Talking about women in science

I was on Radio NZ Nights a couple of weeks ago, talking about women in science.

Radio NZ Nights: Feminist Pundit on women in science

The topic came to mind because I had just seen an article about the statistical likelihood of having an all-male panel at maths conferences (in a totally surprising finding, it’s statistically very unlikely) and by a tweet conversation with the wonderful Siouxsie Wiles about imposter syndrome, and by the Gendered Conference Campaign run by the Feminist Philosophers’ Blog. (I do know that Philosophy is not a science, but of all the humanities disciplines, Philosophy might be the one that most resembles the sciences in its academic practices.) A day or two after I had suggested the topic, in a very fortunate coincidence of timing, Nicola Gaston’s new book, Why Science is Sexist, came out.

The conversation with Bryan Crump was great fun, as usual. For more on Bryan’s general excellence as a broadcaster, skip to the bottom of this post.

We covered the leaky pipeline: lots of women taking science at school and at undergraduate levels, and even at higher levels, but very very few at the top levels of science. Nicola Gaston has a great story about this.

Dr Nicola Gaston tells a story about an encounter at an international conference dinner one night in 2012.

Sitting with a group of five, four of whom she knew well, a senior member of the quantum chemistry academy running the conference stopped by to talk to someone opposite her. The conversation was about one of the talks that morning.

The visitor said to Dr Gaston: “I’m sorry, we must be boring you.”

She assured him that wasn’t the case.

“Oh, but you aren’t one of us, are you?” he continued. “What I mean is, you aren’t a scientist, are you?”

The table now in silence, she replied: “Actually, yes I am.”

The man’s forehead wrinkled, he smiled, and asked: “Oh, what kind of science? What I mean is, you aren’t our kind of scientist, are you?”

She said something to the man, headed straight for the bar, and it was there that she noticed her environment. At the tables behind her, filled mostly with students and postdoctoral researchers, the gender split was 50/50, while the tables surrounding hers, hosting working scientists, were largely full of men. At the front, where VIPs and members of the academy were seated, the ratio was again half and half – but only because the men had brought their wives.

But why would there be such a drop off of women in science?

It could be due to stereotype threat:

When there’s a stereotype in the air and people are worried they might confirm the stereotype by performing poorly, their fears can inadvertently make the stereotype become self-fulfilling.

Steele and his colleagues found that when women were reminded — even subtly — of the stereotype that men were better than women at math, the performance of women in math tests measurably declined. Since the reduction in performance came about because women were threatened by the stereotype, the psychologists called the phenomenon “stereotype threat.”

There’s a classic xkcd comic that’s very much to the point here.

Then there’s women in science constantly being disparaged: witness Tim Hunt making cracks about “girls” in labs, and that shirt that Matt Taylor wore when he was talking to the world’s media about landing a spacecraft on a comet (to his credit, Taylor got the point straight away, apologised for his goof-up and moved on, unlike Hunt), and Larry Summers talking about how women just don’t have the innate ability for science.

NB: for those of you who are still attached to the view that Tim Hunt was very hard done by, check out this very thorough review of what actually happened: Saving Tim Hunt.

This is the sort of climate that women face in science: men who won’t take women seriously, and treat them as mere accessories and distractions. Is it any wonder that women don’t stay in science?

So what are the solutions? Consciousness raising: acknowledging that the problem actually exists. Mentoring women scientists. Recognising that this is a problem for everyone to solve, rather than expecting individual women to solve a systemic problem. This is particularly important because the negativity around women in science, and women in any non-traditional gender roles, is something that we all do. Women are part of our society just as much as men, and we absorb the same attitudes. So women need to recognise and work to solve this problem too. And it will be all to the good if we can solve the problem. At present, a good proportion of people who would be excellent scientists are being turned away from doing science, and that means that we are squandering their work and talents.

I recommend Nicola Gaston’s book: it’s well worth reading. She was on Q&A a couple of weeks ago talking about the issues for women in science: Q&A: Sexism and science.


