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.