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Posts tagged "Sexism"

There are those of us who don’t need (or perhaps don’t understand) quantitative data to “believe” that sexism persists in all spheres today. See, for example, the rest of my blog and these people’s awesome blogs. But if y’all want RCT’s (aka randomized controlled trials), here’s one of ‘em showing gender bias in hiring practices and salary offers in science…

The study by Corinne Moss-Racusin and colleagues (2012) is ultimately concerned with the gender disparity within academic science.

A 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology indicates that training scientists and engineers at current rates will result in a deficit of 1,000,000 workers to meet United States workforce demands over the next decade (1). To help close this formidable gap, the report calls for the increased training and retention of women, who are starkly underrepresented within many fields of science, especially among the professoriate (2–4). Although the proportion of science degrees granted to women has increased (5), there is a persistent disparity between the number of women receiving PhDs and those hired as junior faculty (1–4). This gap suggests that the problem will not resolve itself solely by more generations of women moving through the academic pipeline but that instead, women’s advancement within academic science may be actively impeded. [my emphasis]

To explore this notion of women’s advancement being impeded, Moss-Racusin and colleagues studied hiring practices. They gathered a national sample of 127 professors from biology, chemistry, and physics professors, and asked them to evaluate - using validated scales - the applications of undergraduate students seeking a lab manager position. The scientists read identical applications with only a difference in the name - half were randomly assigned a male applicant, half a female applicant. All factors in applicants were held equal (education, experience, skills) except gendered name.

Scientists scored male applicants significantly hirer on competence, hireability, and their willingness to mentor them, and offered them significantly higher salaries than the identical female applicants.

All else was equal, and the only difference was gender?… Holy sexism batman! And of course, we have to consider this gender bias alongside the demonstrated effects of racial and ethnic discrimination in hiring practices. For instance, among Canadian job applicants, the callback rates are 40% higher for applicants with English-sounding names than for applicants with Chinese, Indian, or Pakistani names (Oreopoulos, 2009). These forms of discrimination are not going to undo themselves overnight. The good news is, this scientific evidence is part of the shifting tide.

When it comes to leveling the playing field, we get caught up in crunching numbers through statistical analysis. But numbers need context and history to really help us - not to mention, the people crunching the numbers need to let go of the search for linearity and causality when it comes to “measuring” social inequalities. It ain’t gonna happen. You can’t just create a variable called “history of patriarchal oppression,” account for its influence in your analysis, and call it a day. Yes, there are complex statistical methods for capturing complex, multi-level, multi-variable relationships. I took a course called Structural Equation Modeling, and used it to study sexual behaviours, gender inequality, psychosocial distress, and rape myth acceptance amongst men in rural South Africa. But guess what? I didn’t once claim that my fancy numbers told the whole story, or offered a definitive “answer”. I still read cultural histories and ethnographies and policy papers to built a context for my analysis. Having a savvy, so-called “objective” technical analysis does not excuse one from meaningfully engaging with the subjective context in which an issue emerges.

Getting back to the study… Scientific American Blogger (and Harvard Med student) Illana Yurkiewicz points out “We are not talking about equality of outcomes here; this result shows bias thwarts equality of opportunity.” We can’t talk about women’s improved educational outcomes and call it a success. If female scientists aren’t getting hired at the same rate as their male counterparts, nor paid equally, then we’re a long way from gender equality, and we - you, me, everyone we know - have to deal with it. We won’t wake up in a hundred years in a magically gender equal society. (And if you think we’re already living in one… then well, start paying attention). Because I’m not even talking about all the other ways that sexism and heterosexism manifest in academia and the workplace and every g-d place *ahem sexual harassment / old boys’ club mentality / discrimination against parents / insurance policies only for straight couples etc.*  So let go of the falsely comforting thought that all this discrimination and harassment will change without us actively making it change.

This study reminds us that we can’t talk about female scientists’ careers without considering the gender bias of the people doing the interviewing and hiring. In other words, it’s not a matter of, say, women in engineering undergraduate classes, working harder and resisting against sexism. Oppression isn’t effectively dealt with by asking the oppressed groups to work harder or adopt a positive outlook or make different choices or ignore the naysayers or anything (though, those can be coping strategies). I forget who the quote is from, but the notion that the oppressed groups must undo their own oppression is oppressive - it’s just sending the message that it’s their fault and it’s enabling people with various privileges to carry on without taking accountability.

