Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Engagement and inclusion: we can do better

I spent today volunteering at a major science event aimed at children. As you may have noticed I'm quite passionate about science communication, both because I feel that everyone deserves the chance to hear about something I find so fascinating and because I believe passionately that the more people of all ages but especially the more children are exposed to scientific ideas the more will realise that science is something they too can become involved in, and like every evangelist banging on about Apple products or Brompton bikes I'd like to think that something that has enriched my life so much could enrich the lives of others too.  For this reason I was delighted to be assigned to help out with some of the talks, and looked forward to seeing how the experts did it.

I have to admit that how they did it horrified me.

The first speaker gave a talk that was in many ways very good - he used superheroes as an engaging hook to capture children's interest, and designed some very novel and interactive demonstrations to convey some very complex concepts.  I sincerely hope that this post is taken in a spirit of constructive criticism that would allow him, and others designing similar engement activities, to make them truly excellent.  Where it fell down though was in the quite startling degree of sexism it demonstrated.  I'm not going to name the event or the first speaker, as I'm sure the biases and sterotypical thinking displayed were entirely unconscious rather than deliberate (after all the very definition of privilege is having the luxury to be unaware of such issues) and because I doubt he is alone in exhibiting them - rather than a critique of a single event I think this should be an opportunity for everyone to think about making our science communication more inclusive.

The speaker mentioned a number of people, real and fictional in his talk.  Males mentioned were the werewolf from Twilight, Superman, Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk - admittedly the werewolf character was probably written as eye-candy but the rest were discussed as admirable characters and powers that would be desirable to share.  Females mentioned were Dolly Parton (in the context of a joke about Dolly the sheep being cloned from breast tissue) and Beyoncé Knowles twice: the first time in the context of the fly with the golden bum named after her (yes really), illustrated of course by a picture of Beyoncé's bum in a gold lamé dress, and the second in the context of how wonderful it would be if we could all clone a copy of her.  Men, in short, were shown as heroes with agency (with the possible exception of the werewolf) whereas women were either the butt of jokes or objects of admiration, in both cases for their physical characteristics.  Given that half of the audience was female this certainly wasn't a message I wanted them to be taking away from a science fair.

Scaptia beyonceae
Another issue was the selevtion of volunteers, all five of whom were male.  Admittedly the first four all came from the front row, and as kids tend to try and sit next to their friends it's possible that there was a cluster of boys in the place where the speaker liked to take volunteers from, but the final volunteer was chosen from the side of the hall and was also a boy.  I'm sure that the speaker wasn't doing this on purpose, but it did seem to me as though he was subconciously choosing volunteers on the basis of his mental image of who would be interested in science.  The trouble is that the fact that the people on stage where entirely male may have helped reinforce any biases or insecurities the audience may have held over who should be doing science too.

On top of this one of the demonstrations struck me as potentially rather racially insensitive: the demonstrator asked for a volunteer from the audience and started putting pegs in his hair. I don't know whether he would have modified this part of the demonstrator if the volunteer had been Black, but I would have found a Black kid on stage having their hair messed with by a white man incredibly uncomfortable and really there was no need to do it at all.

To top it all off he ended with a slut-shaming joke, saying that all bacteria are slags because they'd share DNA with anyone which apart from anything else may not have been appropriate for such a young audience.

The second talk was far better, with no sexist jokes, one of the three kids selected as volunteers being a girl and videos shown of children of all sexes and ethnicities doing experiments. I did notice however that again the three demonstrators were all white and male: perhaps not a problem in isolation but coming straight after the first talk may perhaps have reinforced the impression that science was not for everyone. Both talks were repeated in the afternoon, but I was too busy to pay attention to the balance of volunteers.

I did wonder whether I was overreacting, seeing problems where most wouldn't notice them, until one of the class teachers stopped me on the way out and begged me to feed back how awfully sexist the talk was to the demonstrator. I'll try, though as a lowly volunteer I doubt I'll get the chance to talk to him, but I genuinely believe he was acting with the best of intentions, completely unaware of how problematic some aspects of his talk were, and I doubt that this issue is unique to him; for this reason I hope that this post will serve to feed back to some extent to the scientific communication and engagement community.

16/3/13: Edited the add that the speaker has now responded to me and taken these points on board.


Jules Bristow said...

I've been on my feet since 7 today moving chairs, wrangling children and picking up sweet wrappers and forgotten lunches, so I won't be responding to comments tonight because I'm going have a bath in Tiger Balm then fall asleep in my dinner. Please do leave comments though and I'll get back to you as soon as I feel human again.

FleaCircusDirector said...

Pegs in the hair, sounds like a really funny demo to me. However, for me my hair is not part of my social or relgious makeup in anyway.

The list of topics you highlight does sound like a classic list of how to remember things:

Colour, interactivity, sex, humour hopefully there was also repetition and a mix of visual and audio too.

I'm also interested to know the mechanics of how you were offended.

Did you find a slow increase in offence as the talk went on?
Did you find that there was one key thing that tipped you over the threshold after which everything was offensive?
Did you find yourself slightly offended then increasingly offended as you reviewed the talks with your peers?

Jules Bristow said...

I wouldn't say that I was offended exactly, more uncomfortable and concerned about the impact the talk was having on the audience who were meant to be being encouraged to feel science was something they could do. I do appreciate that humour and sex is a good way to get a message to stick, but I think we need to be aware of the other messages that may be being conveyed at the same time. In this case I felt that the message was that science wasn't for girls. I realise this wasn't a message the speaker intended to convey, but if I could take that message away I'm sure some of the audience could have done too.

Regarding the mechanism, I first became concerned with the joke about Beyonce's bum, illustrated by a picture, followed by the joke about Dolly. It was at this point that I noticed that all the volunteers picked were male, which on its own I probably wouldn't have paid much attention to without the context. I was then slightly shocked by the inappropriateness of the slag joke.

The hair thing was just potentially insensitive - I mentioned it in the post because I was concerned that given the lack of awareness of sexism this was probably something that people needed to be made aware of too.

I decided to write the post because the teacher spoke to me - the fact that she shared my concerns made me realise I wasn't overreacting. I hope this answers your questions.