Thursday, June 20, 2013

Wake Up Sweetheart, You're A Feminist (Book Review: The Good Girls Revolt)

I hope you read that title with the sarcasm with which it was meant, and that you never try to call me sweetheart. It won't go well. It's been a while since I did a book review here at Science Decoded (mostly because I don't have the time to read that I used to) but I just finished Lynn Povich's The Good Girls Revolt and it spurred me to want to write this post which has been kicking around in my brain for months now. The Good Girls Revolt is the story of the first all female class action lawsuit filed by the women who worked for Newsweek.

Even just two years ago, if you had asked me if I was a feminist I would have told you no. Back then the idea that women needed to form a movement to be treated equal seemed extreme. Equality isn't hard, it's a pretty simple concept really. So who wants to be all extreme and label themselves and fight for...what...what are we fighting for? I didn't know. I had plenty of opportunities, I interacted with professional women a lot. It didn't feel necessary. Besides, I like shaving my legs (though you should read this post about choosing not to). I have a closet full of dresses and high heels. You're unlikely to catch me outside the house without makeup. I was vice president of my sorority for crying out loud. Feminist? Psh. But you know what feminism isn't about? Those things. Any of it.

Coming from a relatively well-off, educated background where I was always expected to go to college and then work, I never thought of myself as a feminist. My Dad's attitude toward my career as a science writer has always simply been, go get 'em. I have surrounded myself in life by people, men and women, who value my intelligence and drive to succeed. Growing up I never felt like I was being compared to my brother or any other guy. I never felt like I was less or that less was expected of me. Feminists were an other, and if anything made me feel intimidated. The judgement of other women is scary, sometimes it feels scarier than the idea of walking into a room full of men to tell them what's what. But, spending a little time in the world, talking to people, and reading things like Povich's book or Dr. Isis' Feminist Awakening has a wonderfully eye opening effect.

I think most women in the workplace have a so-and-so said this absolutely jack ass comment to me about xyz story, at least I do, and I've heard many stories in a similar vein. The types of things that make people look at you like you've got six heads because surely someone didn't actually SAY that. You might not even have realized it, because at the time I didn't really see it as sexism. I knew I was upset that good ideas were being shot down. The thought that anyone would take the way I look and my gender and use that to gauge my ability as a writer before actually reading anything I wrote was so completely absurd to me, that I didn't even realize at first that it was happening.

In hindsight, this made me blame myself - maybe it really isn't that good an idea, maybe I'm not working hard enough, maybe if I'm here later and put in more hours, maybe if I prove I want to grab unpaid intern Erin and shake her and say don't you dare write that crappy story that you know is bullshit while the paid male intern gets the better story. Walk out. Leave. You're better than that. I've heard it said before that my generation is lazy and entitled. Well in my not so humble opinion, myself and my friends and other young people like us more often assume deeply personal responsibility for failure. If I don't get that story it's because I did something wrong. Me. I'm not good enough. How could it ever be that there is a system ingrained in society that is going to hold us back? This is 2013. It can't possibly be true that we're still dealing with this.

Povich's book chronicles events from the 60's and 70's, we can't still be having this same problem? No, no we're not. The problem back then was flagrant, out in the open, so egregious that it couldn't be ignored. That is still happening, oh, does it happen. But there is also a subtle sexism - a mild slight, a passing comment, a raise that's just a little less, a promotion that takes a little longer to get. These are the things that are harder to pinpoint, harder to blame on sexism, but are ultimately what made me wake up to the fact that I'm a feminist. Part of Povich's book focuses on today, on three women from my generation working for Newsweek: Jessica Bennet, Jesse Ellison and Sarah Ball and the story they wrote in 2010 "Are We There Yet?" questioning if the battle of the sexes is really over. Their experiences resonated with me a lot.

Since I entered college and started writing and trying to get my work published, I've been lucky in that the sexism I've faced has been mild. Sad state of affairs that it makes me feel lucky, but it does. Right now where I work my superiors are all women - my boss, her boss, her boss' boss, her boss' boss' boss...but my awesome situation isn't common (and believe me, I don't take it for granted.) But that doesn't mean that sexism isn't still here, and that other people aren't dealing with much worse on a regular basis. I'm a feminist for myself because yes, I want a fair shake, I want to be recognized for the value of my work and not whether or not my hair looks shiny that day. But, adding my voice to the other feminist voices out there is about more than just me. I've got it pretty good. I'm not trying to argue that I don't. But I can support the women out there who are dealing with overt sexism, who are being attacked. I can try to be an ally. That to me is the real value of feminism, of standing together.

