Socializing Girls Away from STEM

Sometimes, I wonder if the problem with STEM and girls and their interest isn’t that we devalue STEM to girls, but that we devalue girls and their interests.

Image via EDF.

Image via EDF.

In October 2015, EDF’s Pretty Curious campaign drew a lot of ire from scientists (mostly women), both for the name and for the content of the promotional material. You see, one of the people involved was a cosmetics scientist.

I found the outrage over the name to be a bit baffling, because while I admit I really wished to be called pretty when I was a kid, I was called pretty curious all the time (and I suspect those who’ve worked with me can attest this much is still true; I’m insatiably curious about the world). I don’t hear a slur or a gendered put-down in that; instead, I actually hear the kind of language people are encouraged to use when discussing young girls: talk about their minds, not their bodies. And “pretty curious” is definitely addressing the mind!

It almost seemed like bigger outrage came around the fact that the campaign includes cosmetics scientist Florence Adepoju. Rather than focusing on diversity, as Adepoju is a woman of color, critics focused on the fact that she’s a cosmetics scientist. Because, you know. Girls and makeup and stereotypes–nevermind that you actually need science to make makeup, and that’s part of the point of including Adepoju in the first place: she used science to study how to make makeup (her dissertation was on getting lipstick to stay on lips), and built that into a successful smallbatch makeup business for women of color.

Not bad for 24, eh? Certainly the sort of women I’d like the girls in my life to look up to, anyhow.

But she does makeup, you see. And so people jump on it for being too girly, and the message that’s sent? Well, whether it’s intentional or not, it’s telling girls (and women) that it’s bad to be interested in makeup, in “girly” things.

My cousin wanted to start up summer jewelry-making classes in an income and resource-poor area of the country; she’d provide the tools and materials and teach anyone who was interested how to make jewelry…and sneak in geology lessons via gemstones. After all, to understand the quality of what you’re working with, you need to know how it’s made. She was specific in saying that anyone would be welcome, but also that she wanted to target younger girls in her community who might feel alienated from more boisterous physical sciences summer-camp-esque classes, which are largely populated by boys in her area.

I floated the idea by some scicomm people, who were horrified. Jewelry-making? It’s too stereotypical! We need girls to go into STEM! Not be girls! Another friend is getting the similar pushback over a science-y fitness class.

…it’s a very weird sort of mental holding to have, isn’t it? We can’t use science to talk about things that girls are interested in, are targeted to via advertising, will likely spend lots of money on for themselves over the course of their lives, and have the potential to be skills useful for real-life, adult, science jobs.

The examples, though, seem to me to indicate not a problem with STEM, but a problem with girls. In particular, a problem with the way society can socialize girls to be “girly” – to like makeup and jewelry, to want to stay fit, to be interested in clothing design. But instead of working to open those areas up to boys while simultaneously encouraging girls, it seems like we’ve kneejerked so far away that any attempts to frame these “girly” areas as science-and-okay-for-girls is rejected.

But I have a feeling that when we do that? We’re rejecting the girls who are interested in these areas, and not the socializing behind the girls.

4:46pm, edited to add: After I posted this, Bethany pointed out that this was a discussion going on in early January that I probably missed because I was still recovering from emergency hospitalization/surgery/death-flu stuff. So here is Jamie Bernstein’s post In Defense of Pink Science, and Shannon Palus’s post that Bernstein was responding to.

American Thoughts on Australia Day & Acknowledgement of Country

Yesterday/today (the 26th of January; time is a weird thing when you’re straddling the dateline) is Australia Day, also known as Invasian Day–it’s a day of celebration akin to the drunken antics of Americans on the fourth of July for European Australians, “settlers,” and a day of mourning for Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander communities who see it as a day of invasion and subsequent struggle to survive. So basically, the partying of the Fourth of July mixed in with Thanksgiving–after all, the European Australians did much the same to the Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders as Americans did to Native Americans.

White folks, we aren’t so great at respecting other cultures.

Survival Day is becoming a common reference instead of Australia Day, but it seems like a general preference is still to separate out BBQs and beer from remembering genocide. (Click image to enlarge.)

Survival Day is becoming a common reference instead of Australia Day, but it seems like a general preference is still to separate out BBQs and beer from remembering genocide. (Click image to enlarge.)

And the thing is, it’s not like the Indigenous Australians aren’t down with celebrating Australia–they are, after all, Australians, too. It’s just they’d really like it if perhaps the party could be held on not the same day that commemorates mass slaughter and attempts at cultural eradication that still go on today.

