More than 600 scientists and their supporters have signed an open letter to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), criticizing four recent events that “hinder the advancement of underrepresented groups” in science, technology, engineering, and math.
A draft of the letter has been circulating among scientists for about a week. The authors released the final version exclusively to BuzzFeed News on Tuesday, at the same time that they sent it to AAAS. The letter is republished in full below.
The letter asks AAAS to “work more diligently” to avoid “harmful stereotypes” when publishing content about minorities, and recommends that its editorial staff undergo diversity training.
“I chose to write the letter because I appreciate how damaging the unintentional reinforcement of stereotypes can be,” Aradhna Tripati, a geologist at UCLA and one of the original authors of the letter, told BuzzFeed News.
“I think the recent mishaps we’ve seen in Science journals and their associated columns and web forums reflect underlying societal issues relating to gender, race, and civil rights,” Tripati added.
The campaign was first reported by the Retraction Watch blog last Thursday. The letter comes two weeks after Jim Austin resigned from his position as editor of Science Careers, a website that has been frequently criticized for running sexist advice columns.
In a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News, Marcia McNutt, the editor-in-chief of Science, said: “Science and Science Careers in particular have had a couple of missteps, which we regret.”
“We’ve been rethinking our strategy and are in the process of changing oversight for Science Careers, but not fast enough,” McNutt added.
On July 11, 2014, AAAS’s flagship journal Science ran a cover photo of the bodies of transgender women of color.
The photo clearly suggested that the women were sex workers, with the headline “Staying a step ahead of HIV/AIDS.”
When critics took to social media to express their frustration, Austin tweeted from the Twitter account, @SciCareerEditor: “Am I the only one who finds moral indignation really boring?” The tweet was later deleted.
“It came to seem as if the editors of Science Careers were trolling the scientific community,” Janet Stemwedel, a philosopher at San Jose State University who also signed the letter, told BuzzFeed News.
“The big worries are that Science Careers was dispensing advice that didn’t just assume the status quo (where inclusion of scientists who are not White men is still very much a work in progress), but that actually bolstered that status quo,” she said.
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Austin for comment.
In June 2015, AAAS journal Science Careers published a shocking advice column to a young female scientist.
A young researcher had asked for advice regarding an advisor who she felt was constantly looking down her shirt.
“As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can,” wrote column author Alice Huang, former AAAS president. “His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.”
Science Careers later retracted the column, amidst wide criticism on blogs and social media.
The journal ran a note in place of the letter that stated the post “was inconsistent with our extensive institutional efforts to promote the role of women in science.”
In her statement to BuzzFeed News, McNutt added that opinion columns are tricky.
“As shown in the most recent example that triggered the letter, we are now recognizing that when we publish first-person accounts, they are being mistaken as advice columns, even when the role model is very dated,” McNutt said.
The editor of Science Careers, Jim Austin, resigned effective July 3, according to an email sent to many Science staffers that was forwarded to BuzzFeed News.
“We do not discuss nor comment upon personnel matters. However, Mr. Austin is not employed by AAAS,” Ginger Pinholster, chief communications officer at AAAS, told BuzzFeed News.
The final straw came when Science ran a letter by a male biochemist at the University of Toronto called, “Getting noticed is half the battle.”
In it, a male scientist describes succeeding in his career by working 16 hour days and leaving his wife, also a PhD scientist, at home to take care of the children. The open letter referred to this advice as supporting “gendered career roles that reinforce sexist stereotypes.”
“Somehow this went through editorial scrutiny and was selected as important advice,” Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist at the University of California, Davis, told BuzzFeed News. “It seems so fundamentally silly and possibly offensive, and not helpful to anybody in the community.”
The two authors of the letter, Tripati and Jennifer Glass, have circulated it mostly via Facebook and email, concerned that Twitter might put it into the hands of GamerGate and other groups that have attacked women speaking out against sexism in the past. They plan to send it to the journal on July 21.
While many of the scientists they contacted were happy to sign, some, especially those early in their career, were concerned about retaliation or being labeled a troublemaker.
“[Jennifer Glass] and I were worried about signing. Should we be so visible? Both of us are untenured. Is this one of the things that’s going to define us?” Tripati told BuzzFeed News. “But we’re both sick of seeing this type of thing. It’s not just AAAS — these biases get in our heads.
“We decided we could use our position of relative privilege, as opposed to students and postdocs, to make a difference,” she added.
“The goal here from my perspective is we would like the main players to start paying more attention,” Lenny Teytelman, a biologist and a co-author of the letter, told BuzzFeed News.
Other signatories also stress that this isn’t just about criticizing the publications, but giving AAAS a chance to do better.
“No one’s interested in just throwing stones — this is the community we live in and we would love to make it better,” Sarah Tuttle, an astrophysicist at University of Texas at Austin who signed the letter, told BuzzFeed News.
“There’s only so many oops’s you get in a year,” she added. “I think this is a nice way to give them the opportunity to do a little bit more than just say ‘oops’.”
Here’s the full text of the letter:
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
1200 New York Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20005
Dear Science/AAAS Editors:
We are writing about four recent AAAS publications and communications in the past 12 months that reinforce damaging stereotypes about underrepresented groups in STEM fields. It is particularly concerning that two of these four pieces originated from Science Careers, which purports to be “the leading resource for job listings and career advice in science, technology, engineering and mathematics”, given that these incidents risk deterring people from underrepresented groups from pursuing careers in STEM, and (in the fourth case) appear to mock criticisms from the scientific community in response to these communications.
Below we summarize the four recent incidents:
1) The recent article in the Working Life section of the journal made statements about gendered career roles that reinforce sexist stereotypes (“…I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist— worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities…”) .
2) An online Science Careers post in response to a postdoctoral researcher requesting advice about her advisor’s tendency to look down her shirt implied that employees should tolerate inappropriate behavior because they would otherwise risk career advancement (“…As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can…..His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.”)
3) The cover photo of headless transgender sex workers of color with the caption “Staying a step ahead of HIV/AIDS”  fed into stereotypes associating prostitution and HIV/AIDS with three underrepresented communities - women, people of color and transgender people - along with its general harmful representation of disembodied female representations.
4) A tweet from the @SciCareersEditor account stating “Am I the only one who finds moral indignation really boring?”  in apparent response to comments made on Twitter criticizing the offensive Science cover photo described above.
We request that Science’s editorial staff and reviewers work more diligently to ensure that Science’s web and printed material does not reinforce harmful stereotypes that hinder the advancement of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. Such material is counter to the AAAS’s stated mission to: “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people”.
In particular, we suggest STEM diversity training for Science and Science Careers editorial staff and additional scrutiny of published materials, columns, and comments that are posted on Science’s online blogs and Twitter feeds, which illustrate the opinions and priorities of “the world’s leading outlet for scientific news, commentary, and cutting-edge research” and “the world’s largest general scientific society”.
1 10 July 2015 Working Life article “Getting noticed is half the battle” by Eleftherios Diamandis (Science Vol. 349 no. 6244 p. 206).
2 The 1 June 2015 Science Careers post on the online advice column by Alice Huang (since retracted).
3 11 July 2014 Science cover photo of headless transgender sex workers of color with caption “Staying a step ahead of HIV/AIDS”.
4 The 16 July 2014 tweet “Am I the only one who finds moral indignation really boring?” by Science Careers Editor Jim Austin @SciCareersEditor (Twitter account since deleted).
Aradhna K. Tripati, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
Jennifer B. Glass, Ph.D., Georgia Institute of Technology
Lenny Teytelman, Ph.D., protocols.io
This story has been updated with the text of the finalized letter and updated number of signatories.
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