Friday, October 11, 2013

Pop Quiz: How we discuss woman in STEM

As scientists, engineers, and thinkers, I know several of you are interested in the phenomenon of the subtle ways in which women in STEM are diminished by sexist language and behavior. Sticks and stones, perhaps, but even this stuff is critical to addressing if we truly want to make progress and enable a cultural shift. (See also, death by a thousand paper cuts).

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize progress relies almost entirely on the shoulders of mass media. Yesterday NPR had a story about Hollywood Health and Society, which consults with writers about how to write correct and useful story lines on healthcare and climate change*. Turns out the majority of Americans learn about science and healthcare from fictional TV- surprise!

So, writers, you have an important job to do. You need to portray scientists as they actually are. No putdowns, no pedestals, and definitely no tropes.


Ok, ready for the pop quiz?

Part 1: Read these quotes, and list all the tropes. 

1) "For Janet Yellen, Obama’s Federal Reserve nominee, quiet patience paid off"

2) "Though he says she hasn't been a superstar economist like her husband, George Akerlof, who shared the 2001 Nobel prize, and her achievements have been overshadowed by Bernanke and former Fed chair Alan Greenspan, she is a great role model for women, because throughout she has proved her intelligence, technical expertise, creativity, and her ability to cooperate with others and work hard."

Part 2: Consider the following two Wikipedia summaries**. What's different? (Hint: check the things in red). 

Pencils down!

*We need this for Computer Science. Nearly every computer whiz portrayed in television is a socially inept caucasian man and/or psychopathic underachiever woman. And speaking of which, while I'm happy Elementary attempted to discuss P ?= NP last week, though there were some problems as Lance points out. More importantly, why was the woman a professor at some podunk university I'd never heard of, and the man was a professor at Columbia? And all she did is teach. And, PS, sexy librarian trope.

**This is my next project. It is positively absurd how women are described on wikipedia in comparison to men. Not just scientists - musicians, actors, artists, writers, athletes - pretty much every profession. Women quietly cooperate and have babies! Men invent things and lead.


  1. I'm unfamiliar with this show. Were they interviewing real professors, and one of them was from a university that is insufficiently distinguished to have its female STEM faculty on TV? Or were these fictional characters?

    1. Elementary is a fictional show about a modern day Sherlock Holmes. Three men worked on exploring the P vs. NP problem, one was a professor at Columbia. One woman was also involved in exploring the problem, but her character worked at a non-prestigious institution, and the only thing she did was teach. She "published review articles" on the problem many years ago, but was not portrayed as an active researcher or intellectual.

      Hence, the episode reinforced the trope that women do not work on important problems in computer science, or do research as professors. (But at least the writers attempted to highlight an important problem in our field in a vaguely informed way, so I guess that's something.)

    2. Um . . . not entirely accurate. She was portrayed as having SOLVED P vs NP years in advance of the struggling neophyte men. She then gunned them down to protect her advantage in the marketplace of thievery. Your portrayal is inaccurate. Now if you wanted to comment on the sexism and genderist idioms encoded in how the female character dress . . . . . but I digress.

      In fact one might even suggest as much from what is *NOT* said in the story line that she became interested in "publishing review articles" to see how much of an advantage she had on the competition, and put her in a position to eliminate the competition. That fits nicely with how she was not only keeping tabs on the entire industry, but also how she earned a consulting gig with a security firm also investing in P vs NP. One might say that she was the most intellectually gifted criminal on the show (sorry but Moriarty was soooooo disappointing and yet had such potential.)

      John D - Seattle Area

    3. Huh. I thought it was that she stole the idea from the men. I missed the "she's brilliant and actually solved everything" part -- that seemed far more in the realm of the male mathematicians, though it's possible I missed it.

      In any case, my comments about the non-research/non-famous university and sexy librarian trope still stand.

    4. wasn't that all really just a black widow femme fatale trope...she was the dark side of smart females

  2. After I shared this, a friend pointed out that Ben Bernanke has the same meta info on Wikipedia, presumably because he's in the same job category. So presumably that part's not sexist, but jobbist. (Unless, as another friend suggests, "actually, are there more visible female politicians than there are visible female economists? If so, then maybe it's worthwhile to ask which information we care about in different kinds of jobs.")

    1. I don't see religion listed in Ben Bernake's or Alan Greenspan's meta info. Greenspan's meta info lists his BS, MA, and PhD; Yellen's does not. None of them list contributions or awards, so I guess that's jobism.

      It's not just Yellen and Akerlof; there are quite a few male/female profile "peers" on wikipedia with substantial disparities.

      I'll try to do a post on it when I have more time.

