Sociology of Spiders

A tiny spider on a centre of an orange wall, in a halo of light

A diminutive spider accompanied by its tiny shadow had me captivated as I pondered the sociology of spiders and fear.

Spiders inspire irrational fright, despite the fact that most spiders can’t harm humans. The small percentage that can are not usually found in our homes and they don’t specifically seek us out for attack. Yet even I overreact at the sight of a spider at home (or in my swag during a recent camping trip!).

Our collective fear of spiders in urban areas is culturally determined, and it far outweighs the risk posed. Spiders feature as focus and metaphor for different types of fears in Western societies. Even amongst educated people, spiders are a source of disgust and anxiety. Why might that be the case?

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Women in Tech

Flags from around the world hang high above an alleyway

Earlier this year, I spoke at Readify as part of their International Women’s Day events held around the country.  This is what I said.

I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet; the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. It is upon their ancestral lands on which we meet. I pay my respects to any elders, past, present and emerging. As we celebrate the courage and resilience of women and gender minorities on this International Women’s Day, may we also pay respect to the traditional gender balance, leadership and innovation of Aboriginal people, embedded forever within their Custodianship of Country.

Today I’m going to start of by setting the scene with a quick snapshot of women in the tech sector, which I’m sure you’re all well aware of. I’m going to focus a little more on the solutions that come from the empirical evidence about what works in lifting up women in the workplace. I won’t talk too long, so we can have a bit more a discussion about what initiatives have worked well here or in other places where you’ve worked, or if there’s anything else you want to dive into. Continue reading Women in Tech

Resource: Equity and Diversity for Events

Diversity encompasses issues of equity, inclusion, accessibility and intersectionality (the interconnection between gender and racial inequality alongisde other social disadvantages). I’ve created a resource to ensure academic and science events support diversity. Below is a brief version.

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Sexual Harassment in the Academy

Trigger warning: this post describes an investigation and experience of sexual harassment.

On 19 January 2018, I wrote to the Presidents and Executive leaders of the Australian Academy of Science asking them to address the University of California Berkeley investigation finding that Academy Fellow, Professor Terry Speed, had been found to have sexually harassed a woman postdoc over a two-year period. Prof Speed was also found to have created a ‘hostile environment,’ for the postdoc and a second complainant, Professor Lior Pachter, who made the findings of the investigation public.

This sexual harassment of the woman postdoc (‘Barbara’) included several months in Australia, when Prof Speed invited her to his Australian institution, WEHI, where he was still leading a lab at the time that the investigation was made public. Not only is his position as Fellow notable, but he is also a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Science 2013 and was awarded the Eureka Prize for Scientific Leadership 2014. Prof Speed is also one of the founding sponsors of Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE), which is being co-managed by the Academy of Science. SAGE is running the Athena SWAN Awards, a pilot of the UK initiative to increase gender equity and diversity in science and academia. Almost 90% of Australia’s universities are signed up to the Athena SWAN program, along with other government research organisations and medical institutes.

I was employed by the Academy as the project manager for SAGE, and was tasked with getting the program off the ground prior to its establishment and launch (April 2015). I left the Academy after July 2016. I am proud of what my team achieved, and I will always treasure The Work, but I faced many hardships trying to make internal changes on equity and diversity. This includes, but is not limited to, not being listened to on improving internal processes, lack of organisational support under stressful conditions (magnified for me as a woman of colour), and leadership resistance to the intersectionality dimensions of the program.

My email in January 2018 came one and a half years after I left. From the outside, it seemed that very little had changed on gender equity and diversity. I asked the Academy to address a number of basic steps, including a public statement about Prof Speed, and policies to address sexual harassment and discrimination.

As I write this, it has been six months since I contacted the Academy about Prof Speed, asking them to increase visibility of their gender equity and diversity policies and practices.

Below, I reproduce my email in full, without the names of the Executives to whom I addressed this, and omitting the name of another ex-employee. I then discuss what’s happened since and the responses on this case.

What follows is not just about this one case, but more about how this situation has been handled. Specifically, the culture of silence and inaction. What does it say about the state of academia and science that prominent men who buy a stake of equity programs are not held accountable by their professional associations when they harass women?

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Interview: Decolonise Space

Sirenum fossae, a qudrangle of Mars. It looks like a giant crator on the bright red landscape

I was interviewed by Newsweek on the inequalities embedded into the way people imagine colonising other planets. I discussed how the language we use about ‘colonising’ Mars whitewashes the history of colonialism on Earth:

‘“Language is one of the ways in which we shape our social reality,” Zuleyka Zevallos, a sociologist at Swinburne University in Australia, told Newsweek. That means using terms like colonise carries real risks. “The history of colonialism has taught us that there is no democratic way to colonise other lands,” she said. “It is about profit, and profit always marginalises minorities.”’

