Hundreds sign letter criticizing Science for reinforcing “damaging stereotypes”

scienceAfter an advice columnist for Science Careers suggested a postdoc “put up with” an adviser’s wandering gaze in June, and an author of a piece in Science partly credited his success to his wife (a Ph.D. scientist) who assumed “the bulk of the domestic responsibilities” in July, some readers have gotten fed up.

These examples are two of four recent instances from Science that reinforce “damaging stereotypes about underrepresented groups in STEM fields,” according to a letter penned by scientists Aradhna K. Tripati, Jennifer B. Glass and Lenny Teytelman. As of this morning, the letter has been signed by more than 300 people; it will be sent to Science/AAAS Editors on Tuesday, July 21.

We showed the letter to Marcia McNutt, the Editor in Chief of Scienceset to become the first female leader of the 152-year-old National Academy of Sciences — and she told us:

Science and Science Careers in particular have had a couple of missteps, which we regret. We’ve been rethinking our strategy and are in the process of changing oversight for Science Careers, but not fast enough.

The Science Careers column, penned by virologist Alice Huang, was retracted only hours after it appeared (but can still be viewed here). Not surprisingly, the piece earned a strong — and swift — reaction. Sample tweet:

Jezebel, Time, Forbes, and the Washington Post all had stories citing or adding to the criticism.

The other article, which appeared in the Working Life section of Science, hasn’t been pulled or edited, though it has sparked complaints about reinforcing gender stereotypes. For instance:

In response to the criticism, article author Eleftherios P. Diamandis asked Inside Higher Ed:

If I stayed home, would my wife be sexist?

We emailed Diamandis for further comment, and will let you know if we hear back.

The letter to Science is currently in a Google doc that is open for anyone to edit. The authors have asked us not to make the link public in order to avoid “trolling attacks.” So instead, with permission, we’re quoting it liberally. Here’s what it says about the cover of the July 11, 2014 issue:

3) The cover photo of headless transgender sex workers of color with the caption “Staying a step ahead of HIV/AIDS[3] fed into stereotypes associating prostitution and HIV/AIDS with three underrepresented communities – women, people of color and the transgender community – along with its general harmful representation of disembodied female bodies.

On July 17th, 2014, McNutt posted an addendum to the webpage displaying that cover:

The cover showing transgender sex workers in Jakarta was selected after much discussion by a large group and was not intended to offend anyone, but rather to highlight the fact that there are solutions for the AIDS crisis for this forgotten but at-risk group. A few have indicated to me that the cover did exactly that, but more have indicated the opposite reaction: that the cover was offensive because they did not have the context of the story prior to viewing it, an important piece of information that was available to those choosing the cover.

I am truly sorry for any discomfort that this cover may have caused anyone, and promise that we will strive to do much better in the future to be sensitive to all groups and not assume that context and intent will speak for themselves.

Following the apology, US Congresswoman Jackie Speier responded with a letter to Alan I. Leshner, former head of AAAS. She expressed why the cover was not an inclusive choice:

The use of headless, sexualized women of color on the cover of the most prestigious science publication in the United States sends the message that women and minorities still do not fully belong in the ‘boy’s club’ of science.

Speier also said:

I appreciate the apology from Science’s editor-in-chief, but question how such a sexist, racist, transphobic cover was selected in the first place.

But some editors were not in the apologetic spirit. Point number four in the letter address a tweet from Jim Austin, who, as the twitter handle says, edits Science Careers:

4) A tweet from the @SciCareersEditor account stating “Am I the only one who finds moral indignation really boring?” [4] in apparent response to comments made on Twitter criticizing the offensive Science cover photo described above.

The twitter account has since been deleted.

The letter goes on to make some suggestions on how to improve Science:

We request that Science’s editorial staff and reviewers work more diligently to ensure that Science’s web and printed material does not reinforce harmful stereotypes that hinder the advancement of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. Such material is counter to the stated AAAS mission statement to: “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people”.

We recommend STEM diversity training for Science and Science Careers editorial staff and additional scrutiny of published materials, columns and comments that are posted on Science’s online blogs and Twitter feeds, which illustrate the opinions and priorities of “the world’s leading outlet for scientific news, commentary, and cutting-edge research” and “the world’s largest general scientific society”.

We asked Tripati, Glass and Teytelman for more information on why they wrote the letter, and they sent us this statement:

As a leading and respected scientific journal with a diverse readership, what is published in Science and its related communications can strongly influence (positively or negatively) stereotypes. From their self-description: “Our mission supports the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) commitment to furthering careers in science and technology, with an emphasis on fostering greater diversity among the scientific community.” Thus while unintended, unfortunately each of these incidents supports stereotypes that risk discouraging people from pursuing careers in STEM.

AAAS Science Careeers isn’t a blogging platform for any scientists to share their thoughts in an unmoderated fashion. We feel that AAAS has a responsibility to the academic community and can take simple steps to ensure that their actions are in line with their mission of furthering diversity.

As you can imagine, there has been a strong response to these and other incidents, as they pertain to stereotypes that relate to a group that represents 50% of the population. A series of comments have been posted online in response to the pieces. Blog posts have been written, and a lot of discussion has occurred on social media and in other venues.

We hope that AAAS can take the criticism to heart and will respond to concerns expressed by the scientific community.