Anyhow, you should read this article over at Buzzfeed and watch the embedded video, below. But what I wanted to talk about was something that I saw people doing online: identifying the land they woke up in. This seems to be a variation on the Acknowledgement of Country that happens at a lot of official events, and it’s one where individuals, yesterday, were acknowledging the historic people of the land they live on:

This, I thought, was neat, and a way of showing respect to people who you yourself may not have harmed, but your ancestors did harm, by virtue of their participation in the forming of the place called Australia–or America.

I thought I’d compile my own list of the Native American lands I’ve lived on in my time floating across the United States; what I didn’t imagine was that it would take me several hours to track this information down. After all, I grew up attending Ohlone events in the San Francisco Bay Area, and doesn’t everyone know that the Duwamish were the historical peoples in the Greater Seattle area?

Except that the Ohlone, formerly the Costanoans, didn’t view themselves as a single “Indian tribe” but a loose group of about 50 distinct landholding tribes or bands who shared a similar language, religion, and culture but saw themselves as distinct. They, like many other Native peoples, were squished together into readily identified tribal groups by the United States government during its long period of sucking, and trying to find out the specifics of the folks who lived in a specific area rather than the region (so I coul answer the equivalent of “Philadelphia” instead of “the mid-Atlanic”) proved…frustrating. A lot of this is because by the time anyone in America had the idea that maybe they should record this information, the people were dying or dead; many of the last speakers of languages, the last of their group, tribe, people, were dying in the late 1800s to 1920s, and American society was set on eradication of tribal groups. The disappearance of this knowledge was just fine with most.

So it is with some struggle and uncertainty that I can say I have lived on the lands of the following people:
The Muwekema Ohlone (Alson, Seunen, Luecha, and Puichon)
The Numa, Washeshu and Newe People
The Kalapuyan Peoples (Chelamela and Tualatin)
The Multnomah People
The Duwamish Tribe (Skagit-Nisqually/Lushootseed)
The Iroquois League/Haudenosaunee (Mohawk Nation)

And this morning, I woke up on Lenni Lenape (Unami dialect) land.

I don’t really have anything quippy to say here in finish. I think that the way we–Americans and Australians–handle our commemoration of events is painfully white and alienating, that we casually erase history with no thought to the pain it causes people who call that history their own. I think that it’s a shame we have to repeatedly have conversations about whether or not it’s a problem to have sportsball teams named after racist slurs, that we set up parties on days of massacres, that we celebrate the slaughter of millions with mattress sales and BBQs, and that we can’t get it around our heads to treat the other folks we live with, folks of colour, with the respect we want for ourselves every day.

Knowing the names of the tribal lands I have lived on won’t change any of that, but at least it allows me to move a bit closer to an ideal of mindfulness and respect that I think we should all strive towards.

fully autonomous, self-driving cars and disability

I'd have some variation on this view every damned day, I am so not even kidding.

I’d have some variation on this view every damned day, I am so not even kidding.

Ah, driving cars. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that I’m going to get my freedom back,[note]New readers to the blog: I’m disabled. I don’t drive because of it.[/note] I’d retire to Barbados and sip delightful rum drinks all the rest of my days. The most common version of this tends to include The Oatmeal’s exciting comic of the awesomeness of autonomous cars, including the heartfelt wish for his mother to be able to get around independently again. “Look Kelly, aren’t autonomous driverless cars fantastic? You’ll be normal again!”[note]I’m going to spare you this rant. Today.[/note]

Oh, so many things to unpack in what is generally a well-intentioned, but ultimately irritating, statement.

First and foremost, let’s be clear about this: autonomous cars are not being developed for the disabled. Oh sure, the disabled may eventually benefit, but they’re not the target. For one thing, the pay gap between the working disabled vs able-bodied workers is huge–in some states, up to 37% less, and that gap persists regardless of education attained. The fully disabled are often among the poorest people in American society.

People who earn a lot less than average, people who are often in the lowest socioeconomic bracket, are not the people who are targetted with shiny new technological advances…like self-driving, fully autonomous cars.

But let’s wave our hands and put that aside, and say we live in a magical world where this isn’t an issue–Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg decide to team up to make sure every single disabled person in America has access to one of these awesome new cars.

There’s still the steering wheel.

In education, where Texas goes, textbooks go–it’s why the legal debate over what’s inside those bindings gets so much coverage. Texas is a massive market for textbooks, and it’s easier to build to that market and push the results on others than to try to do something different for other states.

