Is life a bit tougher for Gillard in politics because she’s a woman?

I would say almost certainly. It’s not my intention to comment on particular insults thrown her way, because that kind of argument inevitably ends up with people arguing that male prime ministers get insulted too (they do) and that Gillard just gets so much criticism because she is terrible (no comment). If you want that kind of thing feel free to see here or here.

The reason I think that Gillard has it a bit tougher is to do with unconscious biases. There’s several studies out there that show that people tend to prefer men to women as leaders. See for example, this article on “How the sex bias prevails.” The article describes an experiment comparing a hypothetical male leader to a hypothetical female leader. From the article:

The only difference between what the groups were told was that some people thought they were hearing about a leader named Andrea while others thought they were hearing about a leader named James. Heilman asked her volunteers to estimate how likeable Andrea and James were as people. Three-quarters thought James was more likeable than Andrea.

Using a clever experimental design, Heilman also determined that four in five volunteers preferred to have James as their boss. Andrea seemed less likeable merely because she was a woman who happened to be a leader.

Last year, another experiment comparing people’s perception of men to women made the news, this time looking at men vs women in science. From the abstract of the study:

In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.

These are just a couple of studies, but the results are pretty telling: there is still a bias against women. In real-life examples, it’s so often hard to tell if a particular woman is having a tough time just because she isn’t doing a good job or isn’t as qualified or so on, but in these studies, the only variable is the gender of the applicant. What’s worse, these biases are often subconscious, so people may not realise they are even guilty of biased behaviour.

What does this mean for Gillard? Well, even for people who don’t think of themselves as sexist, it’s possible they may judge her more harshly than a man who was to exhibit the same behaviour and qualities. For what it’s worth, I believe there’s plenty of overt sexism out there too (comments on the internet are not always a barrel of laughs). Do I think that every criticism of Gillard or her currently poor opinion poll ratings are entirely because she’s a woman? Of course not. But I do think it makes her political life harder.

 

Some recommended reading if you’re interested in this type of thing (and also gets at aspects such as race and sexuality I haven’t discussed here).

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Twitter and trolling

For the past couple of weeks, there has been a lot of conversation in the mainstream media about twitter and trolling, which started after Charlotte Dawson was admitted to hospital after being sent a series of abusive tweets, and then Robbie Farah was upset by a comment made about his deceased mother, and then of course the politicians got involved.

Now, the Daily Tele has started a campaign to unmask/control the trolls, and the twittersphere has predictably gone nuts. Reactions on my twitterfeed have gone as they usually do: plenty of people using the #trollmovies hashtag or otherwise taking the piss out the Daily Tele’s campaign, interspersed with some serious discussion of the topic.

I can see why some people would feel like they need to stop the trolls. I’m all for vigorous debate and friendly stirring, but I don’t like seeing personal abuse. At #wawonkdrinks last Friday, I admitted that I wasn’t keen on some of the bullying that seems to have been going around recently; that I like twitter to be my ‘happy place’ and that people being nasty ruins it. I’m not a prominent tweeter, so I receive pretty much no personal abuse, but seeing someone make nasty comments to someone else still makes me a little sad.

Despite all of that, I don’t agree with the suggestion that there needs to be tighter legislation to ‘stop the trolls’ on twitter. One of the things I love most is the very ‘democratic’ nature of it – anyone can talk to anyone else. Unfortunately, that means the kind of people who say nasty things can also say nasty things to anyone they like (at least until they get blocked).  John Birmingham has made the argument far better than I have, so I suggest you read his post if you haven’t already, but the main point is that there are already laws in place that allow the prosecution of internet trolls, but to ‘stop the trolls’ you need to decide what level of severity is worthy of action, and then devote the necessary resources to catching and prosecuting the troll in question. The fact that some humans are arseholes is not a problem with an easy solution.

Mostly, I hope that people don’t get so overwhelmed by trolls that they leave twitter. I enjoy my interactions with a wide variety of people, and I’d hate for that to change. In the last few weeks, I’ve been reminded of how thoroughly wonderful some people on twitter can be, and I’d like it if everyone could feel the same way.

 

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In defence of scientists

In recent times, thanks to some of those who don’t accept the science of climate change, there has been a portrayal of scientists as greed-driven fabricators of untruths driven by money and a desire to hoodwink the general public. Such claims are guaranteed to get my blood boiling. The scientists I know are driven by a quest for knowledge, not a quest for personal wealth. That’s not to say that scientists are all altruistic heroes – I could spend a long time ranting about some of my former colleagues in academia – but to claim that scientists just decide on a story and then collectively perpetuate a lie just to win grant dollars is just ridiculous.

