Posted tagged ‘discrimination’

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Maryn McKenna and Janet Stemwedel edition

December 18, 2013

It’s the third Wed. of the month again (remarkable how that comes around), and I’ll once more be doing my internet radio thing on Virtually Speaking Science (a program within the Virtually Speaking empire that recently featured our own Richard Mayhew in conversation with Jay Ackroyd).

This evening at 5 p.m. ET/ 2 p.m./PT, I’ll be talking with Maryn McKenna and Janet Stemwedel about sexual harassment, gender discrimination and science writing.  (We’ll also be live in Second Life at the Exploratorium’s joint.  Come join the live studio audience if you’ve got that kind of virtual bent.)

Titian_-_Rape_of_Europa_-_Google_Art_Project

As many of you I’m sure know, it’s been a tumultuous couple of months in the science writing world. Since October, we’ve seen Dr. Danielle N. Lee, a researcher and blogger at ScientificAmerican.com get called an “urban whore” for the sin of politely declining to write for free — and then have her equally polite explanation why that’s not OK deleted on spurious pretences by a Scientific American editorial staff who thus, effectively silenced an African American woman trying to let the world know this sh*t still goes on — every damn day.  You can listen to Lee herself on all of this as part of the invaluable Story Collider series of tales of science and life.

In the wake of Lee’s story, first one woman, then two, then three reported incidents of sexual harassment by then-Scientific American blog editor and Science Online co-founder Bora Zivkovic.  Of particular note at this stage of events was the pattern of reactions to the news about Zivkovic, who was a cornerstone of the English-language science blogging world, widely known and liked.  By me too, btw.  Devoted fans of my Virtually Speaking Science gig — yes, all 6 of you, counting my cat — will recall that Bora was on the show last January.  He was kind to my fledgling blog as he was to many others, and the reserves of good will he engendered play a role in this story.  The concept of “community” was invoked to suggest that Zivkovic’s role in fostering community as an end in itself suggested some kind of amelioration or alternate context for the one incident on the table.  As more women came forward, that line of argument largely evaporated — but it set the context for the public debate that followed.

Moving forward, there was Rapey-Einstein-Curie-Bobblehead-gate.  I kid you not.  Joe Hanson, who writes the It’s OK To Be Smart blog for PBS digital posted a Thanksgiving video showing famous historical scientists (bobbleheads) gathered around the table.  Marie Curie was the only woman on hand, and the video ended up with Einstein assaulting Curie.  Oy.

What made that particular embarrassment worse that neither Hans0n nor PBS seemed to get quite what was wrong with the piece — as Kate Clancy* writes, Hanson apologized, but said he was trying to draw attention to the insufficient representation of women in science through the video.  PBS merely lauded Hanson and itself for  opening up “up an important, though difficult, debate” — as if the conversation about rape, discrimination or abuse of power was suddenly brought to our attention by this act of intellectual courage.

One of the most striking aspects of the whole last few months was the surprise gap.  Women in science writing were unhappy to hear of each insult and act of diminishment imposed on other women — but, at least as documented in that immaculate scientific assay, Twitter, they were utterly unsurprised by the pervasiveness of the phenomenon.  Men, those with some power and those pretty much without, mostly had a different reaction. They — and this certainly goes for me — had a collective “I had no idea that this happens to all of y’all” reaction.

Cole_Thomas_Expulsion_from_the_Garden_of_Eden_1828

But it does.  Crap gender behavior is a constant, it seems; at least every woman I’ve spoken to in the science writing world reports interactions ranging from the unnecessarily and workplace-inappropriate awkwardness to outright sucker-should-be-in-jail awfulness.  The data on women’s advancement through the ranks of power in both science itself and public science communication reflect both the leaky-pipe impact of such environments and the power of old-boy networks, even in this day and age.  See this and this and this for examples, with Janet Stemwedel’s post as context.

So we’ll be talking about all of this:  what happened to bring the issue of sexual harrassment and gender discrimination to the fore in the professional world of science communication; what it means on the ground for the craft — and hence, inter alia, for the goal of engaging the public in science and the use of scientific thinking for civic participation; and what can be done to address the systemic flaws that have enabled gender discrimination to persist, for all the (often quite spectacular) self-congratulation science communicators have allowed themselves in the very recent past.

As to my guests.  Maryn McKenna is a return visitor to the program, having joined me in April to talk antibiotic resistance and why we’re all doomed.  She’s one of the country’s leading public health journalists, who has spent the last several years diving into the problem of antibiotic overuse and the evolution of increasingly resistant microbes.  She’s also someone who has thought long and deeply about gender issues in our shared profession, and you can find some of her writing on the subject on her blog (variously linked above).

