STEM Women in Education: Dr Inger Mewburn, The Thesis Whisperer

In 15 minutes, Buddhini Samarasinghe and I will be speaking with Dr Inger Mewburn. Inger is the Director of Research Training at the Australian National University. Her background was in architecture, but she’s specialised in education research since 2006. We will discuss Inger’s research on the gender experiences of PhD students as they negotiate their relationships with their supervisors and administration. She will also discuss her popular blog, The Thesis Whisperer, which provides practical advice for students across STEM fields. Inger will share insights for women research students and also tell us about her career, and provide tips for navigating a successful path in academia.

In a study published earlier this year, Inger and colleagues find gendered patterns in the way postgraduates negotiate their supervisor and administration relationships.  Women are more likely than men to struggle with university bureaucracy. Even filling in progress reports can be fraught with anxiety about how they may be negatively judged. Women are also less likely to report problems with their supervisors, while men find it relatively easy to approach their supervisors for help and support. 

Inger will discuss how these gender differences are linked to institutional processes that prevent women from realising their full potential in STEM. We’ll discuss how we can better support women PhD students navigate the academic system and prevent the so-called leaky pipeline. 

Read a write-up of our discussion on STEM Women.

Applied Sociology in Action: Student Protests in Taiwan & Australia

Photo: Jimmy Kang via Flickr
Photo: Jimmy Kang via Flickr

In March, sociology students in Taiwan were criticised for being released from class to attend peaceful protests occupying the Legislature Yuan from the 18th of March 18 to the 10th of April 2014. Sociology lecturers called this “the most practical lesson of sociology.” Since dubbed the “Sunflower Student Movement,” the youth were protesting a trade-in-service agreement with China. On the one hand, Taiwan’s Education Minister said that teachers should support their students’ education rights. On the other hand, he criticised teachers for supporting this through peaceful protest. Instead, he argued that teachers should have done this “through rational debates and discussions.”

Today in Australia, students are being similarly critiqued for protesting the deregulation of university fees as a result of the impending changes to the national budget. Universities Australia told the ABC program Lateline on the 3rd of June that increased fees will mean up to a 60% increase in debt for some university degrees. This translates to an additional 6 years of repayments for full-time workers. For a part-time worker who takes time away from paid work to start a family, the research suggests this could mean up to 20 years of additional debt.

The similarities in the media and political discourses of how the Australian and Taiwanese students conducted their protests are worth exploring further.

Continue reading Applied Sociology in Action: Student Protests in Taiwan & Australia

Low Social Science Bachelor’s Degree Graduates

This graphic has been going around for a few weeks yet surprisingly with little analysis. A Backstage Sociologist first published it in late April, writing only:

Teaching and learning are not market transactions: They are sacred encounters of soulcraft. This graphic leaves one who teaches social science and the humanities with a heavy heart and despairing about the eventual extinction of well-educated citizens.

I suspect there is more to this chart and part of the soul searching should happen within sociology itself. I see the steep rise in business graduates and perhaps to a lesser extent in the life sciences and communications are partly a development in technology and the reality of the job market.

One way that sociology might address this is through a stronger focus on applied sociology. Without question, developing the sociological imagination has many personal and professional benefits, as critical thinking can help to improve civic participation and empower us to understand our lives in a broader context.

Then again, if you are a poor or otherwise disadvantaged young person thinking about the debt and other commitments you need to balance, pursuing a degree in sociology can be daunting. We are largely positioned as an academic discipline. There are few academic jobs for our graduates. Market forces may be driving graduates away from social science, but our discipline can be doing much more to demonstrate the applicability of our theories and methods to specific jobs and industries.

You can read more from my website Sociology at Work, with links to resources that can help provide tangible examples of how sociology students might find work in different industries, and how they might specifically use their degrees.

How Parents Can Support Girls’ STEM Education

Join us on STEM Women in less than 30 minutes as we talk about how parents can support girls’ education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)! We’ll discuss how parents might use experiments, storytelling and other activities to connect with and bolster their daughters’ STEM passion.

Dr Buddhini Samarasinge and I will speak to Professor Rajini Rao, Dr Bill Carter and Dr La Vergne Lestermeringolo Thatch about the challenges and rewards that come with encouraging girls to pursue a STEM career someday!

A write up of the discusison can be found on STEM Women.

STEM Women Host Science Chat

Very excited about this! As part of STEM Women, Buddhini Samarasinghe and me are hosting the upcoming #ScienceChat on Twitter on 9th April, 2pm PDT USA/ Thursday 10th, 7am Aussie time. Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe and I will be tweeting from our account @STEMWomen and our amazing colleague Professor Rajini Rao will be one of our distinguished guests. Join us if you’re on the tweets!

We’ll talk about how we can address intersections of discrimination in STEM, including gender, race, LGBTQI issues, as well as other forms of exclusion. We’ll also focus on the creative ways to improve science outreach to disadvantaged and marginalised groups. Join our discussion on Twitter using #ScienceChat. Our talented guests are all STEM outreach & diversity advocates:

  • @LaMinda Mindy Weisberger 
  • @Julia_SCI Julia Wilde 
  • @JessieNYC Jessie Daniels 
  • @drisis Isis the Scientist
  • @Dharlette Hannah Grimm 
  • @LlewellynCox Llewellyn Cox 
  • @kaythaney Kaitlin Thaney 
  • @kejames Karen James 
  • @NellieNeutron Ellen Byrne 
  • @madamscientist Rajini Rao 

Below is a summary of some of the responses we could keep track of – we ended being a trending topic on Twitter, with hundreds of tweets coming at us, making it hard to capture our guest responses later on.

Continue reading STEM Women Host Science Chat

Myths About Science Funding

A Quora thread recently caught my eye. Titled, How do we restore trust in science?, I was curious to see, once again, the conflation of trust in science with the idea that all science is politically and economically motivated by “big pharma” companies and by politicians. I reproduce my answers to the original question and my response further below. I start by pulling apart the interconnected ideas of trust, funding, belief in science and political influences on science. The public should hold scientists, politicians and private industry accountable for Research and Development. This is an important discussion, but it often happens in a vaccum. Researchers address research demands in closed journals. Research ethics is part of our training. The reality of these issues, however, are not really as the public imagines it.

Continue reading Myths About Science Funding

How Media Hype Hurts Public Knowledge of Science

Remember that news article that was going around saying that a high proportion of Americans can’t tell astrology from astronomy? We tackled this news on the Science on Google+ Community, by going to an analysis of the original source. I’m republishing my comments and parts of our Community discussion.* I expand my argument to make two points: 1) Media hyperbole on science needs careful critique by scientists. 2) Scientific literacy requires our sustained engagement. I include some of interesting figures from the USA National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Engineers Indicators report for 2014, focusing on Public Attitudes and Understanding of science and technology. This information speaks to the public’s lack of understanding about what scientists do, how funding works, and how trust in scientists influences the public’s assessment of the output of our research. I’d like to start a conversation about how to move forward in dispelling the hype and myths surrounding science.

Continue reading How Media Hype Hurts Public Knowledge of Science

Inclusive Management in Tech

Here’s our STEM Women on G+ Hangout with Google+’s Chief Architect, Yonatan Zunger, co-hosted by Buddhini Samarasinghe and me. We had limited time and we could have easily spoken longer. I was especially interested to hear Yonatan speak about his personal journey to learn additional leadership skills to support diversity, such as active listening.

I see that many individuals are invested in supporting women in STEM, which is heartening, but this often means taking a personal interest to read more on the issue, as Yonatan has done. My interest as a sociologist is how to improve these individual efforts to build a critical mass. How do we better maximise and pool our collective efforts to achieve broader change?

I’m a big advocate of mandatory equity and diversity training within organisations. I also see that issues of inequality for women and other minorities need to move into a central place within all the STEM fields. These matters need to be addressed earlier in research and applied careers, so that they are not marginal topics that we debate later. Instead, the conversation we’re having with STEM Women is: things are unequal, what are we going to do about it?

 

Continue reading Inclusive Management in Tech

Teaching Against Racism

Minneapolis Community and Technical College lecturer Shannon Gibney (who is African America) was formally reprimanded by her university after three White male students complained that they were being made to study structural racism. One student interrupted Gibney during her  Mass Communications class and asked: “Why do we have to talk about this?” Continue reading Teaching Against Racism

The Sociology of Why People Don’t Believe Science

This the story of how sociology can improve public science. I discuss the social science research explaining why some sections of the general public resist research evidence. As some of you know, I’m one of around 20 Moderators who run Science on Google+. Our Community is managed by practising scientists and our membership includes researchers as well as members of the public who are interested in science. I run the Social Science stream (along with Chris Robinson who created the Community). Our Community aims to improve the quality of science posts and public outreach, by connecting the public to real scientists. This week, we celebrated the fact that our Community has grown to 200,000 members. The Community receives numerous posts each day. We want to move discussion away from people sharing their personal opinions on “fluff” science pieces that often end up distorted in the news, and instead we’d like to focus on the relevance, validity and reliability of peer reviewed science. Invariably, we get people coming to the Community specifically looking to argue about how all science is wrong (usually with regards to social science), corrupt (often regarding life sciences), or “just a theory” (creationist arguments against the physical sciences).

These critics do not focus on the scientific content of a study. They focus on moral and cultural arguments, which to them are scientific. For example, when discussing research on gender inequality in science, there’s a variation of: “In my engineering class there’s only two women. I think that most women just aren’t interested in science. That’s not sexism to point out the truth.” (Yes, it is sexist.) When discussing research on climate change: “There’s inconclusive evidence on this!” (No, the evidence is compelling.)

Judging you

Most of these people do not use credible scientific research to back up their claims, but they evoke some general statistics (“everyone knows…” and “countless studies show”).We ask for links to peer reviewed science, which never come.  Sometimes they post links to conspiracy videos that have no scholarly merit. Despite their lack of evidence, these people are thoroughly convinced that they are scientists or that they are very well informed on a topic. They cite ideas of science from popular culture (“science is about questioning everything!”). Otherwise they draw on something they heard in the news or they revert to personal anecdotes and subjective observations.

These critics are the exception, as most of our Community members are genuinely curious in science and learning. The problem is that these anti-scientist “scientists” take up a lot of time and they derail discussions. So what motives them?

Chad Haney, one of our colleagues and a Curator for the excellent Science Sunday, wrote a fantastic post about how social psychology concepts might explain why people refuse to engage with scientific evidence. Chad invited me to comment on his post, and this has led me to crystallise thoughts that I’ve had circling my head since I started blogging seven years a go. Other than a sheer love of the social sciences, why bother with public science? Who is our audience? Does it “work” and how do we measure its success? How can we improve it?

My post will discuss the sociology of beliefs, values and attitudes to describe the cultural, institutional and historical ways in which the public has engaged with science. I present two case studies of “hot topics” that usually draw anti-science comments to our Community regarding gender inequality and genetically modified foods. I show how cultural beliefs about trust and risk influence the extent to which people accept scientific evidence. I go on to discuss how sociology can help improve public science outreach. Continue reading The Sociology of Why People Don’t Believe Science