End the Hero-Worship of Bigoted Scientists

Crowded lecture threatre with many people raising their hands to speak.

There is a troubling trend of famous scientists receiving increased attention to speak at academic events and on conservative media. In The Humanist, I recently wrote about the resurgence of political scientist Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve. The book has been universally critiqued as an example of modern-day scientific racism. Yet Murray is being embraced by right wing media personalities, as well as by research institutions. He was the focus of a student and faculty protest after being invited to give a talk.

Published in 1994, The Bell Curve was founded on a flawed premise that inferred a correlation between intelligence, socio-economic achievement, and genetics, without accounting for the effects of discrimination. The research was funded by the eugenics-promoting Pioneer Fund. Time has proven the book to be scientifically “reckless.” It enjoys a resurgence in 2017, the era of Trump, specifically because it is read as proof that White people are superior to racial minorities, especially Black and Latin people.

We can see a similar pattern in the renewed embrace of Dr James Watson. He is famous for being awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA along with Francis Crick, but they did so by stealing the work of a White woman scientist, Rosalind Franklin. Watson has also promoted scientific racism and sexism throughout his career, arguing that Black people are less intelligent and that women have no value in science careers. He also spread racist pseudoscience, saying there is a link between sunlight and increased libido. His reasoning: “That’s why you have Latin lovers.” He has further argued that thin people are more ambitious, and he subsequently validates that discrimination towards fat people is understandable. All of this, of course, is without any scientific evidence.

What message does his continued elevated status send to underrepresented and marginalised groups in academia?

Continue reading End the Hero-Worship of Bigoted Scientists

Islamophobia and the Public Persecution of Feminist Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Yassmin Abdel-Magied

In February 2017, conservative Australian media began a sustained attack of a young feminist leader, Yassmin Abdel-Magied. That started a racist petition calling for her to be fired from ABC TV, Australia’s public broadcaster, simply for having participated in a TV panel show, Q&A, where she spoke articulately about her feminism as a Muslim-Australian woman (see the clip below). For weeks, the ABC refused to give into these racist demands.

At the same time, three One Nation candidates were running in the Western Australian election making openly racist, homophobic and sexist comments. These candidates had no political expertise, but somehow their bigotry is not offensive enough to warrant endless national debate. Yet the feminism of an educated and successful young feminist draws ire.

In late April, Abdel-Magied was subjected to further public condemnation over a brief social media post expressing her condemnation of war. One month later, a White male editor incited violence towards her employer, the ABC, and Abdel-Magied was caught in media turmoil once again. This is a case study on the deep-seated elements of Islamophobia (fear of Islam) in Australia, and its real life consequences on young women of religious and ethnic minority backgrounds.

Continue reading Islamophobia and the Public Persecution of Feminist Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Racism and Sexism in the Media


Rugby star Sam Thaiday (above) who is Torres Strait Islander, made a sexist and racist comment during The Footy Show, a very popular, long-running TV show that is dominated by White male athletes and comedians who are infamous for racism and sexism. Thaiday “joked” that he once had dated “dark women” as part of a “jungle fever phase” that he then grew out of (his wife is a White Australian woman, with whom he has children).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander commentators, artists and researchers were swift to condemn Thaiday’s words. Their activism was effective: they called on action from Deadly Choices, an Indigenous-led health initiative in Queensland that promotes Thaiday as one of their key ambassadors. This led initially to a statement denouncing Thaiday’s damaging message, and today they announced that Thaiday was removed as their ambassador. Continue reading Racism and Sexism in the Media

Sexism Does not Justify Racism

TW: Rape.  

West Indies cricketer, Chris Gayle, who is Black, was sexist during an interview with an Australian woman journalist, Mel McLaughlin, who is white. Gayle issued a non-apology, saying he was joking. Sexist jokes are not “jokes;” it is sexism. Gayle’s behaviour is unprofessional and profoundly damaging given his prominent position. Women everywhere deserve to go to work without men objectifying them, regardless of their job or stature. It’s the second time Gayle has behaved this way to a woman journalist; in his homeland, feminist groups have called out his behaviour. Gayle has been fined $10,000 for his comments.

The Sydney Morning Herald published a racist response from a white man, sports writer Malcolm Knox. It is written as a white man emulating his white view of how Black West Indies people sound like:

“Unlike dem Australians wit their BS about PC, me know where you comin’ from, brethren. Me know you got a good lovin’ heart like all we Jamaican brethren.”

“Satire” does not give license for racism. The fact that this was published in a national paper is yet another daily reminder that racism is both reproduced and celebrated by the media. Other white men are defending this racist diatribe. Luke Pearson, founder of Indigenous X, points out the false equivalence of racism and sexism:

Racist commentary in the Australian media are similar to European responses to recent reports that men in Cologne, Germany, sexually harassed women over New Year celebrations.