I’ve been Radio NZ Night’s feminist pundit for three years now, and it has been great fun. They’re keen to have me back again next year, but there are reviews going on. A couple of straws of gossip in the wind that I’ve picked up on, and this comment on Dim-Post:

depressing news from RNZ source – ‘proposal’ to gut ‘nights’ of local content/interviews and have Brian Crump (only wears his heart in his pocket) as continuity between BBC/overseas content – Hirschfeld (head of content) must find monies for savior of public radio JC’s drivetime multi media (someone that good must be on as many platforms as is financially possible) – aucklanders don’t listen to nighttime radio – too many good restaurants – goodbye public RADIO

That would be a great loss. Obviously I would miss being able to talk feminism on air, but it’s more than that. Bryan Crump is an excellent broadcaster and interviewer. He’s very gentle, and he manages to have conversations with people that generate real insights and real connection. He has a tremendous ability to elicit emotion without being mawkish, or even sentimental. I often turn his show on when I’m driving in the evening, and I’ve been known to get home and stay sitting in the car to keep on listening to an interview, because I don’t want to miss it. I should be very sorry indeed if his local interviews and local content was taken off the air.

Talking about male privilege

I was on Radio NZ Nights last night, talking about male privilege, and some other forms of privilege. You can listen to the discussion here: Feminism – Male Privilege.

As usual, I had sent some notes to Bryan Crump before the discussion. I started with a definition of male privilege: social, economic and political advantages or rights that a made available to men solely on the basis of their sex. For background reading, I linked to tigtog’s excellent FAQ at Finally Feminism 101: What is male privilege?.

From there we quickly got onto Barry Deutsch’s male privilege checklist: The Male Privilege Checklist. The conversation segued all over the place from there, including the usual places: women and children first on shipwrecks, the privilege of beauty, and so on.

We didn’t get to John Scalzi’s Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is, but Bryan suggested an excellent analogy. He thought that privilege is a bit like cycling with a tail wind. You don’t really notice the assistance at all: you just think that you’re peddling along at great speed.

I had been thinking about a few examples of privilege during the day, in preparation for the talk. I wanted to talk about white privilege, perhaps in connection with Peggy McIntosh’s famous white privilege checklist, but as it turned out, the topic came up in connection with a tweet from Morgan Godfrey that I had seen earlier in the day.

“Maori are bicultural by necessity, would be great if the rest of the country was too…”

I also talked about the planning that women go through about how they will walk home at night, in connection with a conference I am attending this weekend (Kiwi Foo Camp FTW!). I talked about how I had been offered accommodation in town, away from the conference venue, but in order to take it up, I would have to think through how I was going to get from the venue to my accommodation, which routes I would take, and how I could stay safe walking through a suburban street after dark. Bryan suggested that perhaps this on-going safety planning that women do is conditioned into us, in comparison to men feeling much more free to go where and when they will. I agreed that it was likely a matter of conditioning, but that didn’t take away the privilege of having that tailwind of not worrying about it.

Some other examples I had in mind but didn’t have the opportunity to mention:
– As a heterosexual woman, I enjoy the privilege of walking down the street holding my husband’s hand and not giving it a second thought, but a gay man would need to go through a process of checking his surroundings, checking who else was about, thinking about whether he and his husband were safe from attack before they could do such a thing, and possibly (probably, alas, in far too many streets in New Zealand) choose not to express their companionship by such a simple action.
– As an able bodied woman, I never, ever have to plan my routes around campus, or go around to a different entrance to a building, or ask for assistance from complete strangers to get up and down steps, whereas many disabled people have to go through these calculations every time they leave their home.

We talked a bit about privilege being a matter of context – a person can be privileged in some aspects of their lives, but not in others. That’s certainly my personal experience, and I know that many straight white men nevertheless experience real difficulty in other aspects of their lives. But really, see The Lowest Difficulty Setting.

A final note: as ever, a white person writing about white privilege and a man writing about male privilege are given far more credence than a black person or a woman writing about the same topics. As indeed, a white New Zealander talking about Pakeha privilege on Radio NZ might just be given far more credence than a Maori New Zealander talking about it…

Some more reading on privilege:
Don’t women have female privilege?
The lowest difficulty setting in action, with evidence


Talking about pay equity

I was on Nights on Radio NZ last night, talking about pay equity.

