Sexism in Science Reporting: a 2014 Timeline

By Zuleyka Zevallos, Ph.D.

In my previous DiverseScholar article, I showed why the study behind The New York Times Op Ed (claiming the end of sexism) was methodologically flawed and ideologically biased [Zevallos 2014g]. I showed that a focus on an individual choice narrative to explain why women are disadvantaged in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is fundamentally unsound when understood alongside the long-standing empirical evidence from the social sciences. Here, I will review several science controversies related to the editorial and institutional decisions within STEM. These patterns show that everyday interactions contribute to gender inequality, from the use of images, to dress, to the way distinguished women scientists are described in the media. I start with a selected timeline of events highlighting gender inequality in STEM.

Sexism Timeline in STEM

In March 2014, the Journal of Proteomics published a “graphical abstract” for a study about proteomics that involved a virtually topless woman holding coconuts over her breasts [D’Amato 2012]. Scientists took to social media to complain on the sexist imagery [STEM Women 2014]. Two of the study’s authors were also on the editorial board of the journal and refused to apologize, saying it was a bit of light-hearted science fun. Notably, Ceci and Williams are also on the editorial board of the journal where they published their study. There is a lesson here about objectivity and peer review.

In June 2014, ScienceAlert published a headless photo focused on a woman’s breasts for a story about a caffeine shaker, which they presented as a science story [Science Alert 2014]. It was not science. The scientific merit of the article was not only lacking but the science moderation on their social media was abysmal [Zevallos 2014e]. Sexist comments focused on the woman’s chest and questions about the science of the product went unanswered.

In July 2014, Science Magazine ran a special on HIV and AIDS; and, for their magazine cover, used the headless photo of transgender sex workers [Science 2014]. This editorial choice dehumanized both transgender women and sex workers, as well as evoking transphobic fear, by linking AIDS to transgender women in an exploitative way [Flox 2014]. The negative reaction online was swift [Roca 2014b]

In September 2014, Richard Dawkins launched a series of sexist tirades targeting women, downplaying the experience of rape and decrying the existence of “radical feminism” [Lee 2014] (a term that is about 30 years out of date). While this is not the first time Dawkins has been unabashedly sexist, the frequency of his rants have escalated. Not coincidentally, Dawkins is one of several high-profile academics and leaders of the atheist movement who advocate a sexist agenda against feminists within the movement [Oppenheimer 2014].

Also around this time, there were an ongoing series of attacks on women who work in technology [Zevallos 2014b] as well as those who write about gaming such as cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian who uses social science to critique sexism in the media and gaming industry [McDonald 2014]. Wikipedia has also been home to sexist debates about women in technology [Zevallos 2014a]. I have noted in an interview that these contests over Wikipedian knowledge are connected to broader problems of inequality in science [Pappas 2014].

In late September, The Royal Academy of Science issued a statement saying they would launch an investigation after scientists protested on social media over the fact that the number of women Fellows had fallen from one in three to one in 20 this year [Zevallos 2014c]. I noted at the time that that not only was this investigation too little too late; but, there are also bigger questions about how the Fellowship application process disadvantages women at every stage. For example, take the fact that women are already in the minority when they reach the stage in their careers where they are applying for Fellowships. Couple this with the fact that women are cut out of the Fellowship application at higher rates than men at every stage of Fellowship recruitment; and, we see that educational and instuitional biases collude to produce an unfair disadvantage towards women [Sumpter 2014].

Early November saw another story to add to the gender inequality faced by women in STEM. The New York Times Op-Ed by Williams and Ceci sparked outrage amongst scientists by using the provocative title Academic Science Isn’t Sexist [Williams 2014]. Part of the conversation on social media was dismay by women scientists and our allies that such a flawed argument would be published in such an esteemed newspaper [Roca 2014a]. I have already covered the problems with the methodology of the original study by Ceci and colleagues [Zevallos 2014d]; and, in my previous article for DiverseScholar, I showed that the study’s narrative of individual choice is problematic [Zevallos 2014g]. In short, this study fails to account for the institutional factors that impact on women at different life stages.

