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?

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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.

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How to stop the sexual harassment of women in science: reboot the system

Zuleyka Zevallos, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published in The Conversation

How to Stop the Sexual Harassment of Women in ScienceThe culture in astronomy, and in science more broadly, needs a major reboot following revelations early this year of another case of harassment against women by a senior male academic.

The journal Science revealed earlier this month that the latest case involved Christian Ott, a professor of theoretical astrophysics at Caltech university, in the United States.

Frustrated that Ott was not fired and only placed on unpaid leave for a year, the two female students who raised the allegations took their story to the popular online news outlet Buzzfeed.

Also this month, US Congresswoman Jackie Speier raised the case of Professor Tim Slater, who had been investigated for various sexual harassment incidents that began after he was hired by the University of Arizona in August 2001. Slater went on to the University of Wyoming.

Slater spoke to the news website Mashable and said he had received sexual harassment training as an outcome of the investigation.

But Congresswoman Speier questioned why the investigation into Slater’s sexual harassment was sealed “while he went on with his career”, even though women who were victims lost years of study and career progress due to his conduct.
Continue reading How to stop the sexual harassment of women in science: reboot the system

Sexism Does not Justify Racism

TW: Rape. Today in White people justify racism: two examples of how sexism is used as racist scaremongering.

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, and also because women everywhere deserve to go to work without men objectifying them, regardless of their job or the stature of the person indulging gender inequity. It’s the second time Gayle has behaved this way to a woman journalist; in his homeland, feminist groups have called out his behaviour. This pattern is toxic. Gayle has been fined $10,000 for his comments. Good! This is an appropriate response; a better response would be to require that he additionally undertake gender equity training.

The Sydney Morning Herald, in their infinite wisdom, decided to publish a racist response from a White man, sports writer Malcolm Knox, which 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 mean that White people get to be racist to teach Black men a lesson. 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. Continue reading Sexism Does not Justify Racism

Addressing Sexism in Scientific Publishing

Sexism in Scientific PublishingBarely a few days have passed since the last gender bias in science crisis, and the scientific community is already dealing with yet another high-profile example of gender discrimination. This time, the issue is with sexism in science publishing.

Dr Fiona Ingleby, a postdoctoral researcher in evolutionary biology from the University of Sussex, took to Twitter to express her frustration over sexist comments by a reviewer from a journal by PLOS ONE, an open access publishing network. Dr Ingleby and her colleague, evolutionary biologist Dr Megan Head from the Australian National University, are both women. They had submitted a manuscript based on their research on gender differences amongst students moving from PhDs to postdoctoral roles. The reviewer rejected their manuscript on the basis of the researchers’ gender, suggesting the data would be more fit for publication if they included a male author. In other words, the science of gender bias can only be “objective” if a man is involved. I’ve previously noted that women’s research on gender bias in science is often rejected by men, who, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, will argue that gender bias either does not exist, or if it does, it is is skewed in women’s favour.

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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

Sociology of Gender Bias in Science

A new study by Dr Corinne Moss-Racusin and colleagues has analysed the public’s comments in response to a prominent study on gender bias in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The researchers find that men are more likely to post negative comments in response to scientific findings about sexism in STEM careers. To provide a flipside illustration, I share some examples of what it is like to be a woman moderator of a large, international science community on Google+. This case study will illustrate the recurring arguments used to invalidate the science on inequality in STEM. These arguments are focused on biological (mis)understandings of gender; stereotypes of what motivates men and women; and a desire to police the boundaries of science. Denying that sexism exists is a common tactic to invalidating the science on gender bias in science, and attacking the social sciences is concurrently used to discredit findings on inequality, as well as support the idea that inequality does not exist in STEM.

Sociology of Gender Bias in Science
Sociology of Gender Bias in Science. Photos: Texas A&M University-Commerce, CC 2.0

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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

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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

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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

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