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Join Virtually Speaking Science for a conversation about sexism in science and science journalism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Today at 5 P.M. Eastern/2 P.M. Pacific, I’ll be on Virtually Speaking Science with Maryn McKenna and Tom Levenson to discuss sexual harassment, gender bias, and related issues in the world of science, science journalism, and online science communication. Listen live online or, if you have other stuff to do in that bit of spacetime, you can check out the archived recording later. If you do the Second Life thing, you can join us there at the Exploratorium and text in questions for us.

Tom has a nice post with some background to orient our conversation.

Here, I’m going to give you a few links that give you a taste of what I’ve been thinking about in preparation for this conversation, and then I’ll say a little about what I hope will come out of the conversation.

Geek Feminism Wiki Timeline of incidents from 2013 (includes tech and science blogosphere)

Danielle Lee’s story about the “urban whore” incident and Scientific American’s response to it.

Kate Clancy’s post on how Danielle Lee’s story and the revelations about former Scientific American blog editor Bora Zivkovic are connected to the rape-y Einstein bobble head video incident (with useful discussion of productive strategies for community response)

Andrew David Thaler’s post “On being an ally and being called out on your privilege”

A post I wrote with a link to research on implicit gender bias among science faculty at universities, wherein I point out that the empirical findings have some ethical implications if we’re committed to reducing gender bias

A short film exploring the pipeline problem for women in chemistry, “A Chemical Imbalance” (Transcript)

The most recent of Zuska’s excellent posts on the pipeline problem, “Rethinking the Normality of Attrition”

As far as I’m concerned, the point of our conversation is not to say science, or science journalism, or online science communication, has a bigger problem with sexual harassment or sexism or gender disparities than other professional communities or than the broader societies from which members of these professional communities are drawn. The issue, as far as I can tell, is that these smaller communities reproduce these problems from the broader society — but, they don’t need to. Recognizing that the problem exists — that we think we have merit-driven institutions, or that we’re better at being objective than the average Jo(e), but that the evidence indicates we’re not — is a crucial step on the way to fixing it.

I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to talk about more than individual incidents of sexism or harassment in our discussion. The individual incidents matter, but they don’t emerge fully formed from the hearts, minds, mouths, and hands of evil-doers. They are reflections of cultural influences we’re soaking in, of systems we have built.

Among other things, this suggests to me that any real change will require thinking hard about how to change systems rather than keeping our focus at the level of individuals. Recognizing that it will take more than good intentions and individual efforts to overcome things like unconscious bias in human interactions in the professional sphere (including but not limited to hiring decisions) would be a huge step forward.

Such progress will surely be hard, but I don’t think it’s impossible, and I suspect the effort would be worth it.

If you can, do listen (and watch). I’ll be sure to link the archived broadcast once that link is available.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rkipling 12:53 pm 12/19/2013

    I listened to the first hour or so of your Virtually Speaking Science interview. I called in to ask a question, but got a call myself and had to leave before asking it.

    The two of you being interviewed obviously overcame bias directed at you. What advice do you give to younger women entering STEM professions that would help them do the same?

    I was struck by Ms. McKenna’s lament that her appearance might have influenced a male source to be more cooperative with her than with a more experienced male reporter. Did you get the impression that she was unaware of that advantage at the time? She did use the advantage. My expectation is that reporters use whatever leverage they have available.

    I have never felt threatened in the workplace or anywhere else so it is unlikely I could ever fully understand this issue. I have observed that appearance and personality matter in professional advancement. A true meritocracy may not exist. But I suppose it depends on what attributes are considered as meritorious, doesn’t it? Maybe it exists but the rules are different than we would hope?

    In industry making money for your company can be something of an equalizer. But it turns out that eclipsing everyone else in creating profits, which measurement is little influenced by bias, isn’t even the primary performance attribute for advancement at most companies. Still I wonder if academia, where direct measurement of contribution is more subjective, isn’t more susceptible to bias than industry?

    My solution was creation of a private company and hiring people to interact with customers. However unfair it may seem, trust that presentation influences sales volume.

    Link to this

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