First of all, although science can be pretty conservative (if you’re making a big claim that goes against a widely accepted scientific theory, then your evidence needs to be pretty damn good), there are plenty of scientists out there who dream of overturning the current theory with a paradigm-shattering discovery of their own. In the early stages there is naturally some resistance, but as evidence for the new hypothesis builds the ‘accepted wisdom’ gradually changes: just think of plate tectonics or relativity. An interesting example of this process in action is the story of the faster than light neutrinos – when the researchers on the OPERA experiment had results that seemed to show neutrinos travelling at faster than the speed of light, they presented their results to the scientific community so they could look for potential flaws, and have been repeating the experiments to rule out potential sources of error. This process is still ongoing, and I’ll be very interested to see how it turns out.

This process is no different when it comes to climate change science. Part of the difficulty when it comes to climate change science is that it is hugely complex, so a lot of factors need to be taken into account. Just because one bit of data doesn’t support the global warming hypothesis doesn’t mean that the whole theory will immediately come tumbling down. When considering such a scientific problem, the weight of evidence needs to be balanced as a whole, not just in isolated parts. This complexity is what makes it so easy for those who don’t believe climate change is occurring to cherry-pick data to support their case. Saying to someone a particular graph doesn’t disprove global warming is not head-in-sand blindness or a cover-up, it’s just an acknowledgement that there many factors to consider.

Contrary to the claim of ‘climate change sceptics’, scientists also tend to be sceptical by nature. Whenever presented with a claim, a scientist will nearly always ask for some kind of evidence. It’s not enough to just be told something is so, we need to know the why and how as well. If scientists conduct an experiment that seems to show one thing, we like to rule out any other factors that could be affecting our results (listen to Act One of this episode of This American Life for an example). A theory like global warming doesn’t just magically pop into existence to piss off the coal miners, it develops over time as a whole range of scientific studies all seem be pointing in the same direction. These days, the climate change debate has become so polarised by ideology that the scientists don’t really get a look-in, but I feel it is worthwhile to point out that if a scientist is saying climate change is happening and it is a big problem, it’s going to be because that’s what the weight of evidence shows, not because they’re leftists who love JULIAR or something something. In this case, the science definitely preceded the political debate by a fair margin.

That’s not to say science isn’t at all political – but when I say political I mean it more in the generic strategic sense rather than the party political sense. Competition for grants and funding is fierce, and sometimes the right strategic collaboration is as helpful as good and interesting science. This competitiveness is a big part of what drove me out of academia – I loved science, but not enough to become a workaholic to survive in the field. However, as helpful as the right collaboration may be, dishonest science is just not going to survive in such a competitive environment. Science isn’t some huge club where everyone works together to scam money from the government. Other scientists are the competition, and so if there’s any sign that data is bad it’s not going to be covered up, it is going to be used to discredit your competitor. Instances of data fabrication do occur, but they are few and far between and are inevitably uncovered as other scientists are unable to replicate the results. If you hear a claim that scientists are supporting a particular hypothesis just so they can get the grant dollars, I’m going to call bulls**t. Competition for grant funding may affect the way scientists write their grant applications (I’m interested in this because it can help with national security, not just because I like playing with new materials, ok?), but it doesn’t make their experiments and data any less valid.

While I’m talking about grant funding, I should point out that winning a grant does not mean a scientist is going to live a life of luxury for the next few years, pushing their money around with a bulldozer Scrooge McDuck style before flying off to a conference on a tropical island where they sip cocktails by the beach. Winning a grant simply means that you can survive for a few more years, continuing to work all hours so you can publish enough papers to get the next grant. This is why you have to LOVE science to work in the field, because otherwise the stress simply isn’t worth it. Money isn’t easy to come by either. When I was a PhD student, I was keen to spend a few weeks at Virginia Tech working with my collaborators there. My research group couldn’t afford to send me from existing funds, so I applied for funding of my own. I was lucky to receive two (small) grants to cover my travel: one from the ARC Nanotechnology Network and another from my University’s postgraduate association. The shortfall I made up with the money I received from supervising a group of visiting students for a week. I was glad I did it – in the three weeks I was at VT I learned how to use an instrument that allowed me to conduct experiments that provided valuable supporting evidence for my PhD hypothesis, and I also met with some mathematicians, providing data that led to the publication of a paper [PDF]. I was grateful for the opportunity to travel and the benefits it provided me with, but it was also a lot of work for a few thousand dollars.