California is kind of the Texas of technology, and California has said newp, fully autonomous cars must still have brakes that a driver can operate, and a steering wheel a driver can override and control. Not very easy to do if you’re blind, if your foot doesn’t work, if you can’t rotate to look over your shoulder, or all the other reasons people are no longer able to drive.

Comic by xkcd/Randall Munroe.

Comic by xkcd/Randall Munroe.

And it’s not just California that’s cautious. A brand new study by Volvo shows that 92% of folks? Believe they should be able to take over control of an autonomous car at any point.[note]And Ford’s CEO, Mark Fields, agrees; just this week he noted that while the technology is coming, there are a host of social, technological, ethical, and legal issues that are standing in the way of anyone getting inside a self-driving car.[/note]

All of which means that anyone who wants a fully autonomous self-driving car is going to be able to afford the car and be able to drive it normally. That’s going to exclude all those disabled folks who aren’t driving because of their disability.

But those facts aren’t really the whole of it, or the worst of it. The whole, the worst, is this: people, whether they’re companies or tech evangelists, are selling a false promise. The whole “this is going to revolutionize the life of disabled people” is selling the public a bill of goods and being used to generate positive feelings about new technology; I can almost guarantee any advertising we see will be warm, fuzzy, and all about family and “regained ability.”

People who are disabled, disability itself, is being used to sell the concept of self-driving, autonomous cars to able-bodied folks, when the reality is, they’re at the last of the groups who will benefit from these technologies.

“We’ll save the disabled people” is not only irritating, it hurts.

If you want to help disabled people–people like me–have better access to the community around them, advocate for better transit, better walking and biking communities, and easier and cheaper access to paratransit.[note]A lot of people were surprised to learn, today, that the Americans with Disabilities Act allows regional transit agencies to charge up to twice the fare, as well as “reasonable” charges for zone changes or transiting between counties. If I were to use paratransit to get to work–not that it’s an option, because of the difficulty in being recognized as disabled legally in America–it would cost me $175/mo, and that’s not including getting to doctor appointments, etc..or the fact that it can sometimes take up to three hours for paratransit to arrive.[/note] Don’t use my inability to drive (ironically, because of a car accident) to feed or feel better about your desire for novel technologies.

With thanks to Bethany, for understanding.


Amazon’s “Toxic Culture” Doesn’t Come from My Needs as a Customer

Oh Internet, I tire. I really, really tire of reading rapidly tossed off think pieces that want to make broadly declarative statements as if they were the first to ever encounter such an idea. For example, did you know “we like-we really, really like-to get things cheap”? Annalisa Merelli wasn’t sure you were aware of this, so she–along with too many other think pieces to name–decided that the New York Times’ article about Amazon’s toxic work culture was the perfect time to place the blame of that culture squarely where it belongs: on the consumer. Which is a bit of an interesting claim, since, as the Seattle Times noted–and they’re a good paper to note this, given their proximity to the tech industry in the last forever–pretending that Amazon’s “toxic culture” is something new and unique to Amazon is ignoring the history of the tech industry as a whole, which has long been noted for a toxic culture that grinds up and spits out contractors and employees as fast as it can hire them. The toxic culture at Amazon isn’t because of the people buying Method cleaner and cat food, Mr Clean Magic Erasers, razors, the occasional bed sheet set, or Dutch oven–it’s from the tech industry as a whole.

amazonprimeIt fascinates me that people want to jump on the Blame Prime Members bandwagon in their think pieces, rather than look at what it is Prime is offering people: dependable, rapid access to a wide variety of goods and services. I mean, I can’t imagine why a perfectly able-bodied society where everyone has a car and access and a well-paying job and plenty of time, and can buy completely ethical, fair-trade food and clothes and goods and whatever else they need or want whenever they want would find a service like Amazon Prime useful.

…was the sarcasm too thick there? It’s been a bit of a morning.

It’s not that it surprises me that a gaggle of able-bodied writers would overlook the ease and convenience and accessibility of Amazon Prime for those who have physical disabilities; I think those of us who are disabled are rather accustomed to society erasing us. It does, however, surprise me that they’re so quick to overlook other members of society: working parents, single parents, folks who live far away from shopping centers where they can find both clothes and hardware and home goods. Not everyone lives in a suburban landscape where Target is 15 minutes in one way and Home Depot 10 the other; even those who do often don’t have the time to run to every single individual store. Maybe their commute takes hours every day; maybe they have children and the sorts of schedules that are full of soccer practice and school and camp and who knows what else, because I’m not a parent but I certainly remember being a kid and having siblings and the “go go go okay everyone collapse and sleep” aspect of a full household. Some folks live an hour or more from services, either because they’re in the middle of a mega-city and these big boxes are on the outskirts and difficult to reach, or because they’re in the middle of a rural area and there isn’t enough population density to support many stores. Maybe they live in that perfect suburban area with a perfect suburban life and car and they’re foiled by working non-standard shifts.

