Sociology of Gender Bias in Science

A new study by Dr Corinne Moss-Racusin and colleagues has analysed the public’s comments in response to a prominent study on gender bias in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The researchers find that men are more likely to post negative comments in response to scientific findings about sexism in STEM careers. To provide a flipside illustration, I share some examples of what it is like to be a woman moderator of a large, international science community on Google+. This case study will illustrate the recurring arguments used to invalidate the science on inequality in STEM. These arguments are focused on biological (mis)understandings of gender; stereotypes of what motivates men and women; and a desire to police the boundaries of science. Denying that sexism exists is a common tactic to invalidating the science on gender bias in science, and attacking the social sciences is concurrently used to discredit findings on inequality, as well as support the idea that inequality does not exist in STEM.

Sociology of Gender Bias in Science

Sociology of Gender Bias in Science. Photos: Texas A&M University-Commerce, CC 2.0

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Latinas on Screen

Latina actress Gina Rodriguez, star of Jane the Virgin, has won a Golden Globe for Best TV Series Actress – Comedy or Musical! She said in her speech:

“This award is so much more than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.”

This win is especially important given the research on Latin people on screen which shows that Latins are relegated to unnamed roles, and playing to the stereotypes of criminals, blue collar workers and sex objects.

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Motherhood Penalty in Academia

In late 2014, two sociologists were featured in the New York Times (NYT) talking about the “cultural bias against mothers” in the paid work force. Professor Michelle Budig’s research finds that high income men with kids enjoy the biggest career benefits while low-income women suffer as a result of having children. In part, this is because employers think that marriage and children makes men more stable, while women with children are stigmatised as being less reliable (employers see mothers as “flaky”). This stereotype goes back to the traditional male breadwinner model that arise during the Industrial Revolution, which became solidified in post-WWII period during the 1950s. People presume the model we know today has always existed but that’s not the case. Marketing and economic relations have made it seem as if married men are ideal workers, while women are supposedly made for care-giving. This is not the case, when we look to institutional barriers and employer biases.

Motherhood penalty

Motherhood penalty

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Transgender Women’s Experiences of Gender Inequality at Work

Sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman popularised the theory of “doing gender.” This theory sees that gender identity is something we do – it is a performance and an achievement that people put a lot of work into, rather than some innate biological state of being. People do gender by the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they move their bodies, the types of leisure activities they engage in their spare time, through their division of labour at home, at work and in every other context. Doing gender takes work: you need to learn what’s expected of you as a “man” or as a “woman.”

Early knowledge on doing gender comes from childhood socialisation. Subsequent life experiences teach us, often through trial and error, what the norms and expectations are for masculinity and femininity in different social settings, such as at work.

West and Zimmerman argued that, since gender is something we learn to do, and doing gender leads to inequality, it is possible to undo gender inequality, by doing gender in alternative ways that do not punish femininities. The doing/undoing of gender has been an ongoing focus of gender studies, most recently focused on transgender people. I will discuss recent scholarship about how transgender people do gender at work, with a focus on the experiences of transgender women. Social scientists are preoccupied with the idea that transgender people are in a special position to “undo” gender. I want to explore why viewing transgender experiences in this way contributes to the Othering of transgender people, by amplifying their difference as a solution to gender inequality. Society can absolutely undo gender, but part of this means addressing the inequalities transgender people experience. This is something that mainstream feminism has yet to fully embrace.

Transgender Women's Experiences of Gender Inequality

Transgender Women’s Experiences of Gender Inequality. Photo: Purple Sherbet, CC 2.0, via Flickr. Adapted by The Other Sociologist

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Science Fellowships and Institutional Gender Bias in STEM

You may have read in late September that the ratio of women receiving Royal Society funding has “plummeted from one in three in 2010 to one in 20 this year.”  While the Society also awards the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships to early career women researchers, this award exists to boost women’s participation in science, not to augment or mask the issues in the Society’s mainstream Fellowship program.

The Royal Society was silent for a couple of days after its list of fellows list was made public, despite a large outcry by the scientific community on social media and opinion columns in the media. The Society President, Sir Paul Nurse, finally announced an investigation a couple of days after the fact. The question is: why did the Society wait until it was made public to assess their program?

I want to stress that while I’m using the Royal Academy’s Fellowship outcomes as a case study, the issue I am illustrating is the reactionary treatment of gender bias in all fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The point here is to tease out institutional patterns and to make the case that institutional approaches are needed to address gender inequality. While this point may seem obvious, the fact is that inequality in science, as with other spheres of social life, is still treated as a surprise. This is because, on the whole, organisations (and society in general) remains reactionary to addressing gender inequality. Diversity is an afterthought, when it should be a proactive and ongoing project at the organisational and societal levels.

This is the first in a series of articles I’m writing on why the scientific community, inclusive of various disciplines, needs to re-examine its position on the problem of inequality in STEM. The picture I am building up is one of methodological rigour and interdisciplinary collaboration in order to better work towards gender inclusion.

Science Fellowships and Institutional Bias

Science Fellowships and Institutional Bias in STEM

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Megan Smith: STEM Woman in the White House

You may have heard that Megan Smith former Vice President of GoogleX is now the Chief Technology Officer for The White House. Smith has both a Bachelor and a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, she serves on the MIT Board, and she is also a successful entrepreneur. She has an outstanding commitment to gender diversity and she is one of the few big-name leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) who is visible in her work with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) communities. Smith was formerly the CEO of PlanetOut, an online LGBT organisation. Let’s take a look at Smith’s amazing credentials and her work on women in STEM and LGBTQ advocacy.

The Tech industry needs us badly. - Megan Smith

The diversity of all of the millions of us, the technical women, the computer science women, is broad. This industry and this planet needs us badly. – Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer, USA

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Social Justice in Ferguson: Addressing Racial Bias in Policing

Over 1,400 sociologists have signed an open letter protesting police brutality in Ferguson, USA. The letter includes practical measures to address the killing of Michael Brown and mistreatment of protesters in Ferguson. Coordinated by Sociologists for Justice, the letter shows that systemic racism needs to be addressed as well as wider socio-economic and political issues to ensure effective change is enacted.

The book The New Jim Crow outlines how the criminal justice system in America is affected by systemic racism. Additionally, decades of sociological research shows that police officers’ decision-making is affected by racial stereotypes and that better training can address this bias (more links below). Effective change in community policing begins by understanding the effects of the victimisation of people of colour and by addressing the institutional practices that lead to excessive policing of people of colour.

Below are the suggestions outlined in the open letter, but I urge you to read the letter in full as it summarises sociological research on race bias in policing. You can also add your name to the open letter, as I have done.

Social Justice for Michael Brown and Ferguson

We are troubled by the killing of Michael Brown. We are troubled by the excessive show of force and militarised response to protesters who rightfully seek justice and demand a change in the treatment of people of colour by law enforcement. – Sociologists for Justice.

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