These days I’ve left academia, and am thoroughly enjoying my work in the public service, even though I no longer get to play with ferrofluid. I have no end of respect for the people I know who still work in science, as they work very hard for very little reward other than the satisfaction of new knowledge. So next time you hear the claim that scientists are greedy liars who are only in it for the money, call people out on it. Scientists aren’t perfect, but they’re certainly not greed-driven fabricators of untruths.

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Am I a bogan? Some thoughts on class in Australia.

Last night, I read one of those blog posts that made me think. Liz_beths wrote a post entitled “Maliciousness in memes: #boganmovies and #tightsarenotpants”, broadly about jokes the progressive community make at the expense of the working class community. My reaction was similar to last year, when Shiny wrote a post with a similar theme. The reason these posts both made me think is that they talk about bogans and class in a way that I usually don’t think about them. To my mind, bogans are people who like utes, metal music and wearing black jeans with flannies. In my head, they aren’t defined by their income or their political views. However, other people see the ‘bogan’ label as meaning something different: to @OsheaGreen, it’s ppl w/ jobs (usually) who celebrate everything ignorant & nasty & racist in Aus ‘culture’, who are proudly ignorant.” Since bogan seems to mean something different to everyone, I’m going to talk my perceptions of class rather than bogans in particular.

I don’t come from a background with a lot of money. My paternal grandfather was a mechanic, and my maternal grandfather was a farmer. My dad left school at 15 to work full-time because his parents couldn’t afford to keep him home as a student any longer. He has managed to build a successful career in the public service (now in the senior executive service) in part thanks to his dedication to education: he studied for 7 years part time to qualify as an accountant, and followed that with another 7 years of part time study to get his postgrad qualification (all while continuing to work full-time).

Despite Dad having a secure income, we never had a lot of money to spare when I was growing up. Mum didn’t work, and although we never had to go without eating, we didn’t have a lot of money to spare on luxuries. The six of us lived in a house with one bathroom, which meant that I would get up at about 5:45 and shower before going back to bed for half an hour before school. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs or else bought from stores like Kmart or Target. We didn’t own a tv with a remote control until the late 90s. I saved all my income from a year of working 3 or 4 shifts a week at Pizza Hut so I could go on exchange when I was in Year 11.

This is not a whinge about my circumstances while growing up, but just a bit of background so you can understand where I sat on the wealth scale as I grew up. I’m hesitant to place myself in a ‘class’ because I honestly don’t know what the rules are and where the line sits. What I do know is that I wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything. I have a close-knit family who I love a lot, and therefore I consider myself very fortunate.

The thing that strikes me is that a lot of the time, I would say I’m pretty ignorant of the apparent class divide in Australia. I almost never thought about it when I was at school. My brothers and I were all educated at government schools, so I suppose most of our friends were from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. I did have one friend whose parents were relatively well off, but their fancy art in display cases didn’t prevent us from sharing a love of Buffy.

The first time I began to notice some differences was when I reached university, and began a relationship with a private school boy. His family wasn’t especially wealthy, but by my standards some of his friends were. I would turn up to a party and be amazed at the size of the house. Their cars were new and shiny, not like the $400 Laser I drove. Nevertheless, I never had any problem getting along with them. Even now, although that relationship is long over, I am able to have a friendly chat if I run into one of his friends.

I feel the same way about movies or television shows. Again, I don’t know what it means on the class scale, but I used to quite enjoy watching Kath and Kim. I didn’t enjoy it because I would look down on Kath and Kim, rather, I enjoyed it because there is so much Kath and Kim in my life. I have family members who say pacific when they mean specific. I happily shop at Target and IKEA (how can a hot dog be bad if it only costs $1?). To this day, I happily wear trakkydaks to Coles (right now I’m wearing trakkydaks, a singlet from kmart and a hoodie). I’ve touched on some of this before when I wrote about not being cool.

Which brings me to this question: am I a bogan? I’d rather spend a day at the cricket than an evening at a musical. I’d rather shop at Target than David Jones. I suspect that the answer depends on the definition of bogan, which, as I mentioned earlier, depends on who you ask. What I can say is that I’ve never been embarrassed of my background or who I am. I don’t know whether this is because I’ve been fortunate in my interactions with others, or whether I’m too unaware of the subtlety of others to realise that I’m being mocked. If my knowledge of caffeinated beverage protocol is anything to go by, I’d say probably a bit of both.

