There have been an increased number of public attacks on underrepresented academics for their education and activism on social media. The term “activist academic” describes the longstanding tradition across nations where intellectuals engage in conscious protest in support of social justice and dissent against the status quo. Activism by academics asserts that the university has a social function beyond the provision of education and scholarly critique. Activist academics see that their role serves a social purpose to provide independent social criticism through volunteering, program interventions, public engagement outside academia, protests, and beyond. In some circles, the profile of activist academics has declined, particularly amongst White academics from majority groups. This led to the misperception that recent international protests by scientists were novel. This is misguided, as minority academics are often inextricably activist in their pedagogy, not-for-profit service work, and activities.
Sociology is centrally concerned with activism, especially in applied contexts. Our social justice focus is misconceived as bias or as an attack to those not used to having history, culture and politics viewed through a critical lens. Sociology is centrally concerned with social transformation. We do not merely observe the world; we aim to challenge existing power structures and to reduce inequity. Having said that, women academics in general are penalised for their work, and the outcomes are even worse for minority sociologists as they seek senior roles. The stakes for minority activist academics is therefore higher, as I will show below.
Why do academic institutions continue to replicate inequity? The Royal Society Te Apārangi in New Zealand has named their keynote speakers for their 150th Anniversary. All of them are White men. This seems additionally shocking because the organisation has recently rebranded and changed their name and misison to be focused explictly on diversity. This is a great thing! But clearly there’s a disconnect between their mandate and their event planning. Their response has been that the speakers were independently chosen by 10 autonomous branches who each nominated a candidate. They say acknowledge they have some work to do but don’t really give much detail to what this might entail. Perhaps it really is as they say- an unfortunate coincide that all ten panels chose White men? No, actually. What’s happened is not new.
This is the second of a two-part interview with me on Mendeley on 17 May 2017. The following is an excerpt on the positives of working as a research consultant on equity and diversity workplace issues, and the benefits of research to other industries.
We began by asking her: What were the steps involved in transitioning from academic research to being a business owner?
I approached setting up my own business as I would any other activity: I researched it. I read a lot of literature provided by government groups and the business sector. Having done so, I felt I could be a successful consultant.
However, I recognised the gaps in my knowledge about the business side of things, for example, financial obligations and how to market myself to the business sector. To address these issues, I took a training course. I recommend this to anyone who wants to set up a consultancy: get expert support in setting up your business.
In terms of transitioning the research: it took a lot of investment of time, resources and reskilling myself. I learned market research skills, and how to use social media effectively. This was a big leap: researchers are used to simply putting out product, like a journal article, as a deliverable. But when you’re working with business, it’s your advice that’s the end product, and there are many manifestations of that advice. Continue reading Interview: Sociologist at Work
I was interviewed by Mendeley about my work in equity and diversity in research environments. The original article was published on 16 May 2017.
We began by asking her: your speciality is the “Sociology of Work” – what are your sociological observations of the research workplace?
My focus is on gender equity and diversity. I have worked with many different organisations as a consultant and project manager; I’ve instructed them on how to review, enhance, and evaluate effectiveness of different policies. I’ve also provided consultancy on how to provide training at different levels so organisations can better understand their obligations and responsibilities.
My work includes enhancing workplace culture, particularly, the everyday cultural dynamics that impact on working life. For example, by offering more flexibility for workers, and looking at where there may be gaps or opportunities to enhance existing procedures. I also study how everyday interactions can enhance productivity. In other words, I don’t just look at how organisations can meet their legislative requirements, which are merely the minimum standard. I also work with teams to see how they interact and how organisations can create policies to suit their unique workplace needs.
In the course of my career, I have worked with a number of research organisations, mainly here in Australia, such as the Academy of Science. I helped them implement their gender and diversity programme. I have also worked with several other national and state research programmes, looking at how they can meet the challenges of intersectionality issues; that is, how they can better understand how gender equity and racism intersect along with other diversity needs, including those associated with class, sexuality, and disability. Continue reading Interview: Sociology at Work
Here is where the March for Science, like so many other science activities, fell short.
In failing to take responsibility for diversity in a methodical and transparent manner, the March for Science leadership made four major errors. First, the organizers attempted to set up the march as “apolitical” without having thought about equity, inclusion, and accessibility. The organizers failed to connect with diversity experts and activist groups. Their diversity statement was first released due to criticism from underrepresented scientists (using the hashtag #marginsci, started by Dr. Stephani Page). In reaction to growing critique, the initial diversity statement would be revised another three times. Continue reading Publication: Better Leadership through Diversity
Despite its special focus on diversity, the evolution of the March for Science shows that diversity has been an afterthought. Science and academia continually places scientists from underrepresented groups in the position of arguing for our rights. The issues for the global March for Science, as well as the national marches in Australia, are fundamental to issues of diversity in STEM around the world. The march is a microcosm of the battle to create a more inclusive culture in STEM that truly values and promotes diversity.
Over the weekend, thousands participated in the March for Science, both in Australia and globally. Influenced by the Women’s March, the March for Science has struggled with reflecting the highly diverse scientific community. In today’s post, sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos provides a brief history of the controversies, explains why diversity in science is important, and provides practical suggestions for moving forward on stronger footing.
