Publication: Sexism in Science Reporting

This article was first published in DiverseScholar, on 20 April, 2015.

In my previous DiverseScholar article, I showed why the study behind The New York Times Op Ed (claiming the end of sexism) was methodologically flawed and ideologically biased [Zevallos 2014]. I showed that a focus on an individual choice narrative to explain why women are disadvantaged in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is fundamentally unsound when understood alongside the long-standing empirical evidence from the social sciences. Here, I will review several science controversies related to the editorial and institutional decisions within STEM. These patterns show that everyday interactions contribute to gender inequality, from the use of images, to dress, to the way distinguished women scientists are described in the media. I start with a selected timeline of events highlighting gender inequality in STEM. Continue reading Publication: Sexism in Science Reporting

How Informed Science Can Counter the “Nasty Effect”

How Informed Science Can Counter the Nasty EffectIn September 2013, Popular Science announced that they were closing down their comments section. This has lead to many public debates, including discussions on Science on Google+, a large community that I help manage. I wrote the following post in response to our community discussions at the time. I discuss the role of public science moderation in context of one scientific study that Popular Science used to support its decision to close their comments section. The research shows that people who think they know about science are easily swayed by negative internet discussions, but these people more likely to be poorly informed about science in the first place. For this reason, popular science publications and scientists need to step up their public engagement, not shy away from it due to the so-called “nasty effect” of negative comments made through social media. I also reflect on my own moderation experiences with the hopes of encouraging sociologists and other scientists to contribute to public science education and engagement.

Continue reading How Informed Science Can Counter the “Nasty Effect”

Letting Women Shine: Undoing Gender Inequality in Education

Australia’s Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne recently defended Budget changes that will make education highly unaffordable for most Australians. To add insult to injury, he used a sexist argument. On ABC Australia’s 730 Report Pyne was asked about the collective concerns of Australian Vice Chancellors, who fear the proposed increased university fees will create further inequity, especially for women and economically disadvantaged groups. Pyne argued that women go into teaching and nursing and that these courses won’t cost as much as the courses that men take.The problem here is that Pyne fails to recognise that women actually study a variety of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Moreover, given his portfolio, it is startling to hear the Education Minister speak so flippantly about women’s higher education debt given that countless studies show women are severely disadvantaged within women-dominated fields, and beyond. There’s a lot that the Minister might learn by looking at the research on gender disparity. Taking a leaf out of Japan’s economic policies, Mr Pyne would see exactly why women are at the heart of their economic reform.
Undoing Gender Inequality
Undoing Gender Inequality

Continue reading Letting Women Shine: Undoing Gender Inequality in Education

Vaginal Mysticism: Women’s Health and Celebrity Culture

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.

Let's talk about vaginal health in an honest and informative way.
Let’s talk about vaginal health in an honest and informative way.

Continue reading Vaginal Mysticism: Women’s Health and Celebrity Culture

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

In 15 minutes, I will be co-hosting this STEM Women discussion 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.

We 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!

STEM Women Host Science Chat

Very excited about this! As part of STEM Women, I am co-hosting the upcoming #ScienceChat on Twitter on 9th April, 2pm PDT USA/ Thursday 10th, 7am Aussie time. We 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:

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.

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