Tag Archives: gender and science

Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), the Royal Society, and men

Silent Spring, the book by Rachel Carson, has had an extraordinary impact in Canada, the US, and many other parts of the world. The 1962 publication of the book effectively launched the environmental movement.

Carson died two years after publication with the consequences that 2014 is the 50th anniversary of her death. Britain’s The Royal Society in partnership with the Royal Society of Literature is marking this anniversary with a public lecture and panel discussion on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014 (6:30 – 7:30 pm at The Royal Society, London). This is an astonishing event for reasons to be discussed after reading a description: Writing Wrongs,

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Rachel Carson, the American conservationist responsible for putting the environment on the political agenda. When her masterpiece Silent Spring was published in 1962, she was attacked as savagely as Darwin on the publication of The Origin of the Species, but the book spurred a reversal in US pesticide policy and led to a ban on DDT and other pesticides. But does Silent Spring persuade because of the strength of its arguments, or the beauty of its language? And have Carson’s warnings been sufficiently heeded? John Burnside FRSL is a prize-winning poet, short-story writer and novelist. A passionate environmentalist, he contributes a regular nature column to the New Scientist. Professor John Pickett FRS is Scientific Leader of Chemical Ecology at Rothampstead Research, and a world authority on pest control. In a conversation chaired by Damian Carrington, Head of Environment at the Guardian, they will discuss the complementary roles of literature and science in saving the planet.

This event is free to attend and open to all. No tickets are required. Doors open at 6pm and seats will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.

Speech-to-text interpretation will be provided at this event.

If you require British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation please contact the events team no later than 2 weeks prior to the event and we would be happy to arrange an interpreter.

A live video will be available on this page when the event starts and a recorded video will be available a few days afterwards.

You’ll note that this is an all male panel, which is astonishing, given the number of female scientists working in the fields of environmental science and female writers of all stripes, especially in light of the raw sexism Carson was subjected to at the time her book was published. Victoria Johnson in her Aug. 7, 2014 posting on the Guardian science blog network supplies some context for concern not only about this particular event but others too (Note Links have been removed),

The problem is, Writing Wrongs has an all-male panel.

Debates about gender-balanced panels at conferences and public events are not new. In 2009 the group Feminist Philosophers set up a Gendered Conference Campaign, challenging the prevalence of all-male conferences in their field. In 2011, a group of gender equality advocates and activists pledged to boycott events with all-male panels. Then, in early 2013, journalist Rebecca Rosen took the rather novel step of asking men to sign a pledge to refuse speaking at or moderating events dominated by male contributors. More than 300 people signed the online pledge. But, within hours, it had to be anonymised because of the torrent of abusive comments.

Johnson then focuses specifically on Writing Wrongs event (Note: A link has been removed),

Earlier this week I wrote to the Royal Society asking why Writing Wrongs had an all-male panel. I even offered some suggestions for female speakers they might like to ask. My argument was that Carson is not only the most famous environmentalist and nature writer of the 20th century; she was also a female scientist who faced gender-based slurs from the mainstream media and naturally, vested interests, on the publication of Silent Spring. Keen to discredit the conclusions of her detailed analysis they dismissed her as a hysterical woman, unable to conduct objective research.

Not only was it strange to see an all-male panel, especially when I knew plenty of female science writers, academics and environmental journalists who would have been equally qualified to speak, it seemed entirely inappropriate given who had apparently inspired this event.

The Royal Society responded to my email. They’d asked a female chair, but she was unavailable. I was then told they were looking into other female speakers, but had needed to proceed with promotion of the event. Is it really that hard to find a female science writer or a leading academic working on pesticides? Not if you live in the 21st century and know how to use the Internet, write an email or operate a phone. I was then reassured, that sometimes; the Royal Society does have female representation on at important events. This was followed by some blurb and a link to their Equality and Diversity policy. Unfortunately, whenever I have challenged other event organisers on the lack of gender-balance, I have pretty much had the same response.

