Category Archives: Science

Nobel Laureate Professor’s Comments Highlight Sexism in the Sciences

sexismTim Hunt, a biochemist from University College London, recently resigned following controversial statements he made at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. Hunt was quoted as saying “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls… Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”

After a backlash in the Science community, Hunt offered the following apology: “I’m really sorry I said what I said. It was a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists… What was intended is a light-hearted ironic comment. Apparently it was interpreted deadly seriously by my audience… I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing but getting at the truth.”

Unfortunately for Hunt, this apology was not enough and he resigned days later. A recent article in The Atlantic highlights why Hunt’s statement is so problematic. Most notably, he perpetuates unfair stereotypes about women in STEM fields that have persisted for decades. As the article notes, women are continually paid less for the same jobs as men in Science fields. Additionally, women face an exorbitant amount of sexual harassment in their fields, as well. Thus, Hunt’s statements gesture toward wider biases and systemic issues that need to be solved if women are to close this gap. It is up to education to help further the publicity of this issue and allow for women to advance properly in STEM field on the whole.

The Need to Increase Gender Diversity in IT

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A recent study published by Catherine Ashcroft and Wendy DuBow from the National Center for Women & Information Technology suggests ways for men to get involved in fighting gender inequality within both the technology field and workplace.

The authors suggest that men’s advocacy is necessary to promote gender diversity in technology because diversity is not just an issue for women but a business and human issue. The authors note that gender diversity allows for more creative and interesting business solutions, especially within the technology field. When men recognize that they have a stake in this issue, it becomes clear that change needs to be made. Moreover, because men hold more formal and informal positions of power in technology than women, they have more potential to influence systemic changes within the field.

The authors next suggest what men should and could be advocating for in these spaces. They argue that men can help change the work environment (and not, for instance “change” the women). Second, men need to speak up when they know of a woman who deserves a promotion or recognition when they are not receiving it in addition to working towards necessary systemic changes more generally. Further, men need to “Listen, Don’t assume that all women want a part in diversity efforts, and reframe negative reactions as valuable opportunities for developing empathy.”

For more information on the ways men can be advocates, visit here. In addition, see this link for ideas in which workplaces can better serve gender diversity.

The international perspective on STEM

 

Plenty of studies and arguments have been presented that tell us that it is neither good for society nor the economy when women and girls are not working in STEM fields. Based on UN data, Chelsea and Hillary Clinton’s No Ceiling project offers a summary of how STEM plays out not only in the United States but also how it compares internationally.

Worldwide, the percentage of graduates with a bachelor’s degree in science who are women range from 25% in the Netherlands to almost 50% in Argentina. The United States is in between, with 41 percent. The article highlights that worldwide only 20 percent of computer scientists are women. That is, women and girls miss out on working in one of the fastest growing and highest paying fields.

While girls start out strongly in school regarding math and science skills, confidence and interest fade when they reach secondary school levels, as the article details.

Hence, it is especially important to keep girls engaged in computer science with fun projects and encourage them to consider tech jobs as lucrative careers. Our free Wikid GRRLs curriculum works to keep middle and early high school girls engaged in the process of learning online skills and to consider a job on the back side of computing. We build confidence and remind girls at this particular time in their lives that a career involving technology is a viable option.

We are working to bring our free 10-week afters school program in Detroit Public Schools. If you are interested in working with Wikid GRRLs, e-mail Dr. Stine Eckert at stine.eckert@wayne.edu.

Barbie struggling as computer engineer? A sad story that luckily can be fixed

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It is sad, very sad indeed, when a book that is supposed to empower girls sends the opposite message. In its series of Barbie: I Can Be… Mattel hit another low in portraying Barbie as too dumb to handle computers. In Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer, as reported on Daily Dot, she manages to infect her laptop with a virus, tells readers that she needs her guy friends to do the coding for her computer game, and needs little sister Skipper to reboot her computer. Little sister Skipper in turn is not able to back up her files.

