacted to news of studies describing gender-based harassment and discrimination against women in science, reports The Washington Post. Their investigation, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, helped confirm what most women on the internet already know: male commenters don't like to confront their male privilege. For some men it's easier to either deny its existence, claim that sexism is actually directed toward men, or justify sexism with biological explanations.
A number of studies have recently tackled sexism in science. Last year, researchers demonstrated that male professors are less likely to take on female graduate students in their labs than female professors, especially if those professors have won an award. Another study, also published last year, found that women who do field work are far more likely to experience sexual assault than men doing the same type of scientific work (26 percent of women vs. 6 percent of men). And in 2012, scientists at Yale University demonstrated that when looking at researchers's applications, both female and male professors think lab candidates with female names are less hireable and less competent than those with male names — even when the applications are identical.
male commenters don't like to confront their male privilege
Given these results, you'd think commenters might be inclined to accept that gender bias is a problem. But that was far from the case.
When researchers looked at the comment threads at the bottom of new stories reporting these findings in outlets such as The New York Times and Discover Magazine, they found that 9.5 percent of comments argued against the existence of sexism. Of that 9.5 percent, 68 percent of the denials came from men. Moreover, 22 percent of the comments justified sexism in STEM fields. Predictably, 79 to 88 percent of those justifications were made by men, and, depressingly, 59.8 percent of the total number of justifications used biological explanations.
Overall, the researchers say, 77 percent of the comments contained negative statements directed at women. (It should be noted that only 51 percent of commenters had identifiable genders, so the breakdowns only apply to them. Moreover, the researchers say that the two researchers who assigned genders to commenters agreed 99 percent of the time, and that the coding was very conservative. For example, gender neutral names like "Alex and "Corey" weren't coded.)
77 percent of the comments contained negative statements directed at women
These weren't the only findings, however. Some commenters — about 0.5 percent — stated the article changed their mind about sexism in science. And 11.2 percent of commenters, of which 46 percent were men, called for social change. But even though some men reacted positively, the overwhelming majority of men were skeptical or defensive. And the only people who said that they were grateful for the studies were women.
That's right: 100 percent of the gratitude directed toward research describing the systematic discrimination and abuse of 50 percent of the general population was expressed by women. "In many ways, evidence of bias is only as impactful as the responses it engenders," the researchers write in the study. If that's the case, this latest study might not have much of an impact, either.