To get a sense for the quality of the vituperation that Carson experienced in 1962, there’s this from her Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Carson and the others involved with publication of Silent Spring expected fierce criticism. They were particularly concerned about the possibility of being sued for libel. Carson was also undergoing radiation therapy to combat her spreading cancer, and expected to have little energy to devote to defending her work and responding to critics. In preparation for the anticipated attacks, Carson and her agent attempted to amass as many prominent supporters as possible before the book’s release.[54]

Most of the book’s scientific chapters were reviewed by scientists with relevant expertise, among whom Carson found strong support. …

American Cyanamid biochemist Robert White-Stevens and former Cyanamid chemist Thomas Jukes were among the most aggressive critics, especially of Carson’s analysis of DDT.[60] According to White-Stevens, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”[61] Others went further, attacking Carson’s scientific credentials (because her training was in marine biology rather than biochemistry) and her personal character. White-Stevens labeled her “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature”,[62] while former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson—in a letter to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower—reportedly concluded that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was “probably a Communist.”[63] [emphasis mine]

Many critics repeatedly asserted that she was calling for the elimination of all pesticides. Yet Carson had made it clear she was not advocating the banning or complete withdrawal of helpful pesticides, but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use with an awareness of the chemicals’ impact on the entire ecosystem.[64]  …

In the US (and elsewhere), an accusation of being a ‘communist’ particularly in the late 1950s and early 1960s could destroy your career.

Getting back to the modern day, having organized panels in the past, I appreciate how very challenging it is to get a diverse set of people on a panel but as Johnson notes, it shouldn’t be all that difficult in 2014.

Abandoning the effort to find a female speaker after what was apparently a single attempt seems a bit chicken-hearted. Were the event organizers concerned about avoiding rejection? If so, they should perhaps consider other job or volunteer activities as rejections are pretty common when trying to attract panel members.

Should the organizers try again, I have some advice: “Try to get more than one female speaker on your panel as cancellations are also common in these endeavours.” Of course, the organizers may end up with an female panel in the end as bizarre things can happen at the last minute to your carefully planned panel. I wish the event organizers good luck!

Science…For Her!—a book for those of us who like our science to be funny

The book, Science…For Her!, written by Megan Amram, a comedy writer whose credits include the Kroll Show and Parks and Recreation (US television programmes, won’t be available until Nov. 4, 2014 but it can be pre-ordered at Barnes & Noble or Powell’s (I figure Amazon gets enough advertising and I want to help bookstores that have a bricks & mortar presence, as well as, an online presence).

Thanks to David Bruggeman and the April 23, 2014 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog where I first learned of this upcoming book (Note: Links have been removed),

There’s another science mashup coming your way later this year.  It’s a textbook written by comedy writer (Parks and Recreation) Megan Amram.  Science…For Her! comes out November 4, and stands a chance of provoking the same kind of reaction as the initial video for the European Commission’s campaign – ‘Science, it’s a girl thing‘.

For anyone unfamiliar with the European Commission’s campaign, check out Olga Khazan’s June 22, 2012 Washington Post story (h/t David Bruggeman) which is a relatively kind comment in comparison to some of the other responses to the campaign some of which I chronicled in my July 6, 2012 posting about it.

Getting back to Science…For Her!, here’s a bit more about the book from an April 22, 2014 posting by Madeleine Davies for Jezebel,

Of the book, Amram writes:

Science…For Her! is a science textbook written by a lady (me) for other ladies (you, the Spice Girls, etc.) It has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout history: female brains aren’t biologically constructed to understand scientific concepts, and tiny female hands aren’t constructed to turn most textbooks’ large, extra-heavy covers.

Finally, a science textbook for us.

[downloaded from http://meganamram.tumblr.com/post/83522299626/science-for-her]

[downloaded from http://meganamram.tumblr.com/post/83522299626/science-for-her]

As David notes elsewhere in his April 23, 2014 posting, the cover has a very ‘Cosmo’ feel with titles such as ‘orgasms vs. organisms’ and ‘sexiest molecules’. The Barnes & Noble ‘Science…For Her Page!, offers more details,

Megan Amram, one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30 in Hollywood & Entertainment,” Rolling Stone’s “25 Funniest People on Twitter,” and a writer for NBC’s hit show Parks and Recreation, delivers a politically, scientifically, and anatomically incorrect “textbook” that will have women screaming with laughter, and men dying to know what the noise is about.

In the vein of faux expert books by John Hodgman and Amy Sedaris, Science…for Her! is ostensibly a book of science written by a denizen of women’s magazines. Comedy writer and Twitter sensation Megan Amram showcases her fiendish wit with a pitch-perfect attack on everything from those insanely perky tips for self-improvement to our bizarre shopaholic dating culture to the socially mandated pursuit of mind-blowing sex to the cringe-worthy secret codes of food and body issues.