I was interviewed by WIRED on the disunity caused by scientists who have tried to split the March for Science from social justice activism. The case study in this article is the appalling treatment of organisers in Memphis, USA. Scientists split from the Memphis March to form a separate rally in the same city. Both groups have scientists but the March has centrally been led by women of colour activists with more experience in social movements, and they incorporate a focus on inclusion of minority communities. This is symbolic in their decision to march to an historically Black university. Participation of minorities in science is not mutually exclusive to the goal of enhancing evidence-based science policies. I’ll point out what I said in my interview: scientists from underrepresented groups have always been part of, and learned from, social justice movements.
“Both groups feel that their work isn’t done—and with the perception that science is under attack in the US, they wish they could show a united front. But ‘that in itself is a false picture of science, because we are not united,’ says Zuleyka Zevallos, a sociologist at Swinburne University in Australia who has studied the online reaction to the March for Science’s shifting messaging. Saturday’s marches, rallies, and other events around the world will surely pull some science supporters together. But they’re just as likely to highlight the clash over science’s priorities. Should the science community focus on fighting back against a hostile administration? Or on improving itself from within?”
Over the next couple of days, in the lead up to the March for Science, happening globally on 22 April 2017, I’ll be republishing a few of my articles and analyses of the March here on my blog.
On 13 April 2017, an article in Science Magazine featured the academic research planned about the March for Science, and interviews with one of the march co-chairs. The journalist reported that George Mason University was seeking email addresses of supporters for a planned study.
Scientists around the world who have been holding the march organisers accountable criticised the ethics of such a proposed study. This eventually led to the organisers requesting a correction from the journalist.
How did this major error happen?
Two days later, on 16 April, the March for Science was forced to issue a public apology after appropriating African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in a now-deleted tweet (below). This was heavily critiqued, especially by Black researchers, who pointed out the hypocrisy of using AAVE when Black scientists had been marginalised by the march, and received abuse for speaking out on inequalities within the march. Black scientists were also ignored when they encouraged the organisers to work with established social justice groups, including Black Lives Matter. Cultural appropriation of AAVE is doubly offensive in given these patterns of exclusion.
These are just two recent examples in a long line of problems. The organisers have established a damaging cycle of communication failures and weak apologies since the March for Science was first promoted.
I was interviewed by the The New York Times on issues of equity and diversity in the March for Science:
“‘It set off alarm bells,’ said Zuleyka Zevallos an applied sociologist from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. ‘How can we trust them to look after inclusion and accessibility if they are going to buckle under pressure?'”
The statements from the organisers in this article are easily disproved from public record. For example, the organisers resisted the idea that science is political, and they have created a series of sexist, racist and ablesit problems (discrimination against people with disabilities). They have completely ignored the needs and representation of LGBTQIA scientists. Most tellingly, several women have left the organising committee due to a toxic organisational culture.
As I’ve said from the beginning: the problems with the march reflect broader issues of discrimination in science and academia. This includes a lack of awareness about the structural barriers inhibiting the full participation and success of minorities and White women in research. The march is also plagued by ineffective leadership, policy and practice responses to diversity, which is another troubling hallmark of science. We must do better to ensure everyone can achieve their full potential in science.
I was interviewed for this article by BuzzFeed on March for Science:
“It took one tweet by one high-profile male scientist for the organisers to completely retreat from the diversity statement that they put out” Zuleyka Zevallos, a sociologist at Swinburne University in Australia, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s important because it shows that there’s a wavering commitment to diversity that is swayed by the status quo in science.”
I welcome the news of the three new honorary co-chairs of the march: Bill Nye, Dr Lydia Villa-Komoroff, and Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, however there is a lot of work ahead to address diversity within the march. The news is also soured by the fact that Nye was going to be announced solo.
I was interviewed twice as a result. In my first interview I conveyed strong disappointment at the decision to make a White man the face of the march and noted that a woman of colour would have been a step forward. I also argued that the organisers needed to appoint transgender women and women with disabilities to address key gaps in leadership. Around this time, the STAT News article came out (for which I was also interviewed) and caused more controversy and so the organisers held off on announcing Nye. And so while these two accomplished women of colour scientists are wonderful leaders, they are, nevertheless, an afterthought. Their inclusion is also an outcome of strong negotiation by one of the women of colour on the committee and public lobbying by underrepresented scientists. Nye’s comments in this article are counter-productive:
“With respect to diversity — is that the key word here? There’s a diversity committee on the march, and they’re working this problem. I was born a dorky white guy who became an engineer. I’m playing the hand I was dealt. We can’t — this march can’t solve every problem all at once.”
The only reason Nye can make this argument – that diversity can wait and that it’s someone else’s problem – is because he’s a White man. His comments are ill informed and will only feed the detractors. Moreover, Lydia Villa-Komaroff and Mona Hanna-Attisha are practising scientists who have made a huge impact on pressing issues (insulin research and exposing lead poisoning in the Flint water crisis, respectively). It goes to the heart of problems in science that a White male personality gets top billing over more accomplished women of colour researchers.
Looking forward to better leadership moving forward, and for the march to make concrete progress on equity, inclusion and accessibility.