Janet Stemwedel is a professor of philosophy at San Jose State University who teaches the philosophy of science and its ethics, among other concerns.  She’s known on the web as Dr. Freeride, and she blogs about a wide range of issues of ethics and public responsibilty in science.  It’s both too horrible and necessarily inaccurate to say that someone is “the conscience” of a group, but Janet is nonetheless one of those to whom many of us turn when we want to talk through a question with rigor and humanity.

Should be a rich conversation this afternoon. Hope y’all can make it, or check out the podcast when it suits your schedule.

One more thing:  it should go without saying, but in case it doesn’t, there’s nothing unique about science journalism or public outreach.  Some of us in the business (almost exclusive the male sort) thought there was, that we had enlightened ourselves as a group past the broader social issues raised by ongoing gender crap.  This program is both a result of and an attempt to further disabusement of that notion — and, I hope, whatever I’ll learn from Janet and Maryn will also serve as a guide to navigating the same issues in settings beyond science writing.

IOW — this may all look like inside baseball for science writers.  It’s not.

*BTW — as I write this the news just came off embargo that Kate’s been named one of the journal Nature’s 10 — “Ten people who mattered this year,” recognized for her work in developing data to demonstrate the reality of sexual harassment and physical or sexual assault in research settings.

Images: Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1559-1562.

Thomas Cole, The Expulsion from Eden, 1828.

 

For A Good Time On The InterTubes: Women Scientists-in-Binders [Self Aggrandizement Alert]

October 17, 2012

Attention conservation notice (h/t Cosma Shalizi)This is a purely (well, hopefully not, actually) self-aggrandizing break from debate mastication.

I’m pretty sure this crowd knows by now that I host an internet radio show once a month (one of three hosts in the (almost) weekly slot) on science and its surrounding culture.  The strand is called Virtually Speaking Science, and it’s part of the expanding Virtually Speaking empire created by Jay Ackroyd, a commenter here and a front-pager over at Atrios’ place, Eschaton.

I’ll be doing another netcast this evening, October 17 at 5 p.m. EDT — and it’s going to be a good one, I think.

To get a sense of some of the issues to be discussed, what’s notable about this picture?

Well, lots, of course — and don’t even get me started on the bizarre proportions misproportion of the left arm and hand [vs. the right]..*

But you may notice a certain common attribute shared by the figures depicted here — which visible evidence of the historical reality of career paths in the sciences is something my guest, Professor Nancy Hopkins, has done as much to change as any single person in the American academy.

Hopkins, an MIT colleague is both a top flight biologist (her research has focused on development and cancer and she is particularly well known for her work on zebrafish as a model for basic questions in developmental biology) — and a real hero of the drive for gender equity at MIT and really, throughout the tier 1 research university world.  As often happens with top flight researchers, she is part of a lineage of scientific inquiry that provides a glimpse of the creation story (myth?) of molecular biology — as she was trained by Jim Watson and Mark Ptashne — and the Watson connection is rich in this context.

(Just as a bit of a spoiler, we’ll probably talk a bit about Rosalind Franklin, to whom I have a family connection.  When I first met Watson, I mentioned that bit of clan history, and he blanched just a bit.  I had thought it was because the mere mention of Franklin gave him something of a shock, but I found out a little later that my older brother had met Watson just a couple of weeks before — and had walked up to him saying almost exactly the same thing…so the man Peter Medawar called Lucky Jim must have felt that the Franklin family was stalking him…;)

Hopkins managed to advance the cause of gender equity in the 02139 zip code the MIT way — confronting real barriers to her own work, she found the handful of other women faculty in the sciences similarly constrained, and then went to central administration to get support for a study.  She and her colleagues then went out and did that radical thing, collecting actual data on measurable aspects of faculty research experience: how much space, when, what kinds of support and all that.  She  and her co-workers were able to demonstrate clear and significant discrimination, and to their and the Institute’s credit, central administration responded with real measures to address the issues raised.  A report published in 2011 documents the changes within MIT [PDF], and it notes both significant change and considerable room for further progress.

By the way — just to link up with another of my recent conversations, Hopkins and her colleagues lived and have now documented the same phenomenon Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about so powerfully in his piece Fear of a Black President.”  Women in science have had to fight through the “twice as good” demand and constraint for a long, long time — and to a greater extent than should still obtain in this century of the fruitbat, they still do.  That’s where Hopkin’s work is now taking her, as she documents how the playing field within and around the academy is still far from level.  We will talk about that work too.

Do tune in if you have a moment, and/or pick up the podcast  (either at Blog Talk Radio  or on iTunes) within a day or two.

Oh — by the way.  No binders were harmed in the making of this post.

*completely off topic, but I found W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn to be incredibly moving — and he has a wholly strange and wonderful discussion of this painting early in the text.

Image:  Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632.