In mid-November, the Rosetta space mission landed on a comet 500 million kilometers from Earth. This momentous achievement was marred by project scientist Matt Taylor, who chose to wear a shirt with semi-nude women. The incident became known as “Shirt Storm”. Women scientists, writers, and allies critiqued the choice of dress as an example of the everyday sexism in the sciences [Zevallos 2014f]. Taylor subsequently apologised yet the women who criticised the European Space Agency for its poor management of this event faced extraordinary sexist backlash, including rape and death threats, especially to Rose Eveleth, journalist with The Atlantic, who was first to point out that the shirt was disrespectful to women in science [Bianco 2014]. Supporters of Taylor continued their sexist campaign long after Taylor admitted that he had made a poor decision. Media critics belittled women scientists for speaking out, refusing to see one high-profile man’s choice as symbolic of the problems women face in STEM [Hills 2014], including not having our expertise and concerns heard [Stemwedel 2014], as well as the broader psychological consequences of objectification in the workplace [Wiener 2013].

Combating the Sexism Clickbait

All of these are examples of sexism in science, demonstrating that the prevailing culture is still one which is exclusionary and hurtful to women, and doubly reinforces the “otherness” (or essential difference) of transgender women.

My STEM Women colleagues and I have previously shown that the media already supports the perpetuation of inequality in STEM, by habitually representing scientists as predominantly White, older men in lab coats [Zevallos 2014i]. Research has established that male scientists are both quoted and interviewed by journalists at a rate of 5:1 in comparison to women [Kitzinger 2008]. Media depictions of women scientists focus on their domestic lives, whereas journalists focus on men’s scientific achievements.

Take for example The New York Times obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, touted for being a good cook and mother [Roiphe 2013] and the profile of social policy reformer Professor Margaret Archer who was described as a “grandmother” in the UK Sunday Times [Hellen 2014]. Media representations of women scientists is tokenism at best [Shachar 2000] focusing on their personal life (particularly their status as wives and mothers) and their (hetero)sexuality [Chimba 2010]. Never mind that minority women scientists rarely feature in science news. All of this focus on domesticity and sex appeal detracts from women’s scientific contributions.

sexism [stories] constitute good clickbait because they aim for the lowest denominator— the “Mars versus Venus” debate

The media is more likely to pick up these sexist examples of gender studies while other excellent social science studies on gender and other sociological topics barely rate a mention. Gender stories, especially those on sexism, constitute good clickbait because they aim for the lowest denominator— the “Mars versus Venus” debate. The media present gender studies as an invitation to bicker about biological essentialism without critically considering decades’ worth of science that has debunked such gender myths. These stories do not bother to communicate that biology plays only a minor role in gender outcomes and that culture and social institutions play a much greater part (this is known as the social construction of gender [Zevallos 2014h]). Similarly, subjective reactions to gender issues and studies fail to see the broader social context of sexism in STEM and the myriad of ways that individual choice is constrained by cultural forces.

In my next DiverseScholar article, I shall end my exploration of sexism in STEM by looking at how social science can shape better discussions about gender diversity in STEM.

References

M. Bianco (2014) The Internet Had an Awful Response to a Woman Who Called Out a Scientist’s Sexism, Mic, November 14

M. Chimba and J. Kitzinger (2010) Bimbo or Boffin? Women in Science: an Analysis of Media Representations and How Female Scientists Negotiate Cultural Contradictions, Public Understanding of Science, 19(5):609-624

A. D’Amato, E. Fasoli, and P. Giorgio Righetti (2012) Harry Belafonte and the Secret Proteome of Coconut Milk, Journal of Proteomics, 75(3):914–920

A.V. Flox. (2014) Science Magazine Uses Trans Sex Workers As Bait, Slantist, July 16

N. Hellen (2014) Grandmother, 71, Tackles Slave Traffickers for the Pope, Sunday Times, April 20

K. Hills (2014) Sexism, Semiotics, and that Shirt #shirtstorm, Storify

J. Kitzinger, M. Chimba, A. Williams, J. Haran, and T. Boyce (2008) Gender, Stereotypes and Expertise in the Press: How Newspapers Represent Female and Male Scientists, UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) and Cardiff University

A. Lee (2014) Richard Dawkins has Lost It: Ignorant Sexism Gives Atheists a Bad Name, The Guardian, September 18

S.N. McDonald (2014) ‘Gamergate’: Feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian cancels Utah lecture after threat, The Washington Post, October 15

M. Oppenheimer (2014) Will Misogyny Bring Down the Atheist Movement?, BuzzFeed, Sep 11

S. Pappas (2014) Wikipedia’s Gender Problem Gets a Closer Look, Live Science, December 3

A.I. Roca (2014a) Academic Science ‘not Sexist’ #StillaProblem, Storify, April 16

A.I. Roca (2014b) Science Magazine #LGBT Trans Cover, Storify, July 29

K. Roiphe (2013) Obit Gaffe: In Rocket Scientist Yvonne Brill’s Obit, Was It So Bad To Mention the Beef Stroganoff?, Slate, April

Science (2014) COVER: Transgender sex workers in Jakarta, July 11

Science Alert (2014) Powdered Caffeine In Salt Shakers Is Now a Thing, June 24

O. Shachar (2000) Spotlighting Women Scientists in the Press: Tokenism in Science Journalism, Public Understanding of Science, 9(4):347-358

[**author pending] STEM Women (2014) Recognising Sexism: Boobs to ‘Broteomics’, March 24

J.D. Stemwedel (2014) To the Science Guys Who Want to Understand #Shirtstorm, Storify

D. Sumpter (2014) Creating Gender Bias Without Statistical Significance, Collective Behavior, September 25

R.L. Wiener, S.J. Gervais, J. Allen, A. Marquez (2013) Eye of the Beholder: Effects of Perspective and Sexual Objectification on Harassment Judgments, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 19(2):206-221

W.M. Williams and S.J. Ceci (2014) Academic Science Isn’t Sexist, The New York Times, Oct 31

Z. Zevallos (2011) What is Otherness?, The Other Sociologist

Z. Zevallos (2014a) Sexism on Wikipedia: Why the #YesAllWomen Edits Matter, The Other Sociologist, June 8

Z. Zevallos (2014b) Feminist cultural critic, Anita Sarkeesian, The Other Sociologist Facebook post, October 31

Z. Zevallos (2014c) Science Fellowships and Institutional Gender Bias in STEM, The Other Sociologist, November 1

Z. Zevallos (2014d) Sexism in Academic Science: Analysis of The New York Times Op-Ed, STEM Women, November 6

Z. Zevallos (2014e) BroScience: Sexism in Click Bait Science News, STEM Women, June 27

Z. Zevallos (2014f) Astronomical Sexism: Rosetta #ShirtStorm and Everyday Sexism in STEM, STEM Women, November 13

Z. Zevallos (2014g) Science Inequality in the News: Avoiding Dangerous Gender Narratives in STEM, DiverseScholar, 5:11

Z. Zevallos (2014h) Sociology of Gender, The Other Sociologist

Z. Zevallos, B. Samarasinghe, and R. Rao (2014i) Nature vs Nurture: Girls and STEM, Soapbox Science, September 4

Zuleyka Zevallos, Ph.D. is a Research and Social Media Consultant with Social Science Insights, an Adjunct Research Fellow with Swinburne University in Australia, and a co-editor at STEM Women. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Photo credit: Z. Zevallos
Figure credit: STEM Women

The citation for this article is:
Z. Zevallos (2015) Sexism in Science Reporting: a 2014 Timeline.
DiverseScholar 6:4


Editor’s note: This is the second of a 3-part commissioned special series. DiverseScholar is now publishing original written works. Submit article ideas by contacting us at .

Last updated 22-Apr-2015,
First published 20-Apr-2015