It's my opinion that a lot of the yelling that happens on the internet (if you could only hear how loudly I am typing!!) happens because we've gotten so wrapped up in judging the world based on our personal perspective that we can't see the things that happen outside ourselves. I've never encountered sexism therefore sexism doesn't exist. We have GOT to shake off this way of invalidating the experiences of others. Once you start listening, I think you'll find like I did that the need for feminism is impossible to ignore. Participating in #sci4hels, and working with Rose, Lena, and Kathleen (follow us in Helsinki next week!) is another thing that has driven home for me the need for women to support each other. We've already used our platform to have a conversation about being female science writers, and I hope that discussion is one that will continue in the future.

Feminism, for me, is a way to recognize that we've come a long way but we still have a long way to go. We still need to get out there, and support each other, and continue having these conversations because equality might be a simple concept, but that doesn't make it any less evasive. I've had these conversations a lot lately, and have been asked, "do you think people don't take you seriously're good looking?" Typically, I answer something along the lines of making smart decisions is optional, and if anyone doesn't take me seriously for any reason that's their mistake to make. I don't think it's a bad answer, but until that answer is a resounding "no" we're just not done yet.

So, if you've been in the journalism business for less than 20 years, The Good Girls Revolt is a must-read. Hell, if you've been in the business for more than 20 years, it's still a good read. Recommended.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Overheard at Sciobeantown with NESW

On June 6th, Sciobeantown and the New England Science Writers teamed up for a joint mixer at Boston's Beehive. If you couldn't join us, here are a few snippets (taken 100% out of context) to show you what you missed. If you have any questions about Sciobeantown, feel free to contact me, or any of the other organizers: Haley Bridger, Biochembelle, or Alberta Chu. You can also check out the website, twitter, and googlegroup.
Let’s just say I’m cautiously optimistic...
So, the Mighty Ducks is actually all about class warfare.
Wait, since when am I the youngest?!?
There’s so much scicomm, we’re going to need to coordinate these dates.
You’re tweeting this aren’t you?
I went right home after you mentioned it and convinced my boss I had to go to ScioOceans.
You lied, we could totally still register!
Biochem AND a Belle... wow, that’s intimidating.
You weren't at the Storycollider? It was so good!
Just cover one story, really, really well, that’s how you get a Pulitzer.
I came to Boston for all of the astronomy, there is an amazing amount here.
You just have to look at the statistics!
Just assume the doctor stance.
Wait, there are liberal antivaxers?
You might want to look at that study again, it might not be total bullshit
Are the science writers about to throw down?
Look, I flail when I talk.
Of course, everyone knows Bora.
Well now you're just making stuff up.
Tweet from @sciobeantown in Finland, we’ll cheer you on!
What exactly makes you a killer?
Mermaids? I mean how was that even a thing?
Try to describe something without using any adjectives! At all!
Your career is your oyster...or something like that.
Ooh, is there going to be music?
We’ll see you in July!
Thank you to NESW for sponosring this event, and to everyone who came out to share ideas and build our Sciobeantown community!

Monday, June 3, 2013

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Sarah Boon

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on Twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders. I cannot believe that is it June already! This school year I've loved introducing you to our scientists of the month, PennyPhilippAnne-MarikePete, BeckyMichael, Jenny and David. We have one more scientist to meet before school's out for the year - I'm happy to introduce you to Dr. Sarah Boon, a hydroecologist. I asked her questions about her job as a scientist to learn more about what she does. I hope you enjoy learning about her work! Below you can read our interview, and if you'd like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Sarah: I’m a hydroecologist, which means I study where water comes from, where it goes, and how it interacts with living things. I’m particularly interested in how snow interacts with trees, and what happens to streams – and the fish in them – when snow melts. I study how healthy trees catch snow compared to trees killed by mountain pine beetle or wildfire. I also look at how melting snow changes the temperature of mountain streams, and what affect that has on at-risk salmonids like bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.