The podcast of the talk is available here: Pundit: Feminist thought

As usual, I put together a set of notes for Bryan Crump, together with links to relevant articles. I’ve reproduced them below, with some extra notes.

Pay equity – discussion notes for Radio NZ Nights on Monday 13 October

Problem – women’s wages lagging behind men’s wages

NZ evidence – depends how you measure it – somewhere between 10% and 14%.

Ministry of Women’s Affairs gender pay gap data

Over the past few years, the gap between women’s and men’s wages in New Zealand has hovered around 10%. It got down to as low as 9.3% in 2012, but it’s gone back up to around 10% in the last couple of years.

The most recent information I could find puts the gender pay gap in NZ at about 14% – Radio NZ story from 4 October on the gender pay gap.

But we compare quite well to the US – the gender pay gap there is about 23% for full time workers (ref).

In Australia, one CEO who recognises that there is a pay gap got into trouble when he said that:

by hiring women, he got better-qualified employees to whom he was able to give more responsibility. “And [they were] still often relatively cheap compared to what we would’ve had to pay someone less good of a different gender,” he concluded. To illustrate his point he showed a slide that said: “Women: Like Men, Only Cheaper.”

What causes it?

Standard explanations – caring duties, time out for pregnancy/ childcare, lack of flexible work, occupational segregation, experience, education. But research shows that even when you account for all of that, a pay gap remains. See NZ Herald – the true reasons behind the gender pay gap.

Some evidence that I find interesting, given that I started out as an accountant – men in accountancy with less than five years experience earn about $3,600 more than their female counterparts (Radio NZ story). At that stage of people’s careers, explanations based around pregnancy and childcare don’t seem to be quite so relevant.

What can be done about it?

Take a pay equity case, as Kristine Bartlett has done in NZ.

Encourage women to negotiate for higher wages but that’s a double edged sword.

Women earn less than men because they are seen as pushovers when they don’t negotiate hard and are seen as “ball-breakers” when they do, a psychologist says.

Or… we could always cut men’s wages!

Some other references:
A piece I wrote for the Dom Post about the gender pay gap a few years ago:
Isn’t it time to fix the pay gap?

Dr Jackie Blue on pay equity – Bridging the gender pay gap: Pay-up time at public service

A couple of research reports on the gender pay gap.
What causes the gender wage gap, from the Center for American Progress

Explaining the wage gap, from the American National Women’s Law Center.

On the radio, talking about domestic violence

I was on Nights on Radio NZ earlier this week, talking about domestic violence. It was, as ever, a difficult topic to talk about.

You can find a recording of the talk here: Click on “Pundit: Feminist thought”

I talked about some of the myths about domestic violence, including the “myth” that women are violent too. This is not actually a myth, because it’s true. But, the scale is different. I’ve come across one study which has some reasonably good stats – domestic violence as reported by children.

Domestic violence as witnessed by New Zealand children

This is from the Dunedin longitudinal study. The researchers have been following an entire cohort of children, all the children born in Dunedin between 1 April 1972 and 31 March 1973. That’s a very powerful dataset. In this particular article, the researchers look at the children’s reports of domestic violence, c/f reports by perpetrators or by victims. Here’s what they found.

One-quarter (24%) of the sample reported violence or threats of violence directed from one parent to the other. Nine percent reported infrequent assaults while one in 10 reported more than five acts of physical violence. In violent families, 55% reported violence by fathers only, 28% by both partners, and 16% by mothers only.

I also talked about the testimony from Sir Patrick Stewart. It is compelling and distressing.

Patrick Stewart: the legacy of domestic violence

There’s more from Patrick Stewart here: Sir Patrick Stewart’s powerful message about domestic violence

If you are affected by domestic violence, then Women’s Refuge can help.

Or phone Women’s Refuge on 0800 REFUGE / 0800 733843

There was so much that we didn’t have time to talk about, such as the chronic underfunding of Women’s Refuge, and that women are in most danger as they prepare to leave or just after they leave which is why “she should just leave” is such a dangerous myth, or that it is widespread and occurs in all social groups.

