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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Sexism in Science? No Kidding.

This first appeared in Daily News and Analysis

As Women enter workforce in the largest number for the first time in the history of human kind, they face entrenched bias and gender related hurdles even in the most unlikely areas.


In March 2012, a scientist employed by LabX Media Group, which owns LabWrench and publishes Lab Manager Magazine and The Scientist, decided to take her love of science away from the labs. She created a Facebook page called 'I Fucking Love Science' which soon started attracting people due to its often humorous and educative posts. However, when Elise Andrew decided to reveal her identity on the page last week, there was an explosion on Facebook. "What?" People wondered. "She is a SHE?"

As Andrews admitted in this interview with CBS, there were quite a few people who were shocked. That a woman administers and runs such a hugely popular page on Facebook (by the time of writing, her page has more than 4.3 million 'likes') came as a rude surprise to many. The National Geographic quoted Rita Colwell, a Molecular Biologist and University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, as saying that "it was absurd and clearly indicates [that] although we've made progress over the past 40 to 50 years, we haven't made that much progress in behavior and attitudes".

Mrs. Colwell makes a valid point. Back in March, 2010, the New York Times reported on how bias in the scientific arena still posed a major hurdle in the career growth of Women (see infographic). Similarly, last June, Mark Fidelman of the Forbes Magazine wondered why were there so few women in technology related fields. Rejecting the old explanations (that women were not interested in Science, or wouldn't succeed at it or would not be happy and comfortable working in the field), he claimed that the main reason why there was a frustrating lack of women in technological fields was because women, while being interested in the field, were not choosing it because of the confusion regarding the various options and an ignorance about the economic potentials. To quote Fidelman:

"According to research by Penn Schoen and Berland (PSB), nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of teens have never considered a career in engineering. In another research study by Girl Scouts of America, only 13% of female teens say a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) related career would be their first choice. Why? It turns out Klawe was on to something. From the research results, PSB found that 74% of teens that considered engineering did so only after being explained the economic benefits and impact they can have on the world."

While Fidelman's logic does explain a great deal about what's wrong with women not opting for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related careers in the US, it conveniently side steps the third reason: Why do women feel that they would be unhappy and uncomfortable working in STEM fields? As Andrew's experience clearly shows, the answer is Sexism. Of course Andrew in not the only victim of sexism. Last week, Adria Richards, an employee of Silicon valley based tech firm SendGrid, was unceremoniously fired from the company after she tweeted about the sexist comments being passed around at the PyCon Developers Conference in Santa Clara, which she was attending as an employee of the company. In an article posted on her site which details a blow by blow account of what occurred at the conference, Richards revealed her real motivation behind calling those two men out:

"I saw a photo on main stage of a little girl who had been in the Young Coders workshop. I realized I had to do something or she would never have the chance to learn and love programming because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so."

While terminating her employment, SendGrid did acknowledge the incident and its nature, but faulted Richards for her own conduct. According to the official statement issued on SendGrid's website:

"We understand that Adria believed the conduct to be inappropriate and support her right to report the incident to PyCon personnel. To be clear, SendGrid supports the right to report inappropriate behaviour, whenever and wherever it occurs. What we do not support was how she reported the conduct. Her decision to tweet the comments and photographs of the people who made the comments crossed the line. Publicly shaming the offenders – and bystanders – was not the appropriate way to handle the situation."

The issue of women in workplace in Silicon Valley has been red hot for quite some weeks now after the release of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg's book 'Lean In', which deals with it. But what makes employees like Adria Richards keep getting fired and scientists like Andrews face sexist jokes? The real problem seems to be perception. According to Mrs. Colwell, there seems to be a perception problem among the larger population which sees women through the old fashioned glasses of tradition. As the nature and medium of technology and most importantly, work, changes, it is going to be rough for a populace that has grown accustomed to seeing half the population squat (according to them) at home - to see them come out and demand an equal share. It is refreshing to see this dialogue finally getting started in the US, whose media houses and publications scorned at the developing world last year for its high rates of crime against women. So the next time you go on a date or welcome a new person in the neighbourhood, do not be surprised if she turns out to be a scientist. After all, they are just starting to get your attention.