The first person to co-sign the letter was Janet Stemwedel, an associate professor at San Jose State University. She told us:

My big issue with the Science Careers career advice/exemplars of people succeeding that are clearly meant to convey something advice-like is how mired they are in a status quo that many of us have been trying to dismantle for (what feels like) forever.  Advisor who views you as a pair of boobs rather than a fully human future colleague? Grin and bear it!  Need to make an impression to get noticed in your field? Work an unhealthy number of hours  day and foist the (unpaid/undervalued) domestic and emotional work on your wife!  Tips on how to make it assume that nothing’s going to get better — and indeed, they give people following them no reason to work to change the system to make it any better.

What’s especially disheartening is that Science Careers is representing AAAS here, and the picture of Science being Advanced is not one that’s welcoming to women, to underrepresented minorities, to disabled scientists, to single parents or people who need to care for aging parents — really, to anyone who’s not a white guy with the resources (financial or human) to be able to focus only on the science, or to people who aren’t white guys who are prepared to swallow interminable microagressions.

McNutt told us how Science is responding to the criticism: In the future, “first-person accounts” will be counter-balanced “with alternative commentary or perspective:”

Science and Science Careers in particular have had a couple of missteps, which we regret. We’ve been rethinking our strategy and are in the process of changing oversight for Science Careers, but not fast enough. As shown in the most recent example that triggered the letter, we are now recognizing that when we publish first-person accounts, they are being mistaken as advice columns, even when the role model is very dated. We believe a better strategy in the future is to pair such accounts with alternative commentary or perspective.

Indeed, after pulling Huang’s advice to put up with a superior’s wandering eye, Science Careers posted “Better Advice for ‘Bothered’,” presenting alternative advice for the female postdoc from Stemwedel and other critics of the original piece.

The rest of McNutt’s statement to us explains that AAAS does promote women in science:

However, AAAS as an organization has always been, and will continue to be strongly focused on promoting the role of women in science — particularly with Dr. Geri Richmond as our president,  Dr. Shirley Malcom heading our Education and Human Resources directorate, and more than half of our senior management positions held by women.

She provided a link to a Science article called “Breaking through the polycarbonate ceiling“, which presents a tweaked version of the metaphor for the invisible mechanism that seems to block women from promotions. Polycarbonate is more robust than glass, so must be worked around, rather than broken.

The article describes AAAS’s efforts to help people transcend the ceiling:

A variety of AAAS projects currently offer early-career support for women, minorities, and persons with disabilities, through conferences, awards, internships, and other activities. Additional efforts, including a newly enhanced program supporting international collaboration by women researchers, are focusing on later-career needs.

We have also reached out to Huang and Austin. We will update if we hear back.

Update 7/16/15 1:20 pm Eastern: Apparently, Austin resigned his position at Science Careers in mid-June, effective July 3.

Update 7/16/4:20 pm Eastern: Science has posted McNutt’s statement as an editor’s note on their site.

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4 thoughts on “Hundreds sign letter criticizing Science for reinforcing “damaging stereotypes””

  1. I would definitely sign – but can’t seem to locate w/ a quick search. Thanks for the quotes though!

  2. A problem with these topics is that they usually trigger an immediate emotional reaction. I’m reminded of a presentation by Haidt that some people want to protect groups they see as marginalized/victimized. Which is a good intention. But given that these groups are seen as sacred, compromise is impossible. And it’s my impression that under these conditions, feelings become facts, nuance is lost, and interpretations take the worst possible form — with actions seen as deliberately harmful. All the while assuming they speak for every member of this group, without voting, oversight, or evaluation.

    And yup, science is (also) a social process and social interaction is messy and full of interpretation. The vast majority of people is for treating people fairly, but that should include giving everyone the benefit of a doubt and not look for offense in everything. Because you can always interpret it as such.

    For example, for me, stating “The cover photo of headless transgender sex workers of color with the caption ‘Staying a step ahead of HIV/AIDS'” and going on about “disembodied bodies” makes Science appear as if they recommended beheadings to stop HIV/AIDS. But the photo was just cropped to show their bodies below the neck. It’s a common technique when the particular persons are not important, but what they represent — here, a “key affected population”. Anonymity or discretion might be another issue here.

    I’d also assume that getting a forgotten group HIV treatment is more important than moral indignation about the “underrepresented communities” they can be vivisected into. For me, they are one specific group that needs attention, not three different groups. And who decides that the cover was “sexist, racist, transphobic”? Who is the arbiter of truth here? How do the transgender sex workers in Jakarta see the cover? And is it too much do ask for individual scientists to take context and intention into account and make up their own mind, instead of assuming what they think? How they must think?

    And what are the consequences here? “I would like to thank my wife for the support she gave me, but I can’t, because it would offend some people.”? Who says that the roles cannot be reversed, or work in same-sex relationships as well?

    I get the impression that Science doesn’t reinforce harmful stereotypes, but petitions like these might. The risk is that they might make the groups (they ostensibly fight for) appear petty and weak. Even if actions like these petitions or twitter storms give the impression of having a direct effect on the world, something many scientists might crave for. But that’s an empirical question.

    But what deeply concerns me is that it becomes more and more difficult to have an open rational discussion. Esp. when articles/accounts are deleted and the preferred solutions seem to be ‘diversity training’ and ‘additional scrutiny’ — which sounds to me like advocating indoctrination (training) and (self-)censorship.

    If Science is in favor of “social justice” (incl. for the “unwelcome group” that makes up more than 50% of its senior management), it’s first duty is to science, not to “social justice”. Thomas Henry Huxley once said that science “commits suicide when it adopts a creed”. He was arguing against giving a scientific theory an official sanction — the very one he fought for like a “bulldog”. But this warning rings true for other views as well.

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