Many people understand that celebrities are not health experts, yet the media persist on giving them a public forum to share their health and lifestyle advice. Journalists insist on printing celebrity musings without critical insight. This is dangerous. We see this in the anti-vaccine movement, but it’s pervasive in other ways. Over the next couple of days I’ll present a couple of case studies focusing on why it’s especially damaging to present celebrity ideas about women’s health without consideration to the social impact.
First up, I show the problems of presenting scientifically invalid ideas about vaginal health. A popular young American actress, Shailene Woodley, has reportedly suggested that genital yeast infection and other genital conditions can be cured by exposing vaginas to sunlight. She says she read this advice in an article by “an herbalist.” The media has repeated this advice and even recommended it with relish.
Young women who have limited access to sexual health education and who may not understand their bodies do not need to be exposed to pseudoscience. The individual musings of celebrities can be ignored at the individual level. At the social level, however, the media have cultural authority and a responsibility to inform readers about health issues. This is done by drawing on expert advice, not egging on damaging celebrity endorsements.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?