Monday, 29 April 2019

STEMinist - Broxicity

Up until I was ten years old, when my mother choreographed for and taught dance to the kids of the local Indian community, I looked up to one of her students. She was in her later teens and was the star of every show because she was the best dancer in the group. I knew she was studying to be a civil engineer, and she refused to listen to her mother’s advice to take better care of her skin every time she went out into the field for work, making her intrepid in my eyes.

After we moved away, my mother unsuccessfully searched for a contact number or an email address to get back in touch with her family for decades. Twenty-two years later (just last month) my mother was finally able to track her down and speak to her. I was happy to hear that she asked about my career and wanted to know if I was still working in mechanical engineering. When my mother said yes, she said, “Good.”

Women frequently dropping out of STEM fields is a very commonly acknowledged, and almost accepted, phenomenon. Researchers have conducted numerous studies on the statistics of women in STEM and the inability of STEM fields to retain their diversity numbers. The historical lack of women in these fields in the first place has made it less imperative for companies to accommodate women-specific needs. It is difficult, if not impossible, for many women to balance a career in STEM with raising a family or other personal life goals.

Of course, there is also no dearth of data that proves women are paid less than men. This gap only increases dramatically with career growth, giving women at higher points in their career less incentive to stay in the same line as their male peers. These are all statistical, measurable ways of understanding why women often drop out of STEM careers a few years down the line. But, from my personal experience as a mechanical engineering student and professional, the one major, rather unquantifiable, reason for women leaving STEM fields is – surprise, surprise – bro culture.

1: My class of mechanical engineering in the first two years of university.

Image Description: Photo of author with her mechanical engineering class. The group consists of Shreyasi and eleven men. They are sitting on grey stairs in front of reflective glass doors. There are two rows of four and a row of two in front. Shreyasi is on the right in the front. She is wearing flair-legged blue jeans and a white t-shirt with small, black writing on the front. She is also wearing pink bracelets and a watch. Her forearms are rested on her thighs and her hands hang in between her open legs. Her hair is dark and hangs past her shoulders. She is smiling with teeth and looking at the camera. The other people in the photo are wearing mostly jeans, though two of them are wearing khakis. It is impossible to see what the men in the back row are wearing as pants. Most of the men have on collared shirts, though some are long sleeved and others are short sleeved. They range in color from bright red to maroon plaid, to light green striped to plain black. Their faces are blurred for privacy reasons. 

Firstly, it is hard enough having little to no girls in your classes. A study done at Ohio State University in the United States revealed women tend to drop out of classes at an early stage in their university education, especially during a PhD, if they don’t have any female company in their classes. Women subjected to mostly male classes in doctoral programs are apparently 7% less likely to graduate within six years than their male colleagues. This gap goes away when there are more women than average in the same classes. The ones who do drop out do it mostly in the first year.

The above study examines two logical, measurable reasons why the women who stuck around in their courses underperformed when compared to their male peers: research funding and grades. As it turns out, neither reason shows any statistical relation to the number of doctoral candidates graduating within six years. The gap is accounted to an unmeasurable “climate” that isn’t exactly favorable for women’s educational needs. This “climate”, or the absence of other women supporters and mentors, is basically what I call competitive bro culture.

While I was growing up, my father never encouraged spending too much time on looks and aesthetics, because I was told I was not the type of girl to waste my time on such trivialities. While I didn’t mind that approach, which was unique for its time, it roughly translates to “I’m not to be treated like other girls”. For the first few years of my life, I refused to wear a skirt or a dress to work or interviews. This decision had nothing to do with my father; it had everything to do with wanting to be treated like an equal professional rather than the lady who gets the coffee. The only girl in an engineering group has to assimilate by being “one of the boys” and cannot be thought of as attractive. It’s so easy to internalize the broxicity (bro toxicity)!

2: My team at an earlier workplace.

Image Description: Photo of author with her work team. The group consists of Shreyasi and ten men. They are seated on stone steps in front of what appears to be an ancient temple. There is a row of six in the back and five in the front. Shreyasi is seated in the front on the far right. She is wearing faded blue jeans and a black t-shirt. Her hair is dark, wavy and hangs just past her shoulders. She is seated with her legs together, angled to the right. Her ankles are crossed and both of her hands are resting on her right knee. She is looking at the camera and smiling slightly without teeth. Her male colleagues are dressed in a range of outfits, including faded jeans and khakis. Some of them are wearing plain t-shirts and others are wearing short sleeve collared shirts. Their faces are blurred for privacy reasons. 

