Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Inequality in Science

I would suggest reading the entire post as it deals primarily with gender inequality in online media with regard to science discourse. I will highlight small portions that I think might be of particular interest as they tackle not only gender inequality in the sciences but a number of other areas where inequity exists:

Early on in our panel discussion last Friday, Brian Nosek made the excellent point that “science proceeds through conversation.” He went on to elaborate that scientific conversation needs criticism and skepticism in order to flourish—and I completely agree. But I also think it’s worth juxtaposing this idea that science proceeds through conversation against the data presented at the beginning of the session, which suggested some big inequalities in WHO is participating in scientific discourse online. Across various social media platforms (PsychMAP, PMDG, and Twitter), the data from the SPSP survey suggest that men participate more than women. Moreover, if you look at who is posting in the Facebook forums, it turns out most of the content is being driven by about nine people. Think about that for a moment. NINE people—out of thousands of scholars involved in these forums—are driving what we talk about in these conversations.

The idea that conversation is central to the entire scientific enterprise highlights why we should care deeply about WHO is participating in these conversations. If there are inequalities in who is talking, that means there are inequalities in who is participating in science itself. To the extent that the forums we build for scientific discourse enable and promote equality in conversation, they are enabling and promoting equality in who can be part of science. And the reverse is true as well: If we create forums that exclude rather than include, then we are creating a science that excludes as well.


Meanwhile, participating in a conversation about science obviously means not only that you are talking, but that someone is listening to you. To the extent that audience attention is finite (we only have so many hours a day to devote to listening, after all), then the more one person speaks, the less attention is left over to spend on other speakers. That means that the people who talk the most end up setting the threshold for getting heard—if you don’t comment as loudly or as frequently as the loudest and most frequent contributors, you risk being drowned out in the din. In such an environment, who is talking—that is, who gets to participate in science itself—becomes less of an open, level playing field and more of a competition where people with more time and more willingness to engage in this particular style of discourse get to drive disproportionately the content of scientific conversation.

Here again, we might think about various demographic inequalities. Take just the question of time: Women in academia tend to spend substantially more time on service commitments than do men. Scholars at teaching institutions spend more time in scheduled teaching activities than do their peers with more flexible schedules at research institutions. Primary caregivers have greater demands on their time than people with stay-at-home partners or people with the means to pay for full time childcare. If we create venues for scientific discourse where your ability to participate effectively depends on how much time you have to make your voice heard over the din, then we are effectively saying: We prioritize the voices of men more than women, of scholars at research rather than teaching institutions, and of people with more versus less childcare support.
Note that her concerns go well beyond social media, but are intended to address practically any forum for scientists. Also note that there is inequality that goes beyond gender. Her point that there are other structural disadvantages faced by many of our scientific peers is a crucial one. Those of us who are primarily at teaching institutions have considerably less flexible time to engage in scholarly activity. To the extent that we engage less in scholarly activity, we get less of a voice in the direction that our particular branch of the sciences is taking. We also tend to have less available funds to participate in academic conferences, which further silences us. If we're paid less than our peers at research institutions, we are also going to be unable to self-fund travel to conferences. Those of us who service economically disadvantaged student populations tend to be historically underfunded, further compounding the problem. Hence not only are we less able to speak, but we are less able to provide forums for some very ambitious and talented students to make their voices heard. And yes we also prioritize the voices of men more than women. That point needs to be made again and again unless or until the problem is rectified.

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