Read this insightful article featuring other experts, here.

Behavioural Science for Education and Vocational Training

Drawing of a woman tradesperson holding a mobile phone. The text reads: this is what your apprentice is learning this week

Have you ever wondered why people behave in unexpected ways, often against their own interest? This is because many of our social institutions, including the law, education and economy are built around rules that don’t always take into account people’s social context and their motivations when making decisions. Convention in Western societies is that financial incentives and punitive measures (like fines) can incentivise people to do the right thing. Behavioural science research shows this is not always true. In fact, while money and sanctions work in some situations for some groups, most behaviours are not able to be easily changed through cash and penalties. (These can sometimes backfire!)

Behavioural science is the use of behavioural economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology and other social sciences for the purpose of improving behavioural outcomes. Behavioural insights is specifically the application of this science to improve effectiveness for decision-making, public services and policy. Here’s a case study of behavioural insights in action in education and vocational training.

Using fieldwork research and randomised control trials, the Behavioural Insights Unit (BIU) test low-cost behavioural science changes to issues affecting different groups in society.

For example, we know that 48% of apprentices in New South Wales cancel their contracts within the first year, and 77% will cancel within two years. That’s a tremendous personal cost to these students, which also translates to $91 million loss of the state’s economy in cancellations alone, and upwards of $348 million in related revenue. BIU’s research shows apprentices who cancel their employment contracts do so because they often feel they are subjected to tough working conditions for little pay (undertaking menial, repetitive tasks and long hours), receiving little guidance about their progress on the job. Continue reading Behavioural Science for Education and Vocational Training

Challenging the March for Science: Intersectionality at the Coal Face

This is the first of two talks I was invited to give in New Zealand in September 2017. It is fitting to share this today, on the second March for Science event happening in over 200 cities around the world, including Australia. I have throughly documented the equity and diversity issues with the last year’s March for Science. This talk was a reflection on the problems and costs of this volunteering work that I and many other people of colour, disabled scientists, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) researchers did to try to make the marches more inclusive. I note that Black women scientists bore the worst abuse both within the March for Science movement and by the public advocacy they did.

I’m afraid that discussions this year were no better. Last week, I was one of a few Australian women reflecting on issues from last year’s March for Science, and the lack of transparency over plans for this year’s event. On my Twitter threads, in discussion with other minority women, organisers from the Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra marches reproduced many of the problematic arguments detailed here, all over again.

Some of the organisers of this year’s march blamed the lack of diversity amongst the committees and speakers on the low number of volunteers, while also insinuating that minority people should have volunteered in greater numbers. I noted that the same issue was raised last year to deflect minority researchers’ concerns with equity and diversity. In fact, the minorities who did volunteer and offered countless hours of free advice and public resources (as in my case) were met with anger. Women of colour were especially made to feel unsafe and unwelcome. Other organisers of this year’s march said they valued diversity but didn’t know how to improve things. I noted that there had been a plethora of free resources published last year as well as other resources that exist on how to make events more inclusive.

There is really no excuse for reproducing inequality in science or academic events, and in other spheres.

So with all these wounds freshly scratched opened, below are the notes for the talk that I gave at the University of Auckland, titled: Challenging the March for Science – intersectionality work at the coal face. I was a guest of the The Women in Science Network. Throughout this post, I provide tips for how to make science events (and other events and protests) more inclusive. At the end, I include a visual resource that summarises some tips for best practice that you can print off as a reminder. Feel free to put it up at your home office, work, school, university, or any other community space!

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Tech Inclusion

On 13 February 2018, I participated in the Tech Inclusion Melbourne conference. Bill Nicholson, Wurundjeri elder gave the Welcome to Country (below). He talked about using treaty to build economic capacity and sovereignty amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

My overview of the conference starts with the panel discussion that I took part in. I then reflect on the other presentations. (Note: click on images for further detail)

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Interview: Making New Worlds

Close up of astronaut's reflection on their helmet, as they work in space

I’m featured in the first episode of Making New Worlds, a podcast inviting experts from different fields to discuss the ethics of colonising other planets.

The issue we discuss is not about scientific space exploration (collecting data about other planets), but whether it is ethical for humans to settle in Mars or other planets. My responses represent sociological considerations about the inequality that is inherent in colonialism. The quotes below are excerpts from me; listen to the entire podcast in the link.

Picture of terrain on Mars, showing an aerial view of what appears to be sea, land and clouds. A quote from me is overlaid over the top, from the article, “And there is something profoundly unethical ... on our own planet.”
Ethics of colonising other planets

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