I did eventually figure out how damaging that thought process was to myself and the women around me. One of the first times I wore a dress to work, a colleague told me I looked like an air-hostess. He quickly added he meant it as a compliment. This behavior is so confusing to a woman! The exchange basically implies the following things:

1. We are considered equal because we behave like the “bros”. 
2. We are undesirable, but an air-hostess is.
3. At the same time, we are “above” the job of an air-hostess?

Not many women want to stick around for a work culture that breeds toxicity. Plus, can you imagine being asked to “man up” when it’s time for your pregnancy and maternity leave? Baby penalty is real. Professionals in fields such as academia, with its toxic “publish or perish” approach, don’t take well to a gap in publications or fieldwork. Similarly, remaining relevant in IT requires relentless updating of skills and certifications. And, while concessions are not to be made for anybody, refraining from introducing flexibility in a field is quite definitely part of the gentleman’s club mentality.

Looking at these two pictures years later, I am amazed just at the change in body language from when I was in university to when I started working and learnt to love and display my femininity. Even so, I am still more comfortable with my current male colleagues than my female ones. But with the increasing number of women at our company, we recently had a few “ladies’ lunches”, to which some of my friends protested men didn’t have anything of the sort here, so why did we need them?

Women like me have had very little real support or mentorship at work from other women. We need support groups. We need to learn to communicate with each other. We need space to practice being welcoming and benevolent to each other to encourage the influx of women in our fields in the future, to escape the broxicity and give newer female professionals the benefit of a more conducive working climate. These are women who will have already suffered casualties on their way here, as we did on our way here. We have an opportunity to give them something we wish we had been given – the confidence to be as much of woman as they’d like to be.

By: Shreyasi Mukerji 


Thursday, 18 April 2019

Navigating Performative Allyship Within Spaces of Genuine Solidarity: What Does it Mean to be an Ally?

In the wake of the horror that was the Christchurch mosque shooting, Brunei’s anti-LGBT laws and the current political atmosphere, solidarity and community must become our anchor. It can act as the compass that guides us through this tumultuous period of anger and sorrow. As the old but never aged feminist saying goes, ‘the personal is the political’. This quote holds particularly true for those of us who exist within the margins of identities that do not align with white cis-heteronormativity. But for those whose reality is a privileged one and who don’t necessarily have to think about how skin colour, gender and sexuality impact job opportunities, healthcare, the right to exist, etc., this article is for you. Particularly, for those of you who want to support the equality and rights of marginal groups and identities, or who have already declared themselves allies to these groups, but don’t seem to understand how this works in concrete terms. Because it takes more than hashtag activism or apologizing on behalf of your colonizer white ancestors to be a genuine ally and source of support. We need more than your ‘declared wokeness’. In this sense, there is an evident disconnect between wanting to make the world a better place and taking the necessary and, most importantly, active steps to making that happen. This disconnect is where ‘performative allyship’ often lies.

Image Description: Photo of a protest from the point of view of a person in the crowd. The shot shows only the tops of the protester's heads and they are all out of focus. The main focus of the photo is three handmade signs. The one on the far left is bright green and facing away from the camera. The one on the right is a pinkish tan and also facing away from the camera. The one in the center is a forest green with a cardboard rectangle glued to it. In black letters, the sign reads "Respect existence or expect." Beneath the black letters, in upper case, red letters is the word "resistance." In the background, out of focus, you can make out two white townhouses with orange roofs, a tree without any leaves and a green statue of what appears to be a mother with two children. 

At its fundamental core, being an ally is a positive thing. It means you are aware of oppressive structures that don’t necessarily affect you and utilize your privilege and elevated platform to support marginalized identities and groups. The problem arises when you show your ‘allyship’ through unconstructive support and take the attention away from the groups for which you are supposedly advocating. It is easy to rant online about queerness and gender fluidity. It is another thing entirely to confront a homophobic friend or relative about their opinions, regardless on how ineffective confrontation might be towards people whose opinions likely won’t change. The reality is, a privileged ally can ultimately pick and choose the battles they want to fight. But being a queer person means embodying the battle, always having to justify your existence whether you want to or not. The least any privileged person can do when faced with these situations is attempt to educate and show solidarity to the communities you seek to empower.

