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Perspective

What will it take to erase sexism in science?

The president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute on Tim Hunt’s “trouble with girls” in labs and #DistractinglySexy.

Marie Curie with husband, Pierre.
Marie Curie with husband, Pierre.Ullstein Bild/Getty Images/Getty Images

Here we go again.

I joined female scientists worldwide in cringing when I heard that Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Tim Hunt opined about the “trouble with girls” working alongside men in the lab. The fact is, women and men can — and do — collaborate as peers in scientific research. They do so regularly and with great impact. And, despite Hunt’s assertions, women consistently do so without falling in love or dissolving into tears.

As a space scientist and former senior executive in NASA’s human space-flight programs, I have experienced many productive collaborations with extraordinary colleagues, male and female. But I have also felt the frustration that comes from antiquated views like those of Hunt.

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When this kind of outdated view is expressed so bluntly, so offensively, it’s easy to mock it. Indeed, in the days following his statement, countless women posted on social media images of themselves doing science using the hashtag #distractinglysexy.

It was almost funny.

If I really believed that the views expressed by Hunt were simply those of an eccentric professor who put his foot in his mouth, I might be laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. But the truth is, these views — that we wish we could laugh off — do persist. It’s just rare that they are expressed so openly. In fact, the much more prevalent biases go unstated or even unrealized.

Whether having to routinely go far out of the way just to use the women’s restroom, located only near the library or the secretarial pool, as it was during my graduate education (the message being that women’s roles were limited to secretary or librarian), or needing to prove one’s worth in the lab more often than a male peer (the subject of the #proveitagain campaign on social media), these are subtle messages that say over and over that women don’t belong — that imply that we don’t measure up.

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Hunt’s comments were far less subtle. And when you throw in other high-profile stories of the past few months — the senior astronomer who thinks science is about “boys with toys” and major gender imbalance in the worlds of venture capital, gaming, and technology — it’s easy to feel defeated.

But there is hope in numbers. According to the National Science Foundation, as of 2013, women made up 30 percent of those working in science and engineering occupations, a dramatic increase from a few decades ago. That figure closely mirrors the gender distribution of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where I serve as president. Here at WPI, there has been a 152 percent increase in the number of female graduates in the last decade. That’s progress.

And more female role models are on the scene nationally than ever before. The share of female doctorate holders in science, engineering, and health with academic employment in postdoctoral positions rose from 16.7 percent in 1973 to 39 percent in 2010, according to the NSF. The percentage of women holding doctorates who were employed throughout academia increased nearly fourfold — from 9.1 percent to 35.7 percent — during that same time frame.

In my first year as WPI’s president, I have experienced the power of being a role model. From the moment my appointment was announced, I was constantly reminded that I would become the first female president in the university’s 150-year history. Initially, I wondered why this was such an area of focus, and I hesitated to embrace the distinction. After all, it’s not as if I’m the first female university president ever. I’m not even the first female president of a technological university. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, and Barbara Snyder, president of Case Western Reserve University, have led their institutions for the better part of a decade. Shirley Jackson has served as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for 16 years. And closer to home, Susan Hockfield led MIT for eight years.

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But as I settled into the presidency at WPI, I began to understand the significance. I have seen firsthand what it means to the young people on our campus to have a president who is a woman. Female students and faculty approach me routinely and tell me how meaningful my presence is to them. Young men leaving WPI for male-dominated industries do so with the experience of having worked with a woman in a leadership position. So I know now that it does matter.

I can’t measure it, but the significance is real.

I do not have all the answers to the continuing challenges faced by women in science and engineering. My latest example: While proudly watching WPI’s team compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge finals a few weeks ago, I learned that almost 95 percent of the members of all the teams were men. We need to fix that. We cannot rest until there is no gender barrier to exploration and discovery. The global challenges we face demand nothing less than all the brains we can muster, regardless of their gender.

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Laurie A. Leshin (@LaurieofMars) is the president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

#DISTRACTINGLYSEXY

A sampling of the tweets