    2. I was going to point out the same thing: what is shown is a difference between the infobox (that's the name in Wikipedia lingo) templates for the respective professions (looking at the raw content, it's the "officeholder" and "economist" templates). Just open Barack Obama's article, and you'll see that spouse and religion are there too.

      Personally, although nodding my head in agreement regarding Part 1, I think resorting to Wikipedia for an example of this phenomenon (a phenomenon that, just to make clear, I do not contest) was a bad move. It is a resource editable by everyone, so anyone can just into the band wagon and change the status quo. The lack of the BS/MA/PhD/etc. indications (which, by the way, have meanwhile been added in Janet Yellen's article) is easily just a consequence of exactly this openness: too many people editing, difficult to have a guideline being followed by everyone. Some people will add that info, some will omit it. Joseph Stiglitz's article also lacks the degree indications.

    3. That's fantastic someone has added her degrees since I posted about it.

      Unfortunately, someone also appears to have added her to the "American Woman Bankers" but not to the "American Bankers" category, which as we learned last summer is a problem.

      Fortunately In CS we're doing better - our list of computer scientists includes women, as does our list of computing pioneers.

    4. My intention was to let you know that your message was obscured by the Wikipedia example because you conflated the "Akerlof's infobox is different than Yellen's infobox" with "Yellen's metadata is filled-in differently than Bernanke's (and Akerlof's)".

      At least on the facebook thread, this distraction from the main point (which is clear, and accurate, and the reason I shared this article broadly in the first place) led to a lot of unhelpful discussion. (e.g., "Why would you say Yellen and Akerlof are peers? Nobel Prize >> Fed Vice Chair.") The thread ultimately did get to the right place (imo), but the infobox confusion skewed it for quite a while.

      As someone who doesn't use Wikipedia much (and never edits it, certainly), I would find it extraordinarily useful if there was a "best practices" guide assembled somewhere about how to understand which of these issues are the most problematic and how to correct them. There appears to be a lot of wikipedia "domain knowledge".

      You mentioned that you're planning a Wikipedia editing party... I hope you broadcast it here because we will definitely want to organize local groups at UW.

    5. Yes, I understood you the first time. I was being polite and changing the topic. However, perhaps this meta conversation is worth discussing since your FB friends may not be aware of this --

      Though, perhaps a more accurate encapsulation is here:

      There is a deep need for precision and perfection among the geek community. I saw this at my company; so much so that I stopped engaging in bloody software design arguments because they were too emotionally draining, and frankly didn't matter a lot in the end. My colleagues and I see this when we teach - a single typo or misspoken word and some students feel it is necessary to derail the entire lecture.

      I think most male geeks are interested in discussing the broader problem of sexism, but IMUSTFIXTHEWRONGAUUUGH overpowers the discussion so much that the original message gets lost.

    6. Re wikipedia editing: I'd be happy to make a post tomorrow if folks want to send me links to things they're organizing or know about. Unfortunately as much as I'd like to organize a massive event for Ada Lovelace Day I am already swamped this week.

    7. Thank you for your thoughtful responses, and for running your blog! For every post I comment on, I share and talk about ten more. (And that's obviously the point -- discussion benefits everyone. The more often the better!)

  3. I think the fact that wikipedia is editable by everyone just makes it a more salient example of cultural biases. To say that people, en masse, have arranged information in this manner is a stronger statement than pointing to the compiler of a single article discussing women in an imbalanced way. This might be more true in some sort of meta-analysis of wikipedia, but I hardly think it's an invalid anecdotal example.

    Interestingly, someone (maybe in response to this article, since it was yesterday) tried to add spouse to George Akerof's infobox, but couldn't because of the aforementioned template. Since 1) personal life is something that wikipedia articles often discuss, 2) the fact that a very high percentage of economists are indeed male makes it problematic that their template doesn't have a spouse field while the templates for other professions with more women in them do, and 3) I'm sure there are many economists with notable spouses, I decided to add spouse as an option on the template. So that's another benefit to wikipedia - pointing these things out on it can lead to an actual change. I would argue that if changes like this accumulate in large numbers it might have an impact on the way people discuss people of different genders, since wikipedia is such a common starting point for information gathering.

    1. Exactly. Well stated, Anon, and glad you tried to change the template.

      There are some efforts underway to help fix Wikipedia's biases; for example, Brown is having a Wiki "Edit-a-thon" on October 15h (Ada Lovelace Day).

      I'll try to spread the word. Maybe we can do something about ensuring women's degrees and contributions are listed to their Wikipedia pages, and more women scientists are added to lists of economists, mathematicians, chemists, etc. Could be a nice start.