Sociology of Gender and Diversity in Science

Over the past couple of months, I have been using sociology to show how everyday experiences of sexism and racism feed into the educational and career trajectories of women and minorities in various disciplines within Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Here I include summaries of my writing from recent times, which show how social policy can dramatically impact on women’s educational outcomes. I’ve also covered how childhood socialisation impacts on girls’ transition from school to university. Experiences in higher education are also gendered, that is, culture shapes how women and men think about what happens to them at university. We see this clearly in relationships with thesis supervisors and informal socialising, as well as in more formal processes in administration. I’ve also highlighted some progress in diversity, namely the appointment of a lesbian technology expert, Megan Smith, who now holds a key role with the American government. Despite this achievement, various controversies in STEM related to social media use by scientists, research on women and high profile science events signify that despite strides forward, women and minorities are still the targets of inequality and marginalisation.

Sociology for Gender and Diversity in Science

Gender Inequality in Education

Undoing Gender Inequality

In mid-August, I looked at how to tackle gender inequality in education. Australia’s Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne 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, as well as male-dominated fields. I argue that by taking a leaf out of Japan’s economic policies, Mr Pyne would see exactly why women are at the heart of their economic reform. Read more on my blog.

Nature versus Nurture: Girls and STEM and the Leaky PipelineIn September, along with my colleagues Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe and Professor Rajini Rao, who are both life science researchers, we addressed how early childhood education contributes to the issue of gender inequality in the sciences. Writing for Nature’s Soapbox Science, we discussed the scientific studies that debunk the myth that girls can’t do STEM. This myth is often presented as a biological argument – that girls’ brains aren’t “wired” to succeed in maths and sciences, or that their innate preference steers them away from STEM careers. We showed that education, media and culture affect girls’ success in STEM. Consistently, studies show that girls perform as well as boys in science and maths tests, but parental and teacher bias, as well as societal stereotypes, undermine girls’ confidence. The stereotype that White men make the best scientists first takes shape in Grade 2, and it becomes cemented by Grade 5 due to the way in which science is taught and represented in the media. Once young women enter university and the workplace, other institutional barriers make it difficult for them to progress in their careers. The sum effect of gender stereotypes is measured through stereotype threat, a physiological response that is triggered amongst girls and women (as well as other minorities), as they are constantly reminded that they are expected to fail in STEM. Learn how these stereotypes can be better addressed through institutional measures on Nature.

We explored the science behind stereotype threat in more detail with neuroscientist Professor Chad Forbes. In an interview with STEM Women, he told us the importance of understanding that brain studies show no differences in the cognitive abilities of girls, women and minorities, until stereotype threat is introduced. He showed that educators need to be aware how they are priming girls to fail due to their own biases, and what steps STEM fields can take to address the effects of stereotype threat.

Kitchen Effect - Inger MewburnIn another STEM Women interview, Dr Inger Mewburn discussed bureaucratic issues that women face in higher education. Mewburn is the Director of Research Training at the Australian National University, and she is also more widely known as The Thesis Whisperer, thanks to her popular and highly useful website helping Masters and PhD students. Mewburn’s research looks at the gendered problems that postgraduate students face in dealing with their supervisors and in navigating administrative processes. She finds that male students tend to receive a high degree of support from their supervisors that is not available to women. Men also find dealing with university systems less stressful than women. Conversely, because women have faced excessive problems throughout their educational journeys, they are more likely to struggle with tapping into the same informal networks of support. This ultimately disadvantages their pathway in academia. Mewburn calls this “the kitchen phenomenon.” This term links shows the importance of informal socialising events, where women academics are literally and metaphorically relegated to kitchen duties. As a result, they miss out on career networking opportunities. We also talked about the changing demands within the academic workforce, and how women academics might make better use of social media to better establish their careers.

Gender Diversity in Progress

Megan Smith: STEM Woman in the White HouseIn mid-September, I showed why it was significant that the second-ever Chief Technology Officer for The White House was both a woman and a lesbian who has worked on diversity in technology. Megan Smith has a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, she has worked as an entrepreneur and she is the former Vice President of Google’s special projects unit (GoogleX). Smith  has also worked with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) communities. Her appointment is significant because women in technology face a difficult and often hostile environments. Few women in Silicon Valley are appointed to high-level organisations, and the number of visible LGBTQ leaders in tech are even smaller. Find out more about Smith and why her new role can make a big difference to a new generation of women and LGBTQ workers in technology.

Several social media events these past couple of months have demonstrated that, despite the progress women have made in STEM fields, such as Smith’s appointment, women and minorities continue to be marginalised and excluded from science.

