What is Sexism & How Does it Work in STEM?

This post covers the scientific and legal definitions of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. We include an overview of the different ways in which sexism is described, such as hostile, benevolent, accidental or unintentional. These qualifiers of sexism can sometimes confuse people, as they invite people to see sexism as an individual or subjective idea. Sexism is neither – it is about how the collective interactions that happen at the everyday level are connected to institutional practices of harassment and discrimination. We provide examples of how sexist culture operates in at various levels of STEM, from undergraduate courses to gender inequality in pay, science publishing and recognition of women’s achievements. STEM Women seeks to move beyond superficial arguments about what sexism is and isn’t. The scientific evidence, some of which is included here, has established that inequality exists. We are looking for practical solutions to address inequality and lift the participation of women in STEM.

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Recognising Sexism: Boobs to ‘Broteomics’

A few days ago, UC Davis Professor Jonathan Eisen raised a provocative question in his blog post, “Is Sexxing up your scientific journal okay? The Journal of Proteomics seems to think so.” He was referring to a graphical abstract published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, The Journal of Proteomics, depicting a woman holding up two coconuts against her presumably bare chest, linked to a paper titled “Harry Belafonte and the secret of the coconut milk proteome.”

Science: You're doing it wrong. When scientists use a provocative picture of a woman hoping to make people pay for article access, the marketing gimmick is sexism
Science: You’re doing it wrong. When scientists use a provocative picture of a woman hoping to make people pay for article access, the marketing gimmick is sexism

The scientific community responded, and there are many excellent summaries of the events that took place. Scientists established the fact that this Journal has engaged in this sexist behaviour multiple times, leading entomologist Alex Wild to satirise the publication’s title as the Journal of Broteomics.

This collective protest led to the graphical abstract eventually being removed. But this incident highlights a larger issue at hand. We want to take a broader perspective on the sexist culture within STEM, with a special focus on scientific publishing. This latest example from Journal of Proteomics raises two key issues: 1) Scientists do not have a clear understanding of what sexism is. As such, sexism is reduced to a subjective understanding, divorced from its legal definition and its accompanying institutional practice. 2) Science publishing needs to have in place better safeguards against sexism.

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STEM Women: How Men Can Help, with Dr Yonatan Zunger

Last week we had our second STEM Women Hangout, from the series How Men Can Help.

Our guest was Dr Yonatan Zunger who spoke to us about how leaders can work to be more inclusive of women in their teams. Yonatan is the chief architect of social at Google, and he is in charge of everything ‘social’ at the company. He has an academic background, with a PhD in string theory from Stanford University. He was kind enough to join our discussion as himself, and not in an official capacity representing Google. This is a topic he is very clearly passionate about, as you can see from the video below.

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Software Engineering Made a Woman Outta Me

By Jennifer Gilbert

This article was originally published on Medium, and is reposted here with permission from the author. 

Jennifer Gilbert
Jennifer Gilbert

When I decided to learn to code, I knew I was entering a male-dominated field. But I considered that challenge far less worrisome than, say, taming the black magic of recursion.

Yes, there would be sexist, disrespectful jerks. Of course there would.

But I’ve dealt with jerks before: I’m no stranger to their stomping grounds, also known as “sidewalks” and “grocery stores” and “schools” and “offices” and “every last form of public transportation.” You can tell that completely avoiding jerks isn’t a big goal for me because I don’t live in a hermit cave that I singlehandedly scraped out of the side of a mountain with a spoon, unwilling to let an amorous construction crew ruin my no-hitter.

Plus, my company, which I am sure you could identify without much trouble and whom I certainly do not seek to represent here in any official capacity, is a pretty great place for women to work: an internal organization dedicated to the career development of women, generous maternity leave, flexible scheduling, and waaay fewer leering creeps than your average train car. Train cars are like Jerk Church, aren’t they.

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STEM Women: How Men Can Help, with Professor Jonathan Eisen

Last week, STEM Women launched our YouTube Channel. We’ll be hosting a fortnightly Hangout on Air series that is live streamed every second Sunday. Our show will cover four major themes:

  • In the Spotlight: Highlights women’s careers in STEM;
  • STEM Parents: Advice on how to encourage young girls interested in studying STEM subjects;
  • Finding Solutions: Organisations & programs that actively target recruitment, retention & promotion of women; and
  • How Men Can Help: Practical ways that men can support gender inclusion from junior to senior levels.

Our first guest was Professor Jonathan Eisen who chatted about how male academics can help better recruit, retain, and include their women colleagues. Jonathan is a molecular biologist at University of California (UC) Davis. He’s also the Academic Editor-in-Chief for PLOS Biology. On his blog and social media, as well as through his professional activities, Jonathan is a passionate advocate of gender equality in STEM. Below is a summary of our discussion, centred on gender diversity and participation within academic conferences.

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The Value of STEM: Heroic Women Who Inspired My Social Science

Continuing our Role Models series, STEM Women team member and sociologist Dr Zuleyka Zevallos shares how her primary school teachers and a series of children’s books inspired her scientific imagination. Reading stories of heroic women who used education and science to improve social justice helped Zuleyka see that girls, including those from minority groups who are denied rights, can and do make a positive impact on society.

Zuleyka Zevallos, PhDThe story of why I became interested in STEM starts when I migrated to Australia from Peru. I hadn’t yet turned eight and I didn’t speak any English. Thankfully, as luck would have it, we were enrolled into a highly progressive multicultural school in the inner city of Melbourne. My teachers, Mrs Rosa in Grade 3 and Miss Maria in Grade 4, worked hard to make non-English-speaking children like me feel included.

My teachers were amazing, celebrating every little task I mastered: from writing my first English sentence, to reading aloud to the class, to progressing through maths exercises. Our teachers took time to ensure that I did not get left behind. They also assigned us a tutor for extra English lessons for the first three months of school. They would look me in the eye and encourage me when I got the right answer, and I can remember once they stopped the class to announce that I has written a great short story. With small and large gestures, they imbued me with the courage and motivation to keep learning despite the language barrier. (more…)

The Secrets of Life: Why I Got Into STEM

As part of our Role Models series, our team are sharing their inspiration for becoming involved in STEM. In this post, STEM Women creator, Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, shares the creative inspiration for following her passion in molecular biology. Buddhini’s tale shows the importance of popular culture in igniting the scientific spark amongst young people.

Buddhini profileI was 13 years old when I first read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. I hadn’t seen the movie, so I had no preconceptions what to expect with the book. But it was enough to hook me. It wasn’t the dinosaurs that fascinated me, but rather the description of DNA, the sequencing machines, the cloning…I was entranced. Looking back, it’s rather ironic considering Michael Crichton was notoriously anti-science, and his characters are often very critical of scientists. Yet, it was my gateway into molecular biology and I knew that this was what I wanted to do someday.

A few years later, I borrowed my mom’s copy of The Double Helix by James Watson. Although at the time I was unaware of the sad story of Rosalind Franklin, I was still fascinated by the narrative of what things were like at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, the birthplace of molecular biology. From then I ravenously consumed books about science, ranging from Richard Dawkins to Thomas Kuhn; Stephen Hawking to Simon Singh. (more…)

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