Paternalistic Sexism & Racism in Cologne

The reports are focusing on the men’s appearance (“Arab/Middle Eastern”) and explicitly on their citizenship status (“migrants” and “refugees”). Politicians are now threatening that sexual harassment will lead to deportations. Women should not be subject to harassment, full stop. But the fact that the media and politicians are running with a racist discourse, tells us that the safety of “women” is not really what’s of concern. Instead, protection of white women are a proxy for protecting white people against The Other.

Is there the same moral panic given 17% of women are sexually assaulted by local-born men in Australia and elsewhere? No.

These two examples are part of a long history of using men of colour as a threat to white women in order to justify racism. White women are treated as a paternalistic resource to be protected, but only from Black men and racial ‘others.’ Women of colour’s experiences of sexism and violence are largely ignored. See the numerous Indigenous women who have died in custody, such as Ms Dhu who died in grave pain as police refused her medical aide. These events do not face the same moral outrage.

Racist Hierarchies

Despite the fact that Gayle and those involved with the Cologne attacks should not get away with sexist behaviour, the media’s response is fuelled by racism. Black, migrant and refugee men of colour are seen as a threat, and public responses to these cases are used to justify racist practices.

Rape apologists are having a field day feigning support of “women” over the Gayle’s sexist remarks and the sexist events in Cologne. White men who usually do nothing to support gender equity get to be publicly self-righteous in their racism. Thus the racial order is maintained, with white men up top; white women much further below; men of colour near the bottom; and Indigenous women and other women of colour pushed to the lowest position.

That is how racism works: by setting up categories where some groups are superior to others. These two examples show us how institutions (in this case, the media) maintain racial hierarchies, and how people, in everyday conversation, reproduce these hierarchies.

The Myth About Women in Science? Bias in the Study of Gender Inequality in STEM

The Myth About Women in Science? Bias in the Study of Gender Inequality in STEMA new article on CNN by psychology professors, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, boldly proclaims that gender bias in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is a myth. Their research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Unfortunately, their work has a flawed methodological premise and their conclusions do not match their study design. This is not the first time these researchers have whipped up false controversy by decrying the end of sexism in science.

Williams and Ceci write on CNN:

Many female graduate students worry that hiring bias is inevitable. A walk through the science departments of any college or university could convince us that the scarcity of female faculty (20% or less) in fields like engineering, computer science, physics, economics and mathematics must reflect sexism in hiring.

But the facts tell a different story…

Our results, coupled with actuarial data on real-world academic hiring showing a female advantage, suggest this is a propitious time for women beginning careers in academic science. The low numbers of women in math-based fields of science do not result from sexist hiring, but rather from women’s lower rates of choosing to enter math-based fields in the first place, due to sex differences in preferred careers and perhaps to lack of female role models and mentors.

While women may encounter sexism before and during graduate training and after becoming professors, the only sexism they face in the hiring process is bias in their favour.

Williams and Ceci’s data show that, amongst their sample, women and male faculty say they would not discriminate against a woman candidate for a tenure-track position at a university. Sounds great, right? The problem is the discrepancy between their study design, that elicits hypothetical responses to hypothetical candidates in a manner that is nothing like real-world hiring conditions, and the researchers’ conclusions, which is that this hypothetical setting dispels the “myth” that women are disadvantaged in academic hiring. The background to this problem of inequality is that this is not a myth at all: a plethora of robust empirical research already shows that, not only are there less women in STEM fields, but that women are less likely to be hired for STEM jobs, as well as promoted, remunerated and professionally recognised in every respect of academic life.

Continue reading The Myth About Women in Science? Bias in the Study of Gender Inequality in STEM

Motherhood Penalty in Academia

In late 2014, two sociologists were featured in the New York Times (NYT) talking about the “cultural bias against mothers” in the paid work force. Professor Michelle Budig’s research finds that high income men with kids enjoy the biggest career benefits while low-income women suffer as a result of having children. In part, this is because employers think that marriage and children makes men more stable, while women with children are stigmatised as being less reliable (employers see mothers as “flaky”). This stereotype goes back to the traditional male breadwinner model that arise during the Industrial Revolution, which became solidified in post-WWII period during the 1950s. People presume the model we know today has always existed but that’s not the case. Marketing and economic relations have made it seem as if married men are ideal workers, while women are supposedly made for care-giving. This is not the case, when we look to institutional barriers and employer biases.

Motherhood penalty
Motherhood penalty

Continue reading Motherhood Penalty in Academia

Transgender Women’s Experiences of Gender Inequality at Work

Sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman popularised the theory of “doing gender.” This theory sees that gender identity is something we do – it is a performance and an achievement that people put a lot of work into, rather than some innate biological state of being. People do gender by the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they move their bodies, the types of leisure activities they engage in their spare time, through their division of labour at home, at work and in every other context. Doing gender takes work: you need to learn what’s expected of you as a “man” or as a “woman.”

Early knowledge on doing gender comes from childhood socialisation. Subsequent life experiences teach us, often through trial and error, what the norms and expectations are for masculinity and femininity in different social settings, such as at work.

