Posted tagged ‘Gender Discrimination’

Women in Science Communication: Two Lows and One High

October 15, 2013

I’ve been spending (too much of) my day thinking and talking/tweeting with colleagues about a couple of the pathologies that have recently reasserted themselves in the popular science communication arena.  One incident was the grotesque case in which Scientific American blogger the Urban Scientist, Danielle Lee, was called a whore for the sin of inquiring whether or not someone asking her to write stuff might actually pay for her work.  Compounding that outrage, Scientific American took down Lee’s post describing this incident for a couple of days amidst murky attempts at justification.  The original guy’s been fired from his company, I’m happy to say, and Scientific American’s leadership has made some effort to right the ship.   I may/probably will have more to say about that whole story in a little bit.  (Elon posted on this, btw.)

Then, last night, I learned of playwright and writer Monica Byrne’s post on an encounter  with the editor of Scientific American’s blog network, Bora Zivkovic, that amounted (in my view, recalling that IANAL) to sexual harassment.*   I know and have great affection for Zivkovic, which has slowed my reaction to this news (I’ve also published a couple of guest posts at Scientific American under his editorship).  But there’s no doubt either about the truth of Byrne’s account — Zivkovic has confirmed it — nor about the deeper and broader reality it reminds us exists out there.  Gender discrimination and harassment is not simply about the big obvious shit.  It’s a daily burden, driven by the fact that women in America have to be always on at least yellow alert, even in spaces and circumstances that should be/appear-to-even-well-meaning-men to be totally safe.  I’ll try to come up with something a little more thoughtful and in depth on this one too, but for now I’ll leave it at that.

I’ll add that I hope to have my thoughts in order by Wednesday, October 23, when I’ll be doing my monthly host gig at Virtually Speaking Science.  My guest will be Eileen Pollack, professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan, one  of the first women to earn a BA in physics from Yale, and the author of this New York Times Magazine piece asking why there are still so few women in science.  It’ll be at an unusual time for the show — 3 p.m. ET — but it’ll be podcast too, and I hope you’ll check it out.  We’ll have a lot to talk about.

But none of that’s what prompted me to post right now.  Rather it was my chance encounter with a right proper reclamation of the place and priority of one of the great women scientists of the 20th century, Rosalind Franklin — who happens to be a rather loosely construed family connection of mine. (Franklin was my mother’s cousin’s husband’s aunt.  My English relatives form kind of a clan and we count folks like that as kin.  Call ’em all cousins and let someone else sort  them out.)  Especially at the end of a day dealing with the recognition that my particular community is no more immune to inequity and more than any other, watching the video below offered a moment of take-that joy.

So sit back, hit play, and enjoy the new wave of science communication.  Franklin, resurrected, represents:

*To be precise.  The post was a year old.  Byrnes updated it last night to identify Zivkovic by name, a decision triggered, she wrote, on reading of Danielle Lee’s troubles at Scientific American.

Unclear on the Concept

June 3, 2012

From today’s Times story on gender discrimination in Silicon Valley:

“If you believe every allegation in the complaint, it’s appalling and an important window into how the valley works,” Mr. [David A.] Kaplan said. “But I’m somewhat skeptical. The clichés you hear in the valley are about the pranks, the obsessiveness, the Foosball tables. You don’t really hear about randiness and mistreatment of women. That doesn’t prove it’s not there, but that’s not the lore.” [Emphasis added]

Uh, Mr. Kaplan.  You might want to think on that.

Let me help.

Consider this analogy:. Let’s say there’s a cult of cannibal WASPs in San Francisco who decide that they need to eat actual human body parts to fully take part in communion. (Why yes, I am rereading my Armistead Maupin.  Why do you ask?)

Do you reckon that fact will become part of the lore at Grace Cathedral?

I think not.  The first rule of Fight Club and all that.

Out of the realm of fiction,  the reality of embedded discrimination is that it does not form part of the “lore.”  It’s in the water, the air, so pervasively integrated into the daily life of whatever community in which it is embedded that no one need and very few recognize its existence — at least among those on the winning side.  How many white southerners in 1950 perceived the daily reality of their lives to be one that benefitted from the systematic oppression of their African-American neighbors?  Some, but it wasn’t part of the lore; it was just an unexceptionable fact.

So too with gender.  Example close to home:  until the 1999 report on  Women Faculty in the School Science at MIT, male faculty and leadership at the Institute were not in general aware of the conditions under which their female colleagues worked.  Here’s then-MIT President Charles Vest, introducing the report:

First, I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance. Second, I, like most of my male colleagues, believe that we are highly supportive of our junior women faculty members. This also is true. They generally are content and well supported in many, though not all dimensions. However, I sat bolt upright in my chair when a senior woman, who has felt unfairly treated for some time, said “I also felt very positive when I was young.”

Thus, when David Kaplan– in all sincerity, I’m sure — suggests that a charge of sexual harassment is implausible because the Valley’s oral tradition does not speak of it, the best response I can give is:

Dude, please.  Listen to yourself.*

*BTW — to belabor what should be obvious.  Just because someone makes a clueless statement like Kaplan’s, it does not follow that the specific charges in the Pao-Kleiner, Perkins dispute are true.


Image: Thomas Eakins, Study for Taking the Count, 1898.