In data we trust – but should we?

By Sabrina Patsch, Universität Kassel and Freie Universität Berlin

For us scientists, data are our daily bread. We collect them, we compare them, we try extract general knowledge from them. Instead of speculating, we ask data to give us all the answers we are looking for. We collect data to improve the daily life for everybody. Or rather, for the average human being. Too bad the average person is between 25 and 30 years, weighs 70kg, and is a white man.

In her new bestselling book “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men”, Caroline Criado-Perez addresses what she calls the gender data gap. Since the beginning of historiography, women have shone with absence. Instead, the life stories of men were assumed to be representative for all people. It is based on – or even the origin of – the unconscious thought that the man is the default human. If people say human, they usually mean men.
Criado-Perez addresses this issue on 425 pages (not counting the 75 pages of references) in seven chapters using examples from our daily life, the workplace, design, medicine, the public life and crisis management. She begins her book by quoting Simone de Beauvoir

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it fromtheir own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.
– Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

showing that, despite being 70 years old, this statement is as true as ever.

Criado-Perez claims that gender neutrality is in most cases mere illusion. Most of the data – or in general information – we gather, concerns men. Based on this, people make decisions that affect everybody – including the half of the population that is not captured by the data. Now most of the decision making is in the hands of healthy, white men which come in nine of ten cases from the USA. Without (necessarily) malicious intent, the decision makers assume themselves to be the “standard human” and they lack perspective. This is why diversity is crucial to design a world that works for everybody.

Let me give an example for the problem with gender neutral design. While real languages are historically shaped and might be influenced by sexist thinking from earlier ages, Emoji is a new language consciously designed by people. It is the Unicode consortium who discusses and selects the emojis which are part of the worldwide Unicode standard [1]. Originally, in Emoji 1.0, most emojis were present in a gender-neutral form, such as the “spy” 🕵️ . While the consortium defines the main specifics of the emoji (“An undercover investigator, wearing a hat, and sometimes using a magnifying glass to closely inspect evidence.” [1]), the specific design is up to every platform. And indeed, most platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, interpreted the spy as a man. Even if they had been able to create a gender-neutral picture of a spy, most people (including women) interpret gender-neutral figures as men. We tend to assume things as male – until the opposite is proven. So, the seemingly gender-neutral language is not that neutral after all. The only way to make women visible is to name them explicitly. As a result, the Unicode consortium decided to add the “male spy” 🕵️‍♂️ and the “female spy” 🕵️‍♀️ to Emoji 4.0. An important step, even though Unicode still describes the “male spy” as “The male version of the Spy emoji. Currently identical in appearance to the non-gendered base emoji.” [1].

While the design of emojis could be dismissed as a trifle, Criado-Perez comes up with a shocking number of examples where the gender data gap poses a real threat for women. Take medicine. Studies on the efficacy of drugs are often conducted on men. One of the reasons put forward is that female bodies are more complicated since they undergo a hormonal cycle affecting the results. But if the hormonal cycle is affecting the effectiveness of the drugs, this must not be neglected in drug tests. But it is. As a result, many drugs don’t work for women in the same way as for men – or sometimes not at all. Even in medical school, women are often only treated as a variation of the standard. Students are taught anatomy and female anatomy, physiology and female physiology. How can half of the population be a variation?

In academia, we experience first-hand how the blindness to gender issues results in discrimination against women. In Germany, post-doctoral researchers can spend a maximum of six years in temporal positions. If they do not receive a permanent position afterwards, it is often the end of their scientific career. This system disadvantages women in particular, since the critical time for PhDs to achieve a tenure track position coincides with the time women might want to start a family. For many women, combining an academic career with raising a child seems like a Herculean task and they decide to drop out before even applying for their first tenure track position. Men become fathers too, one might think, so they should be affected in the same way, but the numbers tell a different story. A look at the figures is downright depressing – it is a story of lone she-wolves [2, study conducted in the USA]:
The rate of divorces is higher, marriages less frequent and the number of children less for female than for male professors. Among the tenured faculty members, 70% of men are married with kids – but only 44% of women. Women who are married with kids have a 35% lower chance of getting a tenured faculty position than married men with kids. Even without children, chances for women are lower than for men. At the end of the road, women receive a 29% lower pension than men – two of the reasons being a later promotion and parental leave. Men’s pension, on the other hand, is not affected by having children. This is a prime example of a system that was designed for only one half of the population. Currently, two years of half-time employment is simply not equal to one year of full-time work. One hard measure for success in science is the number of publications. If someone published half as much per year, their chances of a tenured position decrease significantly – full stop. Does the system have to be like this? Definitely not.

