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

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.

Continue reading Addressing Sexism in Scientific Publishing

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

Women and Girls on Film: “Inequality is Rampant”

Storify is closing and over the coming weeks, I will be migrating my posts to my blog. This is an archive of my article first published on Storify on 24 September 2014. 

In September 2014, the United Nations, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and The Rockefeller Foundation published a study on the representation of cisgender people on film. Here I report on the major findings and include some of my related social media posts.

The study conducted by Dr Stacy Smith, Marc Choueiti and Dr Katherine Pieper included 120 globally released movies in 11 major film regions: Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, United States, and the United Kingdom. The study included almost 5,800 speaking or named characters. The researchers find that, globally, only 31% of speaking roles in films are given to women and less than a quarter of films are centred on a woman protagonist (23%).

The study finds that girls and women are slightly better represented in the UK (38% of speaking roles), Brazil (37%) and Korea (36%). Women and girls’ representation in Germany (35%) and China (35%) is relatively worse, but gender inequality is even more entrenched in India (25%) and the USA and U.K. (24%). This is especially alarming since Hollywood is the biggest exporter of films globally and they are clearly leading in the wrong direction.

Only 28 films in the sample (23%) feature a woman or girl in the lead role or otherwise sharing the story with another main character. The study also considers the gender balance of film casts (where 45 to 55% of characters are women or girls). Only 12 films met this criteria (10%). When women characters are featured in the main storyline, they appear in highly femininised genres. For example: women feature in 33% of comedy roles; 34% of dramas; and 29% of animated movies, but they make up only made up 23% of characters in action/adventure films.

The study included 1,452 film makers and people working in key roles behind the scenes. Women make up only 7% of directors, less than 20% of writers, and 23% of producers. The UK (27%) and China (17%) are comparably better, while France, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the USA are below the industry average of 7%.

Around 60% of younger characters (children and teenagers) are boys while 40% are girls. While 34% of men are cast as characters aged 40 to 64 years of age, only 19% of women are depicted as middle aged characters. The researchers find this is especially problematic given that the younger women who do appear in films are highly sexualised.

Women are more than twice as likely to wear sexually revealing clothing (25% of women vs 9% of men). Women are more likely to be thin (38.5%) in comparison to men (16%). Women are also more likely to be partially or fully naked (24% women vs 11.5% of men). Women characters are also five times more likely to have their looks commented upon by others (13% vs less than 3%). Younger women are more likely to wear revealing clothing, but women across the ages of 13 to 39 years are equally likely to be sexualised.

Women & Girls on Film

Continue reading Women and Girls on Film: “Inequality is Rampant”

Megan Smith: STEM Woman in the White House

You may have heard that Megan Smith former Vice President of GoogleX is now the Chief Technology Officer for The White House. Smith has both a Bachelor and a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, she serves on the MIT Board, and she is also a successful entrepreneur. She has an outstanding commitment to gender diversity and she is one of the few big-name leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) who is visible in her work with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) communities. Smith was formerly the CEO of PlanetOut, an online LGBT organisation. Let’s take a look at Smith’s amazing credentials and her work on women in STEM and LGBTQ advocacy.

The Tech industry needs us badly. - Megan Smith
The diversity of all of the millions of us, the technical women, the computer science women, is broad. This industry and this planet needs us badly. – Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer, USA

Continue reading Megan Smith: STEM Woman in the White House

Taylor Swift Having Fun With White Privilege: Racism and Sexism in Pop Culture

While people rush to defend Taylor Swift’s racist appropriation of Black female bodies in her latest video, Shake it Off, because it’s presented as “fun,” it’s worth remembering that “satire” is no excuse for whitewashing of racism. First, satire requires cultural context to be clever; it matters who is delivering the joke to whom, when, and for what purpose. Second, racism is not simply about interpersonal insults. Racism describes a system of domination where White people benefit directly and indirectly from the status quo.

Taylor Swift has positioned herself publicly as a feminist, though her enactment of these ideals was already not without problems. This video shows she has little understanding of the history of feminism and the cultural struggles faced by women of colour. Not coincidentally, White feminism is still largely resistant to racial issues. As sociologist Jessie Daniels notes, it matters that White women are at the centre of both pop culture and the feminist movement:

White feminism, without attention to racial justice, makes an easy partnership with White supremacy.

From Miley Cyrus to Iggy Azalea who profit from brandishing certain aspects of Black culture, to Lily Allen who similarly used Black women in a video to critique White women pop stars, Swift has added her name to an ever-growing list of rich White women in pop music who use the exploitation of women of colour to make “feminist” statements. This stands in contrast, but along a similar continuum, of White pop stars such as Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne who commodify the culture and sexuality of “Asian” women. Asian femininity is sexy in a “cute,” clean and submissive way; while Black and Brown women’s sexuality is dangerous, dirty and untamed. Either way, White women’s cultural appropriation of minority cultures conforms to familiar tropes where White champions dominate the uncivilised Other.

The fact that White celebrities do not set out to be “intentionally racist” is beside the point. Racism does not require your intent, as racial bias often goes unexamined. In fact, the way Whiteness works is to place White people at the centre of culture so that they are protected from the everyday consequences of race relations. (And no, there is no such thing as reverse racism.) Not recognising how racism works, such as failing to understand how and why cultural appropriation and stereotypes are damaging, is an outcome of White privilege.

Taylor Swift Racism and Sexism
That racialised fear of black female hyper-sexuality also transfers onto the sexualised white female body and the criminalized black male body. – Prof. Janell Hobson.

Continue reading Taylor Swift Having Fun With White Privilege: Racism and Sexism in Pop Culture

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

Sexism on Wikipedia: Why the #YesAllWomen Edits Matter

#YesAllWomen
#YesAllWomen

The Wikipedia page for #YesAllWomen, a record of an anti-sexism online protest movement, is being edited to make it “less misandrist.” This Wiki page documents the Twitter hashtag that is being used internationally by women to share their experiences of sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination following the Isla Vista mass shooting in America. Some men are using this tag to listen and support women, but predictably, others are abusing it to hurt women and argue that the hashtag is “sexist against men.” The Wiki edits matter because Wikipedia has a massive problem with sexism. These edits reflect the very issues of gender violence, intimidation and power that the #YesAllWomen hashtag is trying to address. Continue reading Sexism on Wikipedia: Why the #YesAllWomen Edits Matter

Justice for Dr V: Journalism Ethics and Transphobia

Storify is closing down. This is an archive of my post, Justice for Dr V: Journalism Ethics and Transphobia. First published on 20 January 2014.

Dr V (Dr Essay Anne Vanderbilt) is a transgender woman who invented a golf club. Journalist Caleb Hannan outed Dr V’s transgender identity even though he understood she did not want this to be revealed. She consequently died by suicide. These are my tweets showcasing the best articles on this story. #JusticeForDrV.

Continue reading Justice for Dr V: Journalism Ethics and Transphobia