Communicating to whom? Configuring the gendered user in science communication.


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Slides from a talk given at the workshop ‘Gender and Science Communication: Is there equality in the way we talk about physics?’, Physics Communicators and Women in Physics, Institute of Physics, London. June 21st 2013.

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Communicating to whom? Configuring the gendered user in science communication.

  1. 1. Communicating to who?Configuring the gendered userin science communicationGeorgina VossHelen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of ArtInstitute of Physics, June 21st 2013
  2. 2. Overview• Many factors restrict the professional aspirations of girlsand young women, causing them to avoid high-statuscareers in mathematics and science.o …and what about the women who are already working professionally in STEM?• Notion of „configuring the user‟ provides insights intowhich people are seen as using STEM workplaces, andhow.o Which „users‟ is STEM communication designed around?• Problem of configuring the user according tostereotypes and normative expectations of gender.• Instead, consider configuring communication aroundlived experience.
  3. 3. Context:Self-confidence and efficacy• A confidence gap between male and female STEMstudents.• Self-confidence: strength of belief in one‟s abilities, andplays important role in academic experience of STEM.o Positively associated with likelyhood of entry and latersuccess.• Women exhibit lower confidence in their skills andknowledge (despite higher academic achievement!).o Downplay their educational and work experiences.o Present themselves as „ready to work hard andlearn‟, eventually becoming a valuable asset.• Men see themselves as already equipped and valuablein their own right (Chachra and Kilgore 2009).• How are these factors designed (or not) into STEMcommunication?
  4. 4. Configuring the user• Design cultures conceputualise the user sociologicallyand semiotically (Oudshoorn et al 2004).o Specific image of who the users are (or are not).• Technologies become scripted to certain groups ofusers, even if they are not involved in the design process(Akrich 1992, Woolgar 1991).o Preferences, motivations, tastes, competencies.o May create new identities, or transform/reinforce existingones.• Problem of configuring user as „everyone‟ – flattensout real difference (and power).o „Neutral‟ and„male‟ often default to each other.
  5. 5. ‘Neutral’ users and technologies• Not recognizing that how users are oftenconfigured, by default, as male is problematic.o Makes female an „add-on‟, different.• “Not knowing” why fewer women participate inSTEM is a form of ignorance; gender and sexualpolitics typically work through practices of invisibility(Franzway et al 2009).o Gender roles gain their power by appearing natural andeternal.• „Critical Mass‟ thesis is useless if it only allows for amass of female users who „fit‟ into the designedsystem (Knights and Murray 1994).o Assimilation can be survival.
  6. 6. Stereotypes andhyperfemininity• Targeting a stereotyped notion of „women‟ and girls‟ often resultsin a demeaning „dumbing down‟ of the system so that womencan participate (Sommers 2008).o Gender stereotypes remain present in many elements of educationreform.• Media analysis:o Shifts from attractive junior women in romantic relationships…to attractivehardworking women in senior positions (and rarely working mothers)…o …but still presents women being underestimated, objects of desire andharassed by men (Bergman 2012, Steinke 2005).
  7. 7. Technologists vs workplaces• Increased focus away from women as site of solutions, toaddressing workplace culture (Mills et al 2006)• STEM workplaces can be seen as „value neutral‟ – oncebarriers and discrimination removed, women free to competeon equal terms.o Outcome is emphasis on introduction and „remediation‟ ofwomen, not change in working practices (Blickenstaff 2005, Rosser1998).• „Family friendly‟ policies can stigmatise women as„different‟, alienating women whose acceptance is conditionalon adapting to masculine norms within a „gender neutral‟workplace.
  8. 8. Adaptation vs difference• Women can align – or reject! – masculine values andworkplace norms (Bastalich et al 2007).• Alignment: emphasis on need to fit in, ignoringsexism, depersonalize emotion, confront masculinemodes of behaviour in direct and assertivemanner, succeed within accepted workplace norms.o Depends on and recirculates ideas about women as„emotional‟, ie.qualities associated with femininity anddevalued within this workplace culture.• Difference: Were aware of need to be „one of the boys‟and critical of female/tech contradictions. Strain ofwork, over-compensating “female-ness” outside, ignoredif not conforming to male styles of communications.
  9. 9. The category of ‘female’• Issue with associating masculinity with objectivity and scienceo Femininity mutually exclusive with science….o Science mutually exclusive within „feminine‟ traits –subjectivity, emotion…• BUT also propagates normative ideas of gender!! Masculinityand femininity are cultural constructions, and not mutuallyexclusive.• Problematic to lump women together as homogenous group(Brickhouse 2001, Gilbert and Calvert 2003).o Low-income; race; sexuality; culture; children.o Potential for different forms of exclusion, identity management.
  10. 10. Conclusions• STEM culture not neutral: embody masculine values and identities.• Critical awareness needed of which users are designed in – andout – of STEM workplace and communication, and how..• Avoid stereotypes and normative ideas of „women‟, andassociations with feminine tropes.o Also notion that „women‟ are a homogenous group.• Recognise STEM workplace culture, and which users arerewarded within it.o Recognise lived experience of women in STEM, especially around self-confidence and efficacy.o Reflect on success, be clear about flexibility.
  11. 11. Any questions?