Sexism & Science in the Media

The K-Index: Gender Morality and Social Media Use by Scientists

In August, on The Other Sociologist, I discussed a highly controversial article by Professor of Chemistry, Neil Hall, who proposed a “satiric” measure of social media and science. His “model” (which was not scientifically derived) maps the popularity of scientists on Twitter versus their impact factor (the number of publications in prestigious academic journals). He calls this the “K-Index,” named after a woman celebrity, Kim Kardashian. Why Kardashian? This index is meant to show that social media is shallow and unworthy. Published in the renowned peer-reviewed journal Genome Biology, Hall argues that the scientists who are most popular on social media have a low impact factor (that is, they haven’t published much on high-tier academic journals). I show how his premise is both flawed and sexist, and ultimately undermines the excellent public science being done by junior academics, and women scientists, on social media. Hall has set up a false dichotomy which privileges the “old boys network” of academia, by venerating White male privilege, and belittling the work of junior academics who are committed to public outreach. Read more on my blog.

Science Fellowships and Institutional BiasIn early November I addressed the low ratio of women receiving Royal Society Fellowships. According to the Royal Society, funding of women has “plummeted from one in three in 2010 to one in 20 this year.” After a large public outcry by scientists around the world, the Royal Society released a statement saying they would investigate their program. I used this as a case study to tease out institutional patterns that disadvantage women. I showed that women encounter barriers throughout their careers which makes them less competitive in comparison to men, but beyond, I showed that the various stages of the application process are biased against women. Read more on my blog.

STEM Women Institutional barriersAround the same time, I addressed a controversial New York Times Op-Ed proclaiming that “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist.” The Op-Ed was written by two White American psychology professors, based on a study they co-authored with two other economists. I showed that the study’s methodology was highly flawed. The data did not match their conclusions, and the authors did not address how socio-economics and institutional dynamics impact on women’s outcomes in academia. For example, they find that, while there are more women graduating with degrees in STEM in comparison to the 1970s (especially in the life and social sciences), not many women are progressing through the tenure track. The authors say this is due to the individual choices that women make, such as accepting a “baby salary penalty.” They say women are choosing to be less “productive” than men so they can focus on their families. I show that these interpretations do not match the wealth of scientific studies demonstrating how institutional issues constrain women’s choices. I also argue it is highly problematic that the study does not look at the intersections of inequality in STEM along gender, race, class, sexuality, disability and other factors (also known as intersectionality).These gaps are further troubling, given that two of the authors are also editors of the journal in which the study is published. Moreover, a study headed by a White male tenured professor that does not look at institutional factors, and which serves White male privilege in academia, needs to be viewed with extreme caution. Find out why on STEM Women.

#ShirtStorm: Dear STEM men: More of you need to speak up about sexism. Actively help to challenge & change STEM culture.

Finally, over the past week, the world has been abuzz with news that the Rosetta spacecraft landed on a comet 500 million kilometres from Earth, in an attempt to collect vital data about the origins of our solar system. This momentous occasion has been marred by sexism in STEM. Rosetta Project scientist Matt Taylor chose to wear a shirt with semi-nude women, effectively telling the world and our next generation of STEM workers that sexism is still very much part of our professional culture. This incident has been dubbed #ShirtStorm on Twitter, with scientists from around the world addressing how this wardrobe choice reflects broader problems in science. Specifically, everyday actions, even when unintentional, have the effect of objectifying women and making them feel unwelcome. This event and others like it are connected to institutional sexism; that is, the organisational and policy barriers that women face throughout their education and careers. I addressed how male scientists can better support gender awareness and how professional science organisations can help address the exclusion of women. Read more on the Stem Women website.

Taylor has since apologised, but not before a barrage of abuse, including rape and death threats, were levelled at women scientists and writers who have spoken out on this issue. The fallout for women colleagues (including me) is ongoing. Some men refuse to accept that women’s concerns about sexism are legitimate. Given that much of my writing on Social Science Insights is focused on diversity, ethics and health in the workplace, I will be connecting issues of gender and diversity in STEM to professional wellbeing. Just as I’ve been writing about why work/life balance is a public health matter, I will argue that the inequalities and abuse faced women and minorities in STEM should be viewed through a similar public health perspective. More on this later!

To summarise and bring these various threads together, I will leave you with a poignant quote by the journalist Helen Lewis. The quote below, known as Lewis’s Law, addresses the importance of feminism to public discussions on inequality.

"Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism." - Helen Lewis, journalist
“Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” – Helen Lewis, journalist

More of My Articles on Gender & Diversity


Top image: thewomenmuseum, CC 2.0, via Flickr. Adapted by Zuleyka Zevallos


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