It’s difficult to understand how such narratives can still pop up given the gender gaps in STEM fields, including computer science. These gaps have become pretty common knowledge. Just recently, NPR’s Planet Money detailed the increase in women in computer science to 35 percent in 1985 to then steeply drop to just 17 percent in 2014 because of a complex entanglement of factors. Another example is Stanford University President Hennessy who recently argued for getting more women working in technology.

As slow as Mattel is on catching up on the trend of properly empowering messages for girls, as quick are women to fix such disturbing sexist narratives. Miranda Parker, computer education specialist, and Casey Fiesler, doctoral student in human-centered computing, inserted the right, feminist messages into the pink dolls’ mouths: “You can like pink and be a really good computer programmer.” The fixed book is available as a PDF for free.

Our Wikid GRRLs project and Wayne State University’s Go GIRL project send the right messages: girls can code, girls can do sciences, study and work in STEM fields, can run wikis, can contribute to knowledge online, can confidently express themselves and their concerns publicly online.

If your school, library, or community center is interested in using our Wikid GRRLs curriculum to teach middle school and early high school girls online skills for knowledge projects, e-mail wikidgrrls@gmail.com

A big shout out to Dr. Sally Roberts at the @WSUGoGirls project and Dr. Monica Brockmeyer, co-founder of the Go Girl and associate provost of student success at Wayne State University, for bringing these stories to our attention. 

When women stopped coding…

Imagine, a time existed in which women did code in much higher numbers than we see currently. What happened to them? Why did the numbers go down in the early 1980s as the graph shows?

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An informative NPR Planet Money podcast gives you the full story to explain some of the complex factors that reversed a once increasing trend in women coders. Listen in to learn more about the pioneers of computers science — women, and what changed the path of women in computing.

Wikipedia, sports and the gender gap

Guest post by Laura Hale

I write about women’s sport on English Wikipedia.  Unlike scientists, artists, and other professional women, the media have paid little attention to how Wikipedia treats female athletes.  The problem is particularly acute in terms of article naming and categorization because English Wikipedia has this tendency to treat sportspeople as men by default, with women being treated as inherently inferior.  The best example of this is the national team naming structure, which almost always has the genderless national team article about men, and the gendered article name about women.  This occurs despite the fact that by rule almost all of these sports are segregated by gender.  If you’re a female sportsperson, that sends a horrifying message.

This pattern is often repeated when it comes to categories.  Men are not categorized by gender, while women are systematically categorized by gender.  Or when a male and female category exists, the men stay in the main category and the women are moved out.  The worst I’ve ever seen was when all the women were systematically moved out of “softball players” and into “female softball players”, leaving only articles about men.  This happened despite the fact that softball has historically been a women’s game.  Again, the message is that women are supposedly inferior and not equal to their male counterparts. This default language part is particularly troubling because it creates barriers.  Despite the verifiability of the fact that sport is segregated by gender and what seems to be an inherently neutral position of gender specifying the teams, the argument on Wikipedia amounts to the fact that men’s teams are inherently more notable, and are thus primary topics.  Neutrality, being specific, following verifiability should be secondary to serving the reader’s interest in finding the most notable team without gender in play.

I’ve seen a fair amount of work discussing the differences between male and female artists and scientists, but none on national teams.  The Wikipedia content for the most popular sports is better for men, has more sources, has more pictures, on average is longer in length, and is created sooner than for articles about female members of national teams.

This situation is particularly appalling given the important role of exercise and participation in sport when it comes to women’s health.  At the same time, women’s participation in sports and sports governance are often reflective of broader societal treatment of women that may not be as publicly visible elsewhere.  Think about the story of the Saudi Arabian women being excluded from the Olympic team and the fatwas issued to prevent women from playing soccer in several countries in Africa.  The portrayal on Wikipedia of women’s participation in sports is systematically marginalized in a way that it violates the “neutral point of view”, one of the five pillars for editing on Wikipedia. This is not good for Wikipedia, and broadly speaking, it is not good for women’s health issues globally.