Part hilarious farce, part biting gender commentary, Amram blends Cosmo and science to highlight absurdities with a machine-gun of laugh-inducing lines that leave nothing and no one unscathed. Subjects include: this Spring’s ten most glamorous ways to die; tips for hosting your own big bang; what religion is right for your body type; and the most pressing issue facing women today: kale!!!

I appreciate the humour and applaud Amram’s wit. I also feel it should be noted that there is some very good science writing to be found (occasionally) in women’s magazines (e.g. Tracy Picha’s article ‘The Future of Our Body’ in an August 2009 issue  of Flare magazine [mentioned in my July 24, 2009 posting featuring human enhancement technologies’). As well, Andrew Maynard, physicist and then chief science advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, now NSF (US National Science Foundation) International Chair of Environmental Health Sciences and Director, University of Michigan Risk Science Center, once commented that one of the best descriptions of nanotechnology that he’d ever read was in an issue of Elle magazine.

Gender, science, science policy, and an update on Science: it’s (formerly, a girl) your thing

After describing the NDP (New Democrat Party) science policy launch/discussion as a bit of a ‘sausage fest’ in my Nov. 14, 2012 posting about being at the Canadian Science Policy Conference (part 2 of a 2-part series), I realized (very early this morning [Nov. 15, 2012]) that I could have described my own panel presentation in those terms since the majority of the response (if memory serves, 100% or thereabouts) was from the male members of the audience.

My interest is not a discussion about the rights or wrongs of this state of affairs but to find new ways to encourage engagement/discussion with everyone. Thrillingly and also this morning, I found a notice of a Nov. 14, 2012 blog posting by Curt Rice titled, “Gendered Innovations: Making research better” which touches on the topic (how do we better integrate gender into the discussion) and applies the thinking to research,

Could your research be better if you thought more about gender? I’m not asking if you could say more about gender if you thought about gender; that much is obvious. No, I’m asking if the quality of your research results more broadly could be improved if issues of gender informed the methods you use and the questions you ask. [emphasis mine]

At the University of Tromsø, we suspect that gendered perspectives could make your research better, and so we’re kicking off a new project to explore these issues and to better communicate them to our students. We’re doing this to improve the quality of our science — anything that might have that effect, after all, deserves careful exploration.

We’re also doing it because our primary funding agencies will reward grants that include gendered perspectives, regardless of the field of the grant. This is true of the Research Council of Norway and it’s true of the EU’s upcoming Horizon 2020 program [major European Union-funded science programming]. Arvid Hallén, the Director of our Research Council, tells us how important this has become.

A gendered perspective is a criterium for all applications being evaluated by the Research Council of Norway.

Our project draws inspiration from an international enterprise drawing the connection between overall research quality and the presence of gender-related questions and methods. [emphasis mine]

Rice is referring to Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment based at Stanford University in California. Here’s more from the What is Gendered Innovations? page,

Gendered Innovations employ sex and gender analysis as a resource to create new knowledge and technology.

This website has six interactive main portals:

1. Methods of sex and gender analysis for research and engineering
2. Case studies illustrate how sex and gender analysis leads to innovation
3. Terms address key concepts used throughout the site
4. Checklists for researchers, engineers, and evaluators
5. Policy provides recommendations in addition to links to key national and international policies that support Gendered Innovations
6. Institutional Transformation summarizes current literature on: 1) increasing the numbers of women in science, health & medicine, and engineering; 2) removing subtle gender bias from research institutions; and 3) solutions and best practices.

I’m going to check this Gendered Innovations website for any information that can help  me develop sessions that encourage more participation from women and who knows? Maybe next year we can have a session at the Canadian Science Policy Conference where we discuss some of this thinking about gender issues, i.e., using information about gender bias and information about how it functions in real life situations for designing new research and policies.

This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned Curt Rice. He featured in a July 6, 2012 posting about the European Union campaign to encourage more girls to take an interest in science careers. The video produced by the project’s marketing communications team caused a sensation and a huge amount of criticism,

I find the June 29, 2012 posting by Curt Rice at the Guardian Science blogs gives insight into some of the current response (condemnation and support from an unexpected source) to and the prior planning that went into the campaign,

Advertising professors everywhere must be thanking the European Commission for their new campaign, Science: it’s a girl thing! This campaign – designed to convince high school girls to pursue careers in science – had such a badly bungled launch that it’s sure to become the topic of lectures and exam questions for communications students throughout Europe and beyond.