And there was something that affected me more than almost anything. I put up a Facebook post, letting people know that I would be on the air talking about domestic violence. And immediately, some of my friends told me stories.

My daughter got out of her marriage physically unharmed on the whole, though her ex did blame bruising on her thighs on their then 3 year old son – he made an affidavit to the Family Court and they believed him FFS!! But the psychological battering was something else – she was either a useless wife and mother or a useless mother and wife.

Good luck Deborah, but the sector isnt positive. In Palmerston North since the Salvation Army closed its Womens Safe house last year due to lack of funding inhibiting its safe running, since then despite increased demand Palmerston North Women’s Refuge has gone from two safe houses that were well used to just one, have lost two staff members and are no longer able to run their children’s programme. The staff left have had their hours cut and are working the remaining hours on a voluntary basis, as well as now having to use their own cars. This leaves one safe house in the Manawatu/horowhenua district as PN womens refuge ‘area’ is the same as the DHB

Last year there were more than 90,000 domestic violence calls attended by police. It makes up 50% of their work. The form they (often called the Pol400) is 18 pages long, which accounts for the complexity of the relationships and the importance of getting the risk assessment correct. Despite all of this most police officers have no idea what happens to the Pol400 after it is filed.

We all know too much about domestic violence. And that tells you just how big a problem it is.

Women, beauty and age

I was on Radio NZ Nights yesterday evening, talking about women and beauty and age and double standards. You can listen to the discussion here.

Radio NZ Nights: Equality for women with feminist blogger Deborah Russell: women, beauty, aging and double standards.

I started with Mary Wollstonecraft, and her deep concerns about how the quest for beauty and beauty alone distorted women’s behaviour.

And, why do they not discover, when ‘in the noon of beauty’s power,’c that they are treated like queens only to be deluded by hollow respect, till they are led to resign, or not assume, their natural prerogatives? Confined then in cages like the feathered race, they have nothing to do but to plume themselves, and stalk with mock majesty from perch to perch.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792

The conversation segued from there, as it always does, here, there and everywhere. Bryan Crump, the Nights host, always (always!) asks me something unexpected.

As I was preparing for the discussion, I came across Susan Sontag’s 1972 article, “The Double Standard of Aging” (PDF available here).

A man doesn’t need to tamper with his face. A woman’s face is the canvas on which she paints a revised portrait of herself.

It’s very much second wave feminism, but there are some hints here and there of seeing beyond the concerns of white middle class educated women.

Oppressors, as a rule, deny oppressed people their own “native” standards of beauty. And the oppressed end up being convinced that they are ugly.

There’s a post on Sociological Images, referencing Sontag, and looking at the differences between the images that come up if you google, “woman face”, and “man face”. It makes Sontag’s point, that women are supposed to be young, with symmetrical, unlined, hairless faces. And evidently, as Sociological Images says, they should also be white.

As ever, when I’m talking to a generalist audience on Radio NZ, I tend towards a more mainstream feminism. I’ll be talking again in a few weeks, sometime in June, and I’m contemplating pushing into somewhat more complicated territory, perhaps into a discussion of intersectionality and privilege. We shall see….


I’ve been on the radio a couple of times this week.

The first was my regular discussion with Bryan Crump, on Radio NZ Nights. This time we talked about abortion law reform in New Zealand. You can find the discussion here: Abortion law reform in NZ – discussion with Bryan Crump on RNZ Nights 16’45”.

It was as ever, an interesting discussion, and a challenging one.

The second radio appearance was challenging too, in quite a different way. I was on NewstalkNB’s breakfast show, talking to Mike Hosking about this awful “Roast Busters” group in Auckland. I was a bit flummoxed by his opening question: he asked me about the girls, when I had expected to be asked about the boys who were deliberately pursuing girls and getting them drunk with the explicit aim of raping them. However, I recovered, and then had quite a good opportunity, I thought, to focus the discussion on rape and rape culture.

You can find the audio of my discussion here: Roast Busters and Rape – discussion with Mike Hosking on NewstalkZB – about 3 minutes.

Many thanks to whoever suggested that NewstalkZB should contact me. I have my suspicions as to who it was…