It also discourages women from editing in sports topics because the sexism is so built into the system. Women get actively discouraged from participating and are being attacked for questioning the assumption that the default is male and should remain male because of the false premise that men’s sport is inherently superior. That’s not the sort of positive messaging that will get women contributing to articles about elite women in sports.

Further, issues on Wikipedia regarding women in sports appear to mirror problems faced by media and sports in general. This includes participation levels both at the athlete and administrator level.  There has recently been a large discussion about media coverage of women in sports and the treatment of female sports journalists.

This is really, really problematic for sports and a situation not necessarily true in other domains. Scientists are not by rule segregated by gender in doing their work and in who they compete against.  The same is true for popular culture topics, academia, art and other domains that have historically been the focus of gender gap work.  Hence, on some level this feels worse than other forms of discrimination at the heart of categorygate (during which women novelists were moved out of the American novelists category} and few people seem to talk about it.  My supposition would be that this is because of the people attracted to writing about the gender gap focus on areas of interest, which can play along feminist lines, and sports does not fit into that mold.

This is an area where I feel particularly passionate about because I feel it has largely been neglected in the gender gap narrative.  That’s sad because I think sports public profile for bringing attention to women’s issue is huge.  The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are starting on February 7 and we’re going to hear all these stories about strong, capable women who are the best at what they do in the world.  Rarely does that happen on a global level where you hear so many stories about so many women.  And the cultural implications for women’s involvement or lack of involvement in sport should be there.  I’ve talked to a number of sportswomen and having a Wikipedia article is seen as a clear sign that they’ve made it. Validating our best is good, because it encourages more of them.

Laura Hale is a Ph.D. student at the University of Canberra, who is studying sport and social media. As a Wikipedian, she has created over 1,200 articles with over 40 percent of them about women.  She has served as a Wikipedian in Residence for the Australian Paralympic Committee and the Spanish Paralympic Committee.  She is also active in a leadership role in the Wikimedia movement, having served as the vice president of Wikimedia Australia, and the provisional chairperson of The Wikinewsie Group.

Internet Skills and Wikipedia’s Gender Inequality

with Eszter Hargittai and Aaron Shaw
January 21, 2014 at 12:30PM
Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard
Link to event page

The luncheon at the Berkman Center.

The luncheon at the Berkman Center.

I was excited to find out in a tweet from Stine yesterday that this event would be taking place in Cambridge, just as I happen to be here a few more days. I registered hastily, emailed Eszter Hargittai to let her know I’d be there and what our project is about, and today I made my way shyly to 23 Everett St, a cute typical Cambridge yellow house with carpet-covered stairs leading up to the Berkman Center, home to quirky door signs and funky looking internet researchers. The room where the luncheon was to take place filled up very quickly with people who all seemed to know each other if not from current then past co-operation, and I wondered, clutching my dozen sheets of WikidGrrls propaganda in one hand and my Twitter-ready phone in the other, what will I say if I have the chance to speak for 20 seconds about WikidGRRLs? Here’s what I came up with:

Last January a few colleagues and I were awarded a 15k seed grant from the Future of Information Alliance at the University of Maryland. We were given the opportunity to put the scholarship about Wikipedia’s gender gap to practical use in the real world: i.e., a chance to see where this gap is formed and if this gap could be fixed by an intervention in middle school education. We were dispatched to four local schools (mostly in Prince George’s County, Maryland) were each one of us taught a group of about ten girls for ten weeks. We introduced them to the Internet as a tool for creating and sharing knowledge, specifically using a wiki site. We found that although teens are quite comfortable with the Internet as a place for seeking out information and connecting with friends, they barely knew how to “use” it to produce, transform, edit and share information, knowledge and/or experience for the benefit of others. One thing that especially struck me when I asked the girls why they think girls contribute so disproportionately little to Wikipedia compared to boys, one of them answered: because we have better things to do, like taking care of our families.