I presented only three of Criado-Perez’s examples of how women are affected by the gender data gap. In the afterword of her book, she breaks down the plethora of problems to three points that describe the position of women in a male dominated world. Firstly, the invisibility of the female body. It is often ignored, that the female body is simply different from the male one. In addition to medical aspects mentioned above, there are also technical or architectonical aspects. Gender neutral security clothes don’t fit, the keyboard of a piano is too wide, or voice recognition just doesn’t work. Secondly, and ironically with respect to the first point, the visibility of the female gender. It is not the female sex, but the gender – the socially constructed aspect of being a woman – that leads to women being ignored, interrupted in discussions, harassed or even abused. Equal behaviour of men and women does not cause the same reaction. And most dramatically, sexual violence of men against women is a threat to women’s freedom and well-being, and is not sufficiently studied and included in the design of our world. Thirdly, women do most of the care work, without which our society would not function. This work is not sufficiently acknowledged or considered in shaping the world which restricts the possibilities of women and complicated their lives.

In her book, Criado-Perez presents a staggering amount of statistics revealing the underrepresentation of women to make a simple point: This is a men’s world. Women are disadvantaged and discriminated against, treated as a variation of the norm. But women’s issues are no minority’s issues – they are issues of 50% of the population. We have to start questioning the implicit assumption of masculinity, just as Denna did in Patrick Rothfuss’ novel “The Name of the Wind”:

“How could we possibly hurt it?” (the protagonist said, talking about a dragon)
“We lure her over the side of a cliff,” Denna said matter-of-factly.
“She?” I asked. “Why do you think it’s a she?” ​
“Why do you think it’s a he?” she replied.

 

[1] https://emojipedia.org/
[2] https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/06/female-academics-pay-a-heavy-baby-penalty.html

All we need to do is wait… for 250 years

By Sabrina Patsch, Universität Kassel and Freie Universität Berlin

Times are changing. It is becoming more normal to see female scientists. I had two female fellow students, one of the physics professors of my university is female and a woman just won the Nobel prize for physics. System changes are slow but once the new generation reaches the age of senior researchers gender parity will be there.

Congratulations! We’re done. Time to lean back, give ourselves a pat on the back and enjoy a merry future.

Wouldn’t it be nice? But – I’m sorry – things are not as easy as that. Studies show [1] that, if we just keep going on as before, gender parity in physics will be reached in no less than 258 years. As a comparison: the feminist movement started in the late 19th century which would mean that we made only about a third of the way.

There are many reasons for this. Of course, also demography plays a role. When today’s senior scientists were young, they had much less female fellow students than the students have nowadays. But this demographic inertia is not sufficient to explain the slow adjustment in gender parity we see today. Another reason is visualised by the metaphor of the leaky pipeline: there are many women at the beginning of the academic journey but only a few make it until the end. Of course, also not every man reaches top positions in research. But the percentage of women is decreasing from step to step or, to follow the metaphor, from junction to junction. May it be due to hindrances or because they “chose” to leave academia.

Let’s face it: academia does not glisten with promises of a luxurious or secure life. The way to the top goes through numerous countries and uncountable temporary positions without the guarantee to reach the goal at all. Impossible to plan your life – or even the next three years. That perspective is not very attractive and many choose to pursue another career with more security.

But this does not sound like a women’s problem per se, does it? Aren’t men affected by this as well? Of course they are – but still it is only on conferences dedicated to female scientists that this issues are being addressed openly. Changing the system can help to make academia a more attractive place for a lot of bright people who just do not want to live a hermit life for the sake of an academic career.

In addition to women falling of the career ladder, there are also significantly less girls setting their foot on the bottom rung of the STEM ladder in the first place. The reasons for this are again innumerable. Girls do not have enough female scientific role models, they cannot picture themselves as scientists, and girls are “worse at maths than boys” anyway. As for the last argument, it is important to bear in mind that career decisions are usually not made on the basis of absolute but relative abilities. In other words: People usually decide to study what they are best at and not what they are sufficiently good at. So someone who is good at math but even better at something else will most likely decide to study… something else. And indeed: a recent study [2] showed that the higher reading ability of girls, as compared to their math skills and also the reading abilities of boys, can largely explain the gender gap in math-related fields while the sheer difference in maths performance is not able to do so.

Shouldn’t we encourage everybody to study what they are best at? The subject in which they are most likely to develop their full potential? In principle yes, but the occurrence of this difference in abilities seems quite peculiar by itself. One obvious explanation seems to be the very different education of girls and boys. Girls are, for instance, usually more encouraged to read and dream while boys are expected to be more practical and to make things. Even the most trying parents have a hard time to raise their kids without gender expectations. Our society is full of them. Never have there been more gendered toys, more pink and blue in our world than today. Parents who tried to show their kids that they can become everything they want will be disappointed one day when their little girl comes home from the nursery school telling them that she can’t be a knight anymore and that she wants to be a princess now –  the other girls said so.

It’s hard to be a knight amongst princesses. It’s hard to be the only girl in the advanced math course. It’s hard to be the only women on a conference.

And who can blame them for wanting to be just like the other girls? They should not need to justify themselves. They should not need the strength to “be different”. And they should not need to wait 258 years for it.