So maybe I am just ignorant to much of what goes on around me, but while I wouldn’t say Australia is classless, I don’t necessarily agree that there is a big class divide in Australia. For sure, there’s a wealth spectrum, but I don’t think there are as many “hard barriers” here as there may be elsewhere. I’m the granddaughter of a mechanic and a farmer, but last March I graduated from UWA with a PhD in Physics, and I now live a fairly comfortable life while working for the public service. My older brother is an Associate Director at his mid-sized engineering firm, and he’s not yet 30 years old. I agree that it can be unpleasant when people in a position of privilege look down on those who are worse off, but for me, the most important battles are to maintain the opportunities that allowed me to be where I am today.

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Heroes, sportspeople and scientists

This week, Mia Freedman managed to cause public outrage by arguing, a day after Cadel Evans won the Tour de France, that sportspeople aren’t heroes. If you haven’t seen it, you can check out her original post here, or else an updated response here. From a personal perspective, I’m a cycling fan, so I was delighted when Evans won. I’m not going explain why I love cycling, because Kimberley Ramplin has already done an excellent job of it.

I also understand that not everyone feels the same way about cycling or any sport, and I believe that Freedman in no way deserved the vicious attacks she received. However, one thing is still bugging me about the whole “unsung heroes” argument: not everyone working in a field where these unsung heroes are found is motivated by pure altruism, and not everyone wants to receive public acknowledgement.

I’ve had a few cases in my time as a scientist where I have received praise for my work. The first case was just before my honours year, when I received a Cancer Council summer vacation scholarship to do some data monkey work for a prostate cancer research project. At the end of the summer, I was invited to a Cancer Council lunch where I was presented with a certificate. It was a good lunch, and nice to meet some of the people who were donors to the Cancer Council and therefore funding the kind of research I was doing. One of them told me something along the lines of “you’re an amazing person, doing what you’re doing, working to fight cancer. We need more people like you.” I accepted the praise as graciously as I could, because it is always a good feeling to be told that your existence is making the world a better place. However, I simultaneously felt a little awkward, because my motivation to take up the scholarship wasn’t an altruistic desire to “cure cancer.” I was motivated by the desire to get some experience working in medical physics and the usefulness of the money the scholarship provided.

My second exposure to this kind of praise was after I won an ARCNN Overseas Travel Fellowship to travel to the USA to work with my international collaborators on my PhD project. My work was written up in a few community newspapers and on the Science Network of WA website. It was an interesting experience at the time, but my real awkwardness came later, in April of this year, when I was writing about the Discoveries Need Dollars campaign. Someone had left a comment at the bottom of the Science Network post, in which they said “I think Ms Tyler is a fantastic person, excellent student and a hero. I wish the world had more people like her trying to help others.” I was flattered, but that the same time I felt really guilty, because at the end of 2010 I left research for the public service. I was no longer spending my days endeavouring to develop a treatment for retinal detachment. As I’ve mentioned before, it wasn’t because I no longer loved science, it was because I didn’t feel I had the necessary toughness to survive in academia any longer.

Which I suppose brings me to my real point. As a scientist, and a supposedly “unsung hero,” the praise is good, but funding is better. If you really believe that the work of scientists (and nurses, firefighters etc.) is a worthy cause, then don’t just complain that they don’t receive the same praise as sportspeople. Get out there and campaign for more funds. For sure, some publicity about our work may help us build public support, but unsung heroes need money too.

UPDATE: I want to add a quick comment because after reading this post through again it feels a little disconnected. Firstly, this post isn’t really about Mia Freedman’s comments at all, but I suppose I started with that because that’s what got me thinking about this whole thing in the first place. Secondly, while I admit that receiving praise is nice, it was never my motivation for becoming a scientist or choosing the fields I did, which is what I’m really getting at when I talk about not necessarily wanting public acknowledgement.

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Discoveries need dollars and why I care

Before I was even born, a medical geneticist named Athel Hockey was involved in my life. I’m not going to go into details, but it’s fair to say that medical research is part of why I am here today.

When I was 20 years old and still an undergraduate science student, I won a prize named after Dr Hockey: the Athel Hockey Prize in Medical Genetics. To this day, I quite like that she was involved at the beginning of my life, and at the beginning of my life as a researcher.