Well, I never got to say precisely that, but I did speak up twice to ask questions and to introduce our work, and I did circulate our propaganda around the table. But enough of this subjective banter – what was the talk about? I would direct you first and foremost to Nate Mathias‘ fantastic summary of the whole thing, which includes a very neat Prezi made by Willow Brugh, and all the links you need to find out more. Here are a few notes of my own to top it off:


Wikipedia is obviously important as an everyday source of information to millions of people: it is one of the five most visited websites on the whole web. More interestingly, it is an amazing mine of “volunteer labor” it is estimated that 41 million hours of free work have been put into its creation. However, the disheartening aspect of this creation is that women make up only 16% of global editors, and 23% of US adult editors, a statistic that the Wikimedia foundation has been struggling with and trying to counter for a number of years.

Eszter Hargittai from Northwestern University explained that her longitudinal data of hundreds of college students is beneficial because it lets her show that internet skills do not improve vastly over time but stay relatively the same. In each of the three waves of data collection, she and her students used pencil and paper surveys, which I found very interesting: it was to avoid biasing the responses towards those who are internet savvy and active. The data were collected between 2009 and 2012 and the population was diverse, with around 40% Whites, 20% Hispanics and 20% Asian Americans. 61% of the respondents were female. Eszter noted that the sample was pretty much representative of this age group in the US, as 48% of her respondents graduated from college, which is close to the national average.

The survey measured basic variables pertaining to internet use, such as number of use years, number of access locations (a.k.a. autonomy of use), weekly hours spent online, and evaluated respondents using an internet skill index (scale developed by Eszter). It also contained Wikipedia specific measures: confidence in editing WP, school assignment to edit WP, etc. The results were rather disappointing in terms of the prevalence of contribution to Wikipedia: of all the respondents,

Read an entry: 99%
Edited a mistake: 25%
Edited by adding: 18%
Started a new entry: 9%
Added an image: 10%
Contributed in any way: 27.6%

When it came to the talk’s topic, ie. the gender gap, it turned out that men are much more likely (about 2-3 times) to report having contributed. However, the researchers noted that having the assignment in school does level the playing field both between races and between levels of parents’ education. Hopeful in terms of possible interventions…such as WikidGRRLs! This is confirmed by the following graphic:

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The gender difference in contributions is slightly reduced when assignments are given in school to edit Wikipedia.

Aaron Shaw, who also works at Northwestern and like Hargittai was a fellow at the Berkman Center, said that the only things that are statistically significant in explaining the differences between those who edit and those who don’t are gender, internet skills, and whether or not you were assigned in school to edit Wikipedia.

The most discouraging conclusion drawn from their model was that as skills were higher, the disparity between men and women in terms of probability to edit was ever greater. Indeed, look at this graphic:

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The “Male” curve is the top one.

As you move out along the skills variable, the women in the sample remain relatively unlikely to edit. Men on the contrary become increasingly more likely to be editors than women (50% vs 30%). In conclusion, women are less likely to have high skills and even at high skills they are less likely to edit Wikipedia than men. Interestingly, even controlling for socio-economic status does not reduce the effect of gender on disparity of internet skills: men’s internet skills are more spread out than women’s, but their mean is higher.

Takeaways from this talk:

  • The gender gap really matters among the higher skilled users.
  • Skills really matter. People with low skills just don’t contribute.
  • Skills have long term effects in terms of the behavior that people engage in.
  • It seems that “confidence in editing” doesn’t predict who edits.

Questions for future research:

  • Why aren’t skilled women more likely to contribute?
  • How can Wikipedia (the world’s largest free knowledge resource) address these barriers to entry for low skills internet users in general?

YouTube video from this talk (yours truly tries to sell WikidGRRLs at 54:51):

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