West and Zimmerman argued that, since gender is something we learn to do, and doing gender leads to inequality, it is possible to undo gender inequality, by doing gender in alternative ways that do not punish femininities. The doing/undoing of gender has been an ongoing focus of gender studies, most recently focused on transgender people. I will discuss recent scholarship about how transgender people do gender at work, with a focus on the experiences of transgender women. Social scientists are preoccupied with the idea that transgender people are in a special position to “undo” gender. I want to explore why viewing transgender experiences in this way contributes to the Othering of transgender people, by amplifying their difference as a solution to gender inequality. Society can absolutely undo gender, but part of this means addressing the inequalities transgender people experience. This is something that mainstream feminism has yet to fully embrace.

Transgender Women's Experiences of Gender Inequality
Transgender Women’s Experiences of Gender Inequality. Photo: Purple Sherbet, CC 2.0, via Flickr. Adapted by The Other Sociologist

Continue reading Transgender Women’s Experiences of Gender Inequality at Work

Sexist Derailment in Science

This is an archive of my article first published on Storify on 16 November 2014.

Let’s delve into an analysis of the arguments used to derail social media discussions on gender inequality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The context is two recent events: the New York Times article that claimed “Academic Science isn’t Sexist” and the Rosetta Mission (#ShirtStorm).

Being a woman in science, particularly being active on social media and speaking out about inequality, is very difficult, to say the least. We spend a lot of time not simply being “trolled” by uninformed members of the public who react to issues based on personal opinions, but we also spend a lot of energy arguing with colleagues about the basics of inequality.

Derailment is a set of argumentative positions that aim to shift the focus of a discussion from one topic, into another, unrelated issue. Derailment might be classified as a form of trolling. Trolling involves the “higher order intention” to “coerce” a speaker into an argument. Several sub-types of trolls have been identfied by researchers (for example, ranging from obsessive to malicious).  While some people may not recognise their behaviour as trolling, derailment has the same effect, as commenters disrupt important conversations about inquality by groups that do not have equal social power.

Derailment is especially deployed in discussions on social justice through a range of tactics, including:

  • making false equivalences about equality;
  • using subjective examples or personal opinions to dismiss documented evidence of discrmination;
  • resorting to biological determinism to deny social inequalities are problematic (e.g. “men are biologically superior to women”);
  • gaslighting minorities and White women, especially by calling into question emotional legitimacy and mental stability (“if you think this is a problem, you’re just a crazy woman”);
  • demanding additional evidence to that already presented;
  • undermining professional credentials of minorities and White women when “debating” inequities;
  • blaming feminism and “political correctness” for identifying a problem;
  • normalising inequality as being inevitable, or somehow less pertinent due to previous patterns of inequality (“things are better today than in the 1950s”).

Below are examples of how these derailment tactics play out in science discussions about sexism. Continue reading Sexist Derailment in Science

Science Fellowships and Institutional Gender Bias in STEM

You may have read in late September that the ratio of women receiving Royal Society funding has “plummeted from one in three in 2010 to one in 20 this year.”  While the Society also awards the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships to early career women researchers, this award exists to boost women’s participation in science, not to augment or mask the issues in the Society’s mainstream Fellowship program.

The Royal Society was silent for a couple of days after its list of fellows list was made public, despite a large outcry by the scientific community on social media and opinion columns in the media. The Society President, Sir Paul Nurse, finally announced an investigation a couple of days after the fact. The question is: why did the Society wait until it was made public to assess their program?

I want to stress that while I’m using the Royal Academy’s Fellowship outcomes as a case study, the issue I am illustrating is the reactionary treatment of gender bias in all fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The point here is to tease out institutional patterns and to make the case that institutional approaches are needed to address gender inequality. While this point may seem obvious, the fact is that inequality in science, as with other spheres of social life, is still treated as a surprise. This is because, on the whole, organisations (and society in general) remains reactionary to addressing gender inequality. Diversity is an afterthought, when it should be a proactive and ongoing project at the organisational and societal levels.

This is the first in a series of articles I’m writing on why the scientific community, inclusive of various disciplines, needs to re-examine its position on the problem of inequality in STEM. The picture I am building up is one of methodological rigour and interdisciplinary collaboration in order to better work towards gender inclusion.

Science Fellowships and Institutional Bias
Science Fellowships and Institutional Bias in STEM

Continue reading Science Fellowships and Institutional Gender Bias in STEM

Increasing Women’s Participation at Academic Conferences

A new study by James Davenport finds that men are more likely to ask questions during conference presentations especially when a man chairs the session. Davenport and a group of volunteers collected data for 225 astronomy talks at the AAAS American Astronomical Society conference. Seventy-eight of these presentations were by women speakers (34.7%) and 147 (65.3%) were by male speakers. A total of 634 questions were recorded during these talks, with only a quarter of the questions asked by women (153 questions) and almost 76% of questions asked by men. Continue reading Increasing Women’s Participation at Academic Conferences