The problem lies in the “teaser” video, which went viral last week for all the wrong reasons. It was put up on the campaign website, disliked, criticised, mocked and then pulled down faster than the gaga male scientist in the video could open his zipper.

As a consequence, Rice created a contest for a new video and invited anyone to submit. Since July 2012, the European Science Foundation took on the project which offers three money prizes and the opportunity to have your video seen at the 2nd European Gender Summit, Nov. 29-30, 2012. Science: it’s a girl thing! has been renamed to Science: it’s your thing!  Here’s more from the Oct. 18, 2012 European Science Foundation news release,

This contest, co-organized by the European Science Foundation and Curt Rice (check his excellent blog: curt-rice.com) offers you the chance to highlight the diverse career options that science offers to young women everywhere.

This contest follows a campaign recently launched by the launched European Commission to encourage more young women to choose science in their future careers. With several countries taking part, the cornerstone of the campaign is a fresh and lively webpage, called Science: It’s a girl thing!

A video of the same name was made to raise awareness of the campaign. And indeed it did! The video was successful in creating discussion and engagement, triggering an animated debate on how to promote science to young women – a crucial element in bringing the campaign to life. However, feedback about the contents of the film was mixed so the Commission decided to remove it.

Since the original video is no longer being used but the excellent campaign remains, we have devised a contest to make a new video for it. By entering the competition you can help the European Commission better understand how the issue should be communicated and you get a chance to win €1500 if your video is selected as one of the 3 winning videos.

The contest is being promoted by a number of science bloggers and tweeters. And Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt (Physics, 2011) has made a donation for the cash prize!

The winning videos will be shown at the European Gender Summit Networking Event 2012, November 29 at the Science14 in Brussels.

Here’s more about the contest which appears to be open to anyone from anywhere in the world, from the Contest page,

Contest Instructions
  1. Visit the Science, It’s a Girl Thing website.
  2. Create a one minute (or less) video (in english) designed to create awareness for the initiative and to encourage young women to consider scientific careers.
  3. Upload your video to YouTube or Facebook.
  4. Follow the instructions on this site to submit your video.
  5. Tweet to @gendersummit with a link to your video using the hashtag #ScienceItsYourThing. We will promote your videos on this site and on Twitter.
  6. Encourage people to vote for your video from 19 November 2012, 18:01 Central European Time to 28 November 2012, 12:00 Central European Time .
  7. The video with the most votes on 28 November at 12 noon Central European Time, will be one of the winners.
  8. The other two winning videos will be determined by a panel of judges from the European Science Community & Industry.
  9. All three winning videos will receive a cash prize of 1500 euros and will be screened at the European Gender Summit networking event 2012, November 29 at the Science14 in Brussels..

Still have questions? Email us at [email protected]

The final deadline for the contest is Nov. 19, 2012 at 6 pm CET. Good luck!

‘Girly’ girls aren’t motivated to study science by ‘girly’ scientists

Liz Else in a June 22, 2012 article for New Scientist discusses, in light of the recent  ‘Science: It’s a Girl Thing’ campaign video/debacle (mentioned in my July 6, 2012 posting), some recent research which suggests that ‘girly’ or ‘feminine’ scientist role models are demotivating (Note: I have removed links),

But the team really should have done some background before launching the teaser video for the initiative (above). If they had, they would have probably come across some recent research by University of Michigan psychologists Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa that would have stopped them dead in their tracks.

Betz and Sekaquaptewa recruited 142 girls aged 11 to 13 and showed them mocked-up magazine articles about three female university students who were either described as doing well in science, engineering, technology or mathematics (STEM), or as rising stars in unspecified fields. The three also either displayed overtly feminine characteristics or gender-neutral traits.

Oddly, the researchers found that girls who read about the feminine science students decreased their self-rated interest in maths ability and short-term expectations of success. [emphasis mine]

Else’s article describes other related outcomes and provides a link to the research article (which is behind a paywall).

This research contrasts with the response from the Australian teen science bloggers (in my July 6, 2012 posting) who were very enthusiastic about this more girly approach.

In conjunction with the material in my previous posting on this topic,  it seems this whole incident has sparked an extraordinary conversation taking place internationally and across various social media. For those on Twitter, I recommend the #ScienceGirlThing discussion. Locally (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), I believe the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) is considering an event focused on the ‘Science: It’s a Girl Thing’. I’ll let you know more as this evolves.

Thanks to @CarlsonEngineer for the link to article by Else.