Erin: Where did you go to school, and what did you study?

At HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. Courtesy of Sarah Boon.
Sarah: I did an undergraduate degree in Physical Geography with a minor in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, on Canada’s Vancouver Island. I took a lot of courses about landscapes and how to measure and observe them. I wish I’d taken some biology courses – but I didn’t realize at the time that I’d get into that kind of work. I did the co-operative education program, which means you work for 4 or 8 months and then go to school for 4 months. This was really helpful in getting great job experience, meeting new people, and paying for my tuition. After five years in Victoria I moved to Edmonton, Alberta to do my PhD in Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta. I finished in 2003 and now live in Lethbridge, Alberta (after 2 years in Prince George, British Columbia as a ‘substitute’ professor).

Erin: Where do you work, and what does a typical day at work entail?

Sarah: I work as a university professor, so I do research, teach classes, and supervise grad students. This means I spend part of my time in the office and part in the field.

When I’m in the office, I stare at the computer screen a lot more than I’d like. I write research grant applications, send emails, write lectures for each of my classes, and much more. When I’m not at my computer, I’m either in a meeting or in front of a class, teaching. Most of my office days zip by really quickly, and I wonder where the day went and why I didn’t get more done.

I’m in the field once every two weeks during between late fall, just before the snow comes, to late spring when the last of the snow has melted. These are the days I enjoy the most about my job. I stay in a cabin near the field site with my research assistants and/or grad students, and am up early making plans for the day, including what kind of work needs to be done, what kind of gear is required, and how to access the site with all that gear. Once that’s all worked out (and breakfast has been eaten and a good lunch packed up), we either hike, ATV and/or snowmobile to the field site.

Once we get to the site, we take a lot of different measurements. We download the our automated stations, which are recording temperature, rainfall, stream water level, and more. We also collect snow cores, measure tree height and diameter, take photographs of the forest canopy, dig snow pits, and measure how fast the stream is moving. The best part is that you get to spend the days outside in the woods, enjoying the outdoors.

At the end of the day, back in the cabin, we go over our notes and the files we downloaded. We talk about what seems to be going on based on our measurements, and about what we need to do the next day. Then we play cards or go to the pub.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Sarah: I became a scientist because, at the time, I thought it was the one thing that I needed someone else to teach me. We can all read history books, novels, poetry, and political theory, then discuss these books with friends and colleagues to figure out what they mean to us and how they’re important to our lives. But the scientific mindset is something you have to train your brain in. I also felt science was more credible than humanities.

Having spent 18 years in science, I now realize that humanities and science can be equally credible. Also – while you do need to train your brain to think scientifically – it needs to be trained to work in the humanities, as well. And finally, you likely won’t get far in understanding certain books and theories if you don’t have someone to work with who can guide your inquiry. So the main reasons I became a scientist – which made sense at the time – actually aren’t entirely true. 

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Sarah: Being outdoors, observing the landscape and trying to understand how it works.

Erin: What is something about your job that would surprise us?

Sarah: I actually don’t get summers off. A lot of people think that professors only work from September to May, and have holidays from June to August. Since I’m so busy with office work and field work during the school term, the summer is my time to catch up on writing research papers, spend time with my grad students in the field, and prepare some of my classes for the fall.

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun?

Sarah: I like most things outdoors as long as they’re not extreme – for example, I prefer cross-country skiing over downhill skiing, and hiking over trail running. I enjoy nature photography, and am a science writer in my spare time. As a writer, I also love to read: novels, mysteries, memoirs, non-fiction – if it’s good, I’ll read it. I do a lot of gardening, and get a kick out of eating food that I’ve grown myself. I also have hunting dogs (flat-coated retrievers) that I enjoy training and working with.

What do you think first graders? Do you have any questions for Sarah about her work as a scientist? Like always, be sure to leave them in the comments!

Now that we've come to the end of the school year, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who volunteered to participate in the Scientist of the Month segment. Everyone who participated did so with their own personal time, and was incredibly thoughtful and dedicated to answering the kids' questions and finding ways to explain their work. I enjoyed working with everyone and learning about all of your research myself! Doing these interviews was so much fun that I've decided to make the Scientist of the Month a regular segment next school year too, so it will be back in the fall with a new batch of students and scientists!