Image Description: A black and white photo of twelve hands forming a circle against a backdrop of wooden boards. The photo is taken from above and the hands are held palm up. All of the hands are very different - there are different skin tones, ages and genders represented. 

Performative allyship can often be blatant, like with declarations of ‘not seeing colour’ when discussing debates and issues on race. However, it can also be complex and hard to navigate. The lines between what is ‘performative’ and what is genuine are often misconstrued and easily confused. An example of this complexity can be seen in New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Arden’s choice to don the hijab in solidarity after the violence directed towards the Muslim community. Many other non-Muslim (and primarily white) women followed suite. Although many women applauded this show of strength and support for the Muslim community, other criticized showcasing solidarity through the donning of the hijab. The hijab is deeply, religiously important to Muslim women, and non-Muslim women can take it off and go back to their regular lives without the fear of being a target of violence. While the intent might have been genuine, the impact could possibly overshadow the voices of communities that need to be amplified and heard. Being an ally means allowing these voices to have a platform, even if that renders you to the back stage.

Image Desription: A photo of three people standing in a field. The person on the left and right are cut off. You can only see one side of their torsos and a bit of their necks/ hair. All three people are wearing turquoise t-shirts with the word "Volunteer" written in white, block letters across the chest. They are also wearing black lanyards with name tags attached (though you can't make out the names). The person in the middle is holding up a red heart with both hands. They are looking directly at the camera and smiling with teeth. They have straight, dark brown hair that is pulled up into a bun. They are also wearing earrings, bright red lipstick and a bracelet. 

So, how can we better ourselves as allies? One major change you can make is to actively listen to discussions and discourse that may or may not make you uncomfortable. Another is to not interject in these discussions or get defensive. It is not a matter of blame, but rather an important moment to realize how those who are not protected or privileged live. Allies exists to help highlight the voices that have not been given a place in most mainstream discussions. Another important focus would be to educate oneself about various topics, so marginalized groups don’t have to do it for you. Then be vocal in your solidarity and make sure you are creating a safe space for people of marginal and oppressed identities. Donating to organizations that support these groups and advocating through peaceful protests and legal engagement with political representatives is also a great way to protect and empower these groups. Being an ally means SHOWING these groups you care and want to make a difference, not TELLING them. And trust me, we know the difference. 

By: Mya Gopal

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Sydney Feminists. Our Blogger and Tumblr serve as platforms for a diverse array of women to put forth their ideas and explore topics. To learn more about the philosophy behind TSF’s Blogger/ Tumblr, please read our statement here:

Thursday, 11 April 2019

What Tayla Harris Taught Australia About Misogyny

A few weeks ago, young women in Australia and around the globe discovered a new role model in sports superstar Tayla Harris, when a photograph of Harris appearing to defy gravity went viral. People were inspired by the fantastic photo, which captured the skill, dedication and physical fitness of an athlete in her prime. The photo and its reception said so much about the state of female athletes in today’s world.

Image Description: Photo of Tayla Harris on a turf soccer/ football field. She is shown mid-jump, with her left leg bent behind her at a 90-degree angle and her right leg stretched almost straight up towards the sky (with a very slight bend at the knee). Her right arm is hanging down by her side and her left arm is stretched straight across her chest and behind her leg. She is wearing a black jersey with a multi-colored patch at the bottom (red, yellow, blue, green), a pair of white shorts and bright orange cleats. Her hair is blonde and pulled up in a high ponytail. She is looking to the left of the camera and her face is in profile. Behind Harris, you can see the edge of the soccer field, which is covered in a black banner with "nab" written in bold, white letters and two red stars to either side of it. The background is out of focus, but you can make out a crowd of people sitting in the stands, watching the game. Image taken from Harris' personal Twitter feed.

It demonstrated all the usual, garbage gripes about women’s sport (it’s boring, the physicality isn’t on the same level as men’s sport, the athletes are of a lower calibre). It also said a lot about the misogyny that continues to exist in Australia. Within hours of Channel Seven’s AFL sports page posting the photo, it attracted repulsive and vitriolic comments. These comments were so hateful, Harris later issued a statement describing them as sexual abuse. 

The magnitude of Harris’ statement should not be underestimated. For the mere act of existing as a woman in a public forum, Tayla Harris was subjected to horrific abuse that went completely unmