Strident Women Speak up on Gender Inequity in Science

Here’s a recap of a discussion I led on Twitter with the hashtag, #StridentWomen.

Hello everyone. Hope you had a strident day being strident. The Chief Scientist has said he hates it when women in science talk about inequality because it detracts from “progress.” Please bear in mind that while 49% of undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are women, only 21% of senior professors of STEMM are women.  So let’s talk now about progress.

Silencing women for ‘progress’

Apologies I wasn’t able to do a full transcript of this last night, I was too busy being strident and bringing accountability for sexual harassment in science, but let’s break down the Chief Scientist’s comments, right after #StridentWomen shared harrowing stories of discrimination in science organisations  In this same ABC program (where I was also interviewed), the Chief Scientist was featured talking to a group of women scientists, as follows.

Chief Scientist: “I would urge that everybody acknowledges the progress. I personally find it frustrating if I hear something strident complaining about the situation today without acknowledging that there has been progress…” 

Chief Scientist: “Acknowledging progress doesn’t mean you’re ready to give up. We also need to also think about the way we look at the numbers to make sure we’re not setting up the situation such that we’re misunderstanding the nature of the problem.” 

Chief Scientist: “STEM doesn’t formally include life sciences. And I can tell you there’s a chance through the university, through the medical faculty graduations, I’m mostly shaking female hands” 

(#StridentWomen know better than to use anecdote to negate evidence but please go on)

Chief Scientist: “So in the life sciences, medicine, a huge percentage of the graduates coming through are female. In engineering it’s more extreme the other way around. But we’ve got imbalances within professions we have to decide is that necessarily a bad thing?” (My emphasis) 

Sometimes my #StridentWomen mind can’t decide if inequality is necessarily a bad thing, but here are the numbers.

Women in science by the numbers

In medical sciences and health, 72% of undergrads are women. But only 33% of senior professors are women. I don’t want to be strident, but that’s the opposite of “huge.”

But the Chief Scientist is shaking so many lady hands, that must mean progress has been made? Strident women are always bringing the mood down, going public after being told to stay silent on sexual harassment and “treat everybody as a potential attacker.”

The Chief Scientist urges us to “look at the numbers” and stop being strident women. Here’s more numbers: half of 3,500 surgeons surveyed have experienced harassment and bullying. One in three women have been sexually harassed. Keep telling those progress stories!

But wait a minute – all that rife harassment and discrimination was in 2015. So much progress since then! Right?

Unfortunately, no. By 2018, 20% of surgeons have failed to complete compulsory anti-sexual harassment training implemented to address 2015 findings.

Okay that’s medicine. The Chief Scientist mentioned life sciences too. Yep, they have gender parity in junior roles but as I showed earlier, less than one third of senior leaders are women. Other strident women research shows the same inequity in industry.

So that’s the story of numbers. Senior White men may want women to focus on progress, but that’s not our narrative. Strident women can, and do, share triumphs, but we should be free to talk about discrimination without the most influential scientist in the country being disparaging.

Indigenous women and ‘triple jeopardy’

Let’s talk about Indigenous and othe women of colour who are positioned as #StridentWomen! We’ll start by drawing on the seminal work of Prof Aileen Moreton-Robinson, who shows how White women academics contributed to this depiction of Aboriginal women.

Prof Moreton-Robinson’s work is important because it shows how, although patriarchy structures all women who go against the status quo as strident women, this carries additional weight of racism AND sexism for Aboriginal women. (Plus homophobia/ ableism/ transphobia for other women of colour.)

In academia, theorisation of “women’s issues” are dominated by a lens of Whiteness. “Knowledge is never innocent or neutral. It is a key to power and meaning. It is used to dominate and control.” – Prof Moreton-Robinson challenged White representations of womanhood.

A good case in point is Prof Moreton-Robinson’s discussion of how White women (Diane Bell in this case, writing on rape in Indigenous communities) will use their own understandings of gender to speak as an authority, dictating their will on Indigenous women.

Why does this continue to matter? Well, because when the Chief Scientist tells strident women to focus on “progress” and to tell better stories about the “numbers”of women in STEM not only are the numbers woeful, they are stratified along race (and other dynamics for minority women of colour).

In 2010, only 0.8% of ALL fulltime academic staff & 1.2% of general university staff were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  In 2016, this still translates to only 400 Indigenous academics working in Australian universities. Only one-quarter of associate professors and above are Indigenous.

The number of Indigenous people in academia goes up to 1,200 people when counting both teaching and research roles as well as professional and support roles. Of these, 68% are men & only 32% are women.

I’ve previously discussed how women’s work in general is devalued; Indigenous people’s more so.

“Indigenous academics must not be sidelined in meaningless roles that do not provide them the opportunity to develop and contribute to the academy to their full potential.” – ATSIHEAC

In 2004, a report showed investment needed radical increase, through grants & bursaries, especially to encourage Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander women into STEM.

14 years later, women in science funding exclusively benefits White women.

Research on women of colour shows that racial minority women scientists deal with double jeopardy – racism and sexism.

Black women have to constantly prove their credentials.

Afro-Latinas and other Latin women are seen as “angry and emotional” if they are not deferential.

Latin and other Black women scientists are mistaken as cleaners in their workplaces. Latin women scientists are asked to do additional admin for male colleagues. Asian women scientists are expected to be demure & face pushback when they don’t conform to this stereotype.

This is why intersectionality matters: gender inequity is impacted by racism and other structural disadvantages.

Professor Jill Milroy says that in STEM Aboriginal women face “triple jepordy – race, gender and income inequality.

That’s if we only focus on the numbers, as the Chief Scientist requested, without taking into account ongoing structural barriers and daily microaggressions that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, plus other women of colour face to stay in STEM.

Then there’s major problems in how STEM curriculum is taught, how research is funded, and how academic labour is rewarded.

Stay strident, #StridentWomen, but never forget racism goes on top of gender inequity and other forms of injustice (homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism).

The Chief Scientist says #StridentWomen need to recognise he’s shaking many women’s hands in medicine and life sciences. There is progress in that there were twice as many Indigenous people in medicine in 2004 vs 2014 (N=204 medical doctors & 310 student, without breaking down gender). So when the Chief Scientist is lauding the “women” he thinks are flooding medicine and life sciences, I’ve already pointed out he’s talking about undergrads and ignoring the sexist hierarchies they encounter.

He’s also using Whiteness as a proxy for progress. It’s not useful to ignore race when discussing gender equity.

Right now, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are fighting yet another of our weekly national racist debates – and one squarely about STEM. The new cultural safety code of conduct for nurses is being misrepresented by media as “racist.”

Remember just last week Aboriginal health professionals were dealing with racist dog whistling on STIs.

Consider Indigenous who connect the lost productivity that Aboriginal people waste defending against racism.

To recap – in one week, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander women in STEMM had to deal with:

1/ Racism on sexual health;
2/ Media and Nurses Professional Association of Queensland pandering to racism
3/ Chief Scientist devaluing discussion of inequity.

That’s a lot on top of triple jeopardy Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face daily as they navigate study & careers in STEM.

#StridentWomen let’s stay strident about numbers, without forgetting “progress for women in science” should elevate voices of Indigenous women.

Responses from scientists