 

[1] L. Holman, D. Stuart-Fox, C. E. Hauser (2018) The gender gap in science: How long until women are equally represented? PLoS Biol 16(4): e2004956. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2004956

[2] T. Breda, C. Napp (2019) Girls’ comparative advantage in reading can largely explain the gender gap in math-related fields. PNAS 116 (31) 15435-15440. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1905779116

Collaborating with Men and Gender-inclusive Workplaces

By Wing Ying Chow, Postdoc at a research institute in Berlin

When asked about the issues facing women in science or more broadly in the working environment, most people probably would think of the fact that women may have children and it would be a challenge to balance work and family life from then onwards. Leaving aside the implicit assumption that women would be “in charge” of family life and therefore find more conflict with the time they can spend at work, is this actually the biggest factor?

From a survey of 954 women who graduated from the University of Cambridge, it was found that the most commonly mentioned career challenge was not actually balancing family and work (22%), but challenges within the workplace itself (38%). This suggested that women’s career issues arise not only because women have children, but perhaps more because workplaces and the associated culture were developed at a time when only men were working, and changes still need to be made to make workplaces more inclusive.

What changes would these be? It is against this background that Murray Edwards College carried out a study titled “Collaborating with Men”, presented on 23 September to an audience of alumni, staff and students. Dame Barbara Stocking, the President of Murray Edwards College, pointed out that previous emphasis has been on “fixing the women”, but the changes required in workplace culture can only be solved by men and women working together. In addition, gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it matters and can have benefit for men as well as women.

To find out what changes can benefit gender equality and to come up with actionable recommendations, 40 men working in a range of sectors including business, civil service and academia (and different career stages) participated in a workshop, several focus groups and some were interviewed to understand what men think about the impact of workplace culture on women and what possible remedies there are.

The study emphasised that men are generally motivated to improve workplace culture. Early career men tend to be more individually motivated and are more open to changing their behaviour, but many tend to think that “the job is done” already regarding women’s issue in the workplace. Mid-career men are busier in their work and personal lives and can see gender issues as yet another thing they have to deal with, but also have more personal experience of the impact of having families on women’s lives. From this, it is clear that men of various career stages can be motivated to champion gender diversity, though continuing to raise awareness will be key for engaging with men in the early stage of their careers when they are more likely to become active allies for gender equality.

Benevolent sexism was raised as an issue that can affect many women in the workplace, where women get channelled into jobs that they are believed to be good at, whether it is more teaching in an academic setting or more caring/managing roles in a business setting. This leads to women staying in mid-level roles rather than being promoted to leadership roles.

One issue that was often surprising to men was that many women feel that their voices are not being heard, for example in meetings, even when the women are in a comparatively senior position. Many women in the audience agreed, saying the greater problem is not just the fact that the expression of their ideas gets interrupted, but also that the same idea gets picked up later on by men who receive credit. On this issue, the men in the study first assumed that women were not speaking up. After some further discussion, it was suggested that differences in tone, phrasing and even pitch of the voice of women that may lead to men’s voices and opinions being heard more than women’s. Based on this feedback, one of the recommendations of this study was to organise reverse mentoring where junior women would mentor senior men or managers, to help those in charge understand how things are like from the women’s perspective.

The strategy of amplification was also raised during the discussion. This is famously practised by the female staffers in Obama’s administration, where ideas offered by women would be repeated and given credit for it by another person, thus making it possible for women’s voices and ideas to be properly heard and credited. Obviously, this would require women to have other allies in the meeting, which brings in another aspect of cultural issues in the workplace — one where men find it easier to form unspoken alliances with other men.

One aspect that the study focussed on was where women are not as integrated into the peer group in the workplace as men, particularly in informal networking. It was highlighted that men and women have different styles and views of networking, where men often maintain larger networks consciously, in case someone they met turns out to be helpful later; women are more likely to join formal women’s networks and also tend to be more transactional, only getting in contact when they have a specific request or offer. Moreover, due to worries of sexual harassment, it can often seem “safer” to interact with people of the same gender. As a result, the informal networks tend to be gender separated. This is, unfortunately, not in women’s favour as men can feel that they cannot sponsor women as strongly as they would sponsor a “good guy” that they have more informal interactions with. In the recommendations of the study, some schemes for building closer relationships were proposed, which not only give more opportunities for networking across genders but can also improve the communication within an organisation in general.

Murray Edwards College is extending an invitation to institutes and companies that are motivated to improve their workplace culture to try out some of the recommendations in their report. To read the full report and recommendations, please see the links below. Jill Armstrong (ja605@cam.ac.uk), the researcher involved in this study, will be delighted to hear from anyone who is interested.

https://www.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/about/Collaborating-with-Men

2017 Report: https://www.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/news/collaborating-with-men-report-talks-about-changing-workplace-culture
2017 Action plan: https://www.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/files/Report%202%20-%20Collaborating%20with%20Men%20July%202017.pdf
2014 Survey results: https://www.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/files/Women%20Today%20Women%20Tomorrow%20Survey%20Report.pdf