Of course, all that presumes we’re talking about people with cars, and a lot of folks don’t have cars, for reasons as diverse as being unable to drive to being unable to afford the costs of owning a car. For these folks, public transit–not the best thing even in the best cities with public transit–limits their options even further. That’s extra time commuting, time on the weekends, time you could be spending doing laundry or working or being with family or resting or fill in this blank here. Relying on feet, bikes, and public transit is possible for many things, and people do it in cities around the world-and in those same cities around the world, the people who can afford it have their laundry taken out and their food brought in. Amazon merely offers an equalizing aspect to at least some of that (it’s not doing my laundry yet, anyhow).

And yes, for those of us with disabilities, Amazon, and Prime in particular, can be a life-saver. Or at least a life-enricher. There’s no fighting mobility issues in a store, no navigating canes and walkers and chairs around clueless people, no having to figure out how to get a disabled body to the store (especially if your disability doesn’t allow driving). There’s no worry about lifting things that are too heavy, no calculus around what you can carry and what you need and whether it’s worth it to hurt yourself in the short term so that you don’t have to go out again two days later.

For everyone, whether they’re a stay-at-home mother juggling triplets and exhaustion or a busy professional or a disabled lawyer or any other combination of Person you can hodgepodge together from the mass options available, Amazon offers convenience and dependability: you can order what you need and get a dependable timeframe for when you’ll get it.

All of this? Not the fault of Amazon. It’s the fault of a culture and society that isn’t set up to include the different, the ultra-busy, those on different shifts or without flexible schedules, or yes, the disabled. So by all means, yes, take Amazon and society to task for not taking care of people, be they employees or customers or citizens. But don’t take people to task for utilizing the services offered to them–services often available to folks in mega-cities with the income to support said secondary delivery services–so that they too can maximize their time and priorities. And key to this is letting the individual decide what’s important to them: for example, over at USA Today, Amazon Prime member Jefferson Graham decides that

after reading this piece, I can wait. I don’t care if a new lens for my camera takes two or three days, or even a week to get to me. I don’t need a drone to whisk out a package from a warehouse and get it to me pronto. I want the company I’m dealing with to treat the human beings who work there with respect, not force them into a climate of fear.

Cool beans. Immediacy doesn’t mean much to him, and from all accounts he is able-bodied and able to patronize other shops when he does have an immediate need, so he can decide that this is not a participatory system he’s okay with, so he’ll opt out. But you cannot hold everyone to a standard set by an able-bodied, well-employed white man. Ability-and responsibility to a broader ethos-is going to look different to different people; the priorities of an able-bodied driver who lives in a small city will be different than a disabled person living in a mega-city.

Folks want to dovetail this into arguments about conscious consumption and ethical purchasing, which is a good conversation to have: but also a brutal one, because as Emily Finke noted, this practice often takes free time, significant money, and mobility for accessibility–and we’re back to leaving a lot of people out with that equation. We’re also left with at the conundrum that many people simply do not want to face: if you’re living in America, your entire existence is pretty much predicated upon exploitation: your food, from produce to protein; clothing; electronics; oil. It is a culture built upon the exploitation of others.

Means&AbilitiesOnce you understand that, you can start taking steps that work within your life to minimize exploitation of others while meeting your basic needs: consume less, buy with mindful awareness, decide where your priority is. Do you want to focus on avoiding sweatshop-sourced clothing? Do you want to eat locally and ethically? Does something else float your boat? Okay then–go for it. But again, this is a matter of balance and individual preference, and the vast majority of us do not earn the money that would be necessary to make ALL the changes, from non-sweatshop-sourced clothes to perfectly ethical and humane and local food to renewable energy and more. So we look at our circumstances, and we decide.

I am disabled, and my mobility limited. I don’t drive because of this. And for me, I balance ethically sourcing my food with my desire to have a life that’s about more than trekking via transit and foot to different stores to procure what my cats, my husband, and I need to live a healthy life. Amazon, and Amazon Prime, thus suits a necessary need that no one else in society has met.

Rather than cast aspersions on the consumer within the culture, start looking to the culture itself for change–and demand those changes come from those most, rather than least, able.


Note: this post is based on a casual series of tweets this morning that blew up like whoa. You can read the thread and chaos starting here.