WCS presents: Women in STEM lunches 

WCS-UW is kicking off a new event this year that we’re really excited about! Every week we plan to host a casual discussion on a wide variety of Women in STEM topics. Your hosts, Heidi and I, plan on covering anything from how the scientific community is responding to the latest uproar to the newest research on gender biases in STEM, and everything in between. We’re meeting on Thursdays from 12:00-1:30 in CHB 339. Don’t worry if you miss some weeks, we’ll be updating this blog with summaries of the articles and our reactions to them.

Finally, let’s talk about sexism in science

By: Teresa Swanson

It’s no secret that science has always been riddled with sexism. So why is it that the mainstream media is suddenly interested within the last year? Sarah Zhang, a writer at WIRED tackles this question in A New Twist in the Fight Against Sexism in Science.

In her article, Zhang suggests that the evolving changes in news reporting are a reason why sexism in science is getting a lot of press recently. With the popularity of sites such as Twitter and Facebook, first-hand accounts of the news and user-driven data are available to anyone within seconds. This ease of access stimulates quick discussion and easy activism on topics that may have been difficult to gather public support for in the past.

Zhang reviews the month’s biggest story, that of Geoff Marcy, a prominent exoplanet hunter (now formerly) from UC Berkeley. He was found to have sexually harassed female students over the course of at least a decade. Berkeley issued a conclusion to their investigation in June; he was given a letter that amounted to a mere shake of the finger. By October, an incredible majority of Marcy’s colleagues had petitioned for greater discipline. The story went viral after Buzzfeed caught wind of the situation, and soon scientists and the general public alike were outraged at the minimal response from Berkeley. In this case, the response even included pushback to the way Buzzfeed and the New York Times reported the story, pointing out that their treatments were either too dismissive of the victims, or too sympathetic to Marcy himself. Marcy ended up stepping down from his UC Berkeley position.

Zhang then notes the reaction to the case of the notorious Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, who is worried that having “girls” in the lab is too much of a romantic distraction for him and his male colleagues. In response to Hunt, women from around the world posted to social media pictures of themselves in lab or field garb with the hashtag #distractinglysexy. Zhang also references the incident of a Science Careers columnist Alice Huang, who advised women in science to ignore male colleagues who staring inappropriately. Due to the backlash on social media in this case, Huang is no longer writing for Science Careers. 

Near the end of her article, Zhang interviews Huang and hits a note that will likely come up week after week in our discussions. Huang describes the women who have taken their harassment or bias cases to court as the “walking wounded among women.” This description brings up the question: How willing are we, as individuals, to be the martyrs? Huang goes on to say, “but if you find people aren’t the walking wounded for life, then you get a little braver the next time.” It seems many women in science right now have to ask if there is enough support to potentially put our careers on the line to fight sexism, or if a nuanced approach is more appropriate.  The answer may be as individualized as every career and every situation. One thing is clear though: the conversations must continue to happen. This is exactly why we’ve started our discussion group.

Thursday was a fitting start to our personal conversation. We took time to look at the past and appreciate the fight our predecessors undertook. Any previous women in science had to tolerate the harassment and bias from men to pave the way for future generations of women. One by one, these women stayed quiet and achieved positions of power and respect, and have made it possible for our generation to take a more vocal approach to sexism. The numbers of women in sciences are finally growing large enough that women can band together to address sexism issues and propose meaningful changes to encourage equality in the workplace.

Just as the younger generations of women are a growing presence in science, so are the men who are willing to take a stand against sexism. Women have many more allies than previously, and this could be a resource to strengthen. We thought this might be an interesting topic to come back to in the future.

Zhang’s article was a satisfying and quick overview of the largest topics of science sexism in mainstream media this year, and a great launching point for future discussions in many directions.

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