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?

Continue reading Sociology of Spiders

Heterosexism in a Scientific Study of Lesbian Attraction

a White woman, shot only from the upper torso, holds candles arranged in the colours of the LGBTQIA or pride flag

An evolutionary psychology study that gained much media attention in May 2017 claims to show women’s sexual attraction to other women is the outcome of evolution, specifically for the pleasure of heterosexual men. The study was reported widely as ‘homosexual women evolved for men’s pleasure.’ Journalists have not read the study nor linked to it. The study is published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The study is led by Associate Professor Menelaos Apostolou. The team is based at the University of Nicosia, with apparently only one woman co-author.

Here, I show why the study is flawed and why the conclusions are premised on dangerous heterosexism. Heterosexism is the prejudiced belief that heterosexuality is ‘natural’ and ‘normal,’ and that heterosexuality uniformly structures all aspects of social life.  Heterosexism also presumes that gender is a binary (there are only two groups, men or women), and excludes the lived experiences of transgender people. Heterosexism brings to light the social construction of sexuality, and in this case, the values and social dynamics that impact on what is taken-for-granted about heterosexuality.

I focus my discussion on cisgender heterosexual and homosexual people as the authors of the study have presumed men and women can either be homosexual or heterosexual, to the exclusion of other gender and sexual identities. They have done this without explicitly saying so (it is a facet of heterosexism to reinforce binaries, because variations of sexuality disrupt the idea that heterosexuality is natural and normal). Experiences for transgender lesbians would vary, however, the authors presume a gender binary in thinking about lesbian desire.

With these cautions in mind, let’s dive into the study.

Continue reading Heterosexism in a Scientific Study of Lesbian Attraction

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?

Continue reading Sexual Harassment in the Academy

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.

Event: Making Science Inclusive

A group of conference delegates stand for a group photo. They are smiling in front of their chairs in a lecture theatre

A quick note to say that I’ll be on a panel at the Science Pathways conference on 23 April 2018, in Brisbane.* The event is run by the EMCR Forum (Australia’s Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum). The panel is titled, ‘Making Science Inclusive.’ I will speak about how to use intersectionality to refocus diversity initiatives to be more inclusive. My co-panellists are:

  • Ms Kimberly Olsen (CEO Trans Employment Program Australia),
  • Ms Rachel Ranton (Inclusion & Diversity Consultant, Westpac),
  • Dr Andrew Siebel (Assistant Dean, Diversity & Inclusion, Faculty of Science, University of Melbourne), and
  • Dr Soressa Kitessa (Senior Research Scientist, SARDI).

The panel is facilitated by Dr Carly Rosewarne (Research Scientist, CSIRO).

A description of the panel from the conference website:

Discussions around how to improve diversity in science are often centred on ways to encourage those from underrepresented demographics to consider career paths in STEM. To ensure success, these well-intentioned initiatives need to be underpinned by effective policy and ongoing support to ensure individuals are given an equal opportunity to thrive. In this session, the concept of inclusive science will be explored from the perspective of EMCRs, with examples of best practice from academia and industry.

If you can’t make it, you will be able to watch it free on livestream! Register here.

* Note that the conference continues on the next day but I won’t attend on the 24 April.

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!

Continue reading Challenging the March for Science: Intersectionality at the Coal Face

Strident Women Speak up on Gender Inequity in Science

Here’s a recap of a discussion I led on Twitter with the hashtag, #StridentWomen.

Hello everyone. Hope you had a strident day being strident. The Chief Scientist has said he hates it when women in science talk about inequality because it detracts from “progress.” Please bear in mind that while 49% of undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are women, only 21% of senior professors of STEMM are women.  So let’s talk now about progress.

Continue reading Strident Women Speak up on Gender Inequity in Science

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

Continue reading Interview: Making New Worlds

Racism in Research and Academia

Racism is not an interpersonal phenomenon. It is not simply about something one person said to another; it is more than a slur about skin colour. Racism operates through institutions and policies, that are reinforced in everyday words and actions. Racism is not comprehending that things you say and do – as well as the things you fail to say and do – contribute to the alienation of people of colour. Well-meaning White people contribute towards racism – through their silence. Whether intentional or not, racism has material consequences on the life chances of racial minorities. Below are some examples of racism at work in research contexts. I examine what it means to be an “ally,” and I discuss ways to proactively respond to racial discrimination in the workplace and online.

Continue reading Racism in Research and Academia