I chose not to continue in genetics, because although I enjoyed studying the science behind genetics, on a day-to-day basis physics was what I really loved. I was fortunate because I chose to do my PhD with a research group that has quite an extensive interest in the use of physics/magnetism for biomedical and medical applications. My own PhD project began with the aim of using magnetic fluids to treat retinal detachment. As is the way with science, I ended up getting sidetracked with my research, and, as my supervisor put it “started out doing research that could help a lot of people, and ended up discovering a new physical phenomenon.”

After completing my PhD, I worked as a half-time research associate (with the same group) for 6 months, while taking on as many casual teaching responsibilities as I could so I could afford to pay rent and eat food. It was during that 6 months that I made one of the more difficult choices in my life: to leave research. I still loved the science, but I was hit with the realisation that I wasn’t cut out for a life of job insecurity (if I could find a job at all).

Which brings me to the point of this post: Discoveries Need Dollars. If more dollars are available for medical research, more scientists can be employed and more medical discoveries can be made. This is why I care about reports that there could be a cut of $400 million to the National Health and Medical Research Council in the upcoming federal budget. Check out the Discoveries Need Dollars site for more news and links, and if you’re free and from Perth, Brisbane or Darwin, come to a rally later this week (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Canberra have already hosted rallies). Here’s hoping the government listens, because medical research doesn’t just benefit scientists, it benefits everyone.

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The choices of women

Tonight Janet Albrechtsen said something on Q&A that really annoyed me (yes, yes, what a surprise). I can’t remember exactly what the question being discussed was, but the discussion was moving along the lines of gender imbalance in pay/the workforce/on boards. Albrechtsen then made a comment about women “choosing” to leave the workforce.

This annoyed me greatly because of a choice I made a little while ago: the choice to leave academia. 5 years ago (almost to the day), I started my PhD, enthusiastic about all that the world of research had to offer me. Since I was about 7 years old, I had always wanted to be a scientist of some sort or another, and in physics I felt like I had really found my place.

Move forward 4 years, and I spent a lot of time pondering the question “Do I stay or do I go?” I still loved the science, but I hated pretty much everything else about academia. The extreme competitiveness in particular, but I was also tired of having to fight the sexism day in and day out. Sure, it wasn’t always as bad as the more extreme cases, and not everyone in the department was sexist, but as time wore on I felt like the culture of sexism began to affect me every day. It was the little things. Automatically standing out because I was the only female in the room. Men (well, just one man in particular) making constant references to censoring his speech because there are things he won’t say around a lady. Being told by a student that I’m the first physics teacher he’s ever had that doesn’t have a beard, and that they’re not sure that it feels right to be learning physics from someone beardless.

In the end, I made the choice to leave academia. The main reason I left was because I felt I couldn’t survive the competitive environment and extreme dedication to the job that surviving in academia seems to require these days. After I had made my decision (and accepted the offer for the job I’m now working in) I had a good heart to heart with my PhD supervisor (for the record, very supportive and not a sexist f-wit). He told me that he thought that I was a talented scientist and a good scientific writer, but that he thought I lacked the final ingredient: the hunger needed to succeed in academia. I think he was right.

I’m now working in my new job, and if you’ve spoken to me in the last month you’ll know how happy I am there. I love the work, I love my colleagues and I love the culture of the place. I know I made the right choice, but I still sometimes have to fight feelings of guilt. I left the fight of academia for the relatively secure environs of the public service. This makes me just another woman contributing to the total number leaving academia. By not staying on, there’s no way I can help even up the numbers at the top (and they’re very uneven in physics). I often had female students privately confide to me that they love having a female tutor because it makes studying physics a little less daunting – who are they going to look up to now?

I tell myself I made the choice to leave academia because I don’t have the hunger required. This is true, but I also think it is near impossible to separate out the impact of a sexist culture when making such a big choice, and that’s before addressing the deeper question of whether academia is an environment that encourages higher survival rates for people with typically male traits compared with those who have typically female traits (there’s a paper by FASTS on this somewhere, I’ll have to dig it up).

I know I recently blogged about being on feminism L-plates, but just because I’m still learning doesn’t mean that I’m not going to talk about it. I’m going to write about my own experience as a middle-class, white, able-bodied woman because that’s what I know.

All of this is a very long way of saying that blaming gender imbalance on the choices of women is a rubbish argument. For sure, I think feminism should be all about choice, but while we still have different pressures on men and women in the workplace, men and women are bound to make different choices, perpetuating the imbalance. I may have made the choice to leave academia, but I can’t say for sure that being a woman had nothing to do with that.

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