Sexist Bias in Science

On June 28, 2020, a medical student objected via Twitter to the following description of Cushing disease:

“Cushing can be identified at a glance by looking at the picture of a lovely young woman next to a picture of a “monster” who is the same lady a couple of years later. The “monster” has a round, ruddy, hairy face, buffalo hump, supraclavicular fat pads, obese trunk with abdominal stria, and thin weak extremities … (she is just a fat hairy lady).”

This text appears in the 5th edition of Pestana’s Surgery Notes, a Kaplan textbook published in 2020.

The tweet attracted attention, receiving more than 1,000 likes and more than 426 retweets and comments. The textbook description was widely viewed as being sexist and offensive, and an online petition was created that called for editing the description.

Kaplan responded by apologizing for the description and acknowledging its sexist nature here and here.

The publisher addressed the complaint but only after public outrage. Such a description should never have made it through peer or editorial review; the discussion with the author should have come before publication, not following backlash.

The Kaplan example is not an anomaly. A number of comments and studies that others have branded as sexist have been in the spotlight lately. Examples are here, here, and here.

Editorial teams must act as gatekeepers, questioning all statements—and even studies—that reflect sexist attitudes and gender bias. Paying attention, asking questions, and establishing standards will help eradicate overt and casual gender bias from the scientific literature.

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