The study is an especially important part of anti-racism literature because it shifts the focus onto the gatekeepers - potential oppressors orallies - of women’s advancement in science. It shifts the attention from outcomes to opportunities, and it approaches the problem from a different angle. This is good for science and society. This evidence, and the wider body of literature about gender bias in hiring practices (see below for a graphic), shows that there are many qualified women out there who aren’t getting hired simply because they aren’t men. No amount of effort and positive thinking and perseverance on the part of these women is going to overcome a gender-based barrier to opportunity that is rooted in the very cultural fabric of our society. So next time you’re talking about discrimination and opportunity, be wary of the overused American-dream argument, you know, the one focused on individuals out of social context, which argues that success is a matter of “trying harder.” I say, it’s complete bullshit. Just ask Malcolm Gladwell.

Yurkiewicz highlights three other reasons why the gender bias in science study is a big deal:

1) Male and female scientists had the gender bias towards job applicants. This means that it’s not an overt misogyny but rather a subtle manifestation of sexism from internalized cultural stereotypes. That is, the sexism that has implications for women in science (and many other scenarios) is the type that’s not intentional, and it is perpetuated by well-to-do, highly educated men and women… Chew on that for a minute. If discrimination is reinforced by unknowing parties and in mostly unexamined ways, then how do we resist it? Who is accountable to change? Many of us… that’s who. And there’s work to be done by us all.

2) Scientists *did not* use sexist reasoning to judge female applicants more harshly, but provided seemingly rational reasons re: her (in)competency. Again, the gender bias doesn’t need to be intentional. As Yurkiewicz says, "…this shows that you do not need to use anti-women language or even harbor conscious anti-women beliefs to behave in ways that are effectively anti-women." Moreover, if a female applicant is told she didn’t get the position because she’s lacks competency or certain skills, she can internalize that in ways that steer here away from an area that she is actually competent in. Thumbs down to that!

3) This evidence encourages awareness! Presumably most people, upon learning that they are supporting a gender bias, would wish to change it. Scroll down to the end of Yurkiewicz’s blog, where she provides four typical reactions that people have upon seeing the above evidence: two are outwardly supportive, one is skeptical and scientifically critical, and one is overtly sexist. The skeptical scientists, with their sound critiques of the stats and methods, have potential for change, but only if, for a moment, they suspend their marriage to rigorous methods and scientific scrutiny. Instead, the rigorous scientists need to ponder these facts, says Yurkiewicz, “equally competent women in science are viewed as less competent because of their gender. Remember them. Cite them. And if you want change, I would urge you to share [these facts] as widely as possible.”


Corinne Moss-Racusin et al. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favour male students. PNAS, 109 (38), 1-6.

Phillip Oreopoulo. (2009). Why Do Skilled Immigrants Struggle in the Labor Market? a Field Experiment with Six Thousand Resumes. University of Toronto - Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR)

I think this type of blog by Aydrea Walden is a great way to begin a conversation about what racism looks like in 2012:


It’s as simple as this: “For each trailer, I note what white people get to do and what non-white people get to do.” Hint: most of the time, white people get to do loads of interesting stuff, while black people and people of colour get to do either nothing or very limited activities in the service of white people’s advancement in the film and/or as part of a stereotype. In other words, Hollywood fails again and again to even approach, let alone achieve, racial diversity both on-screen and behind the camera.

Another sort of diversity litmus test that I tend to apply in my viewing of trailers and movies is the The Bechdel Test, which offers a ‘passing’ grade to a movie if: 1) It has a least two [named] female characters 2) … who talk to one another 3) about something other than a man. Hint: way too many films fail this basic test.

But of course, these tests are just a starting point for understanding mere presence vs. absence along race- and gender-lines. They are very crude measures—we’re not even talking about whether the story lines or characters are particularly nuanced. We can’t just evaluate the quantity and call it a day; we have to also evaluate the quality of the race and gender representation in films. You might say we need a mixed-methods approach…. For example, if the main protagonists or entire cast of a film is made up of people of colour, that doesn’t mean a passing grade overall. You then have to ask about the quality of the portrayals. It may well be that the film revolves around a stereotype you’ve seen before (e.g., black ghetto criminal), or a particular re-telling of a story (e.g., white saviour complex in Dances with Wolves, the Help, Blind Side). For a real intersectional approach, it’d be great to have a Trailer Trashing-Bechdel Test mashup… 2.0, where we also look at diversity (or lack thereof) in terms of sexuality, ablebodiedness, age, and many other categories of representation.

So why do I bother with this? My point is that movies are a sociological “text” that are open to analysis because they tell us something about the world we live and the everyday practices of people. In turn, our consumer dollars spent in ticket and dvd sales tells the movie studios to keep ‘em coming. The world is full of very interesting complicated people, but Hollywood (as but one example of a powerful sector that is implicated in “meaning-making”) would have us believe that the only people worth hearing stories about are white, English-speaking, ablebodied, hegemonically attractive, heterosexual men and to a much lesser extent women. This is what privilege looks like—when we have a vastly diverse population, only a tiny fraction of which can see or imagine themselves represented in films, books, music, politics.

What I like about the premise of the Trailer Trashing and Bechdel Tests is that they give us an easy way to ask certain questions and really begin the conversation about how inequality is reproduced in things like our entertainment. You could easily apply these types of questions to things like news and sports broadcasts, fiction books, tv shows, and the history textbook assigned as reading in class. That’s why me and my colleagues count those things as our “primary sources” and our “data” in our research. We take seriously the “everyday” as a site for ideological production and the operation of power. Power inequality is not something we factor out or in with a confounding variable like “SES” or “ethnic identity”—it is the object of study and the context for our study.

And I know what many of you want to ask me some variation of this question: Is everything ruined for you now that you are such a critical thinker? You mean, does it suck the joy out of everything from listening to music to socializing? At first, I used to say, “YES. It’s exhausting and I wish I could turn it off!!!” But now, my answer is a resounding no. I am grateful that these ‘everyday’ things open the door for a more accessible discussion about what it is I study and why I study it. AND, my critical thinking has brought me to a place where my politics match my everyday activities and consumption. I’ve discovered a whole world of “alternative” movies, books, music, podcasts, food, clothing, news media, etc.—you have to sort of seek them out or have friends in the know, but it’s soooo worth it. Plus the internet makes it easy to find more of the same things even if you just have one search item, simply because of how inter-textual it is. I watch one trailer to a seemingly unknown indy film on youtube, and a bunch of similar ones are linked, then I google the writer and see upcoming projects. I read one alterntive news article from AlterNet, and notice that the author has their own blog and twitter feed, and so on and so forth. There’s this whole world where I don’t have to ever watch Fox news or a Michael Bay movie ever again.

On the topic of movies, I find that my relationship to mainstream Hollywood films is sort of like my relationship to candy, or maybe even beer. The candy and beer is everywhere in the shopping aisles and advertising. I can’t ignore it. And sometimes I convince myself that it’ll be good this time, so I buy it. And usually it’s a big let down. I’m either hungry for more food or feeling sick and wanting to retreat into a hole. And in the time that I ate the candy or chugged the beers, I could have been eating a decent meal or capped it at one drink or abstained altogether. I admit it, sometimes I just want to watch a crappy movieliterally accompanied by candy and beer—I want to zone out and I want to know exactly how the story ends.

But most of the time, I want the option that will feed my soul and expose me to new possibilities. At a very basic level, it simply feels better to view entertainment that doesn’t rest on the oppression or unfair representation of certain people. In other words, we deserve to set the bar a bit higher for what counts as a “good” movie (or whatever the text in question is). “Good” should not mean I have to ignore a bunch of racism to get to the supposedly “good” part.

And if we have the means (financially and time-wise), we can choose to support these underdog films. So… buying or renting is sort of like voting. I vote for what I want to see more of, and I withhold my money from things I’m tired of. Bridesmaids is an excellent example: audiences were given the opportunity to appreciate women as comedians carrying a film (it took until 2011 to do this???), and Hollywood executives had no choice but to pay attention to the fact that audiences paid to watch women being funny. Hollywood is overwhelmingly old, white, male, and rich, especially as concentrated in the upper echelons of studios and censorship boards (watch: This Film Is Not Yet Rated to learn about how some amazing films are doomed from the start because of the skewed rating process). [And It’s not about to change spontaneously, nor does it have to be “this way”.] No doubt, the cards are heavily stacked against any films that go against the grain. That’s the quantity side of things.

The quality side is that we need to find ways of rethinking what constitutes “against the grain” — in what society or culture would a movie featuring women being funny constitute “against the grain”? A sexist one, to start. In what society is it okay that the only time women of colour are likely to be awarded an Oscar is when they portray unfit mothers, abuse victims, or maids to white people? A racist and sexist one.

The more you start to fill your life with things that would initially be counted as “alternative” or “against the grain,” you start to see these patterns of inequality, and in turn, you see how necessary such inequality is to the definition of “normal”. The good news is, then you can start to get frustrated and angry and fed up! You can do something! Because you, in small ways each and everyday, have the opportunity to acknowledge and resist the fact that’s what counts as “normal” tends to only feel as such (i.e., comfortable, taken for granted) by those people with relative privilege and power. You can choose to “go against the grain” until maybe one day, we collectively redefine “normal” to be at least implicitly about promoting diverse representation and equality. We all deserve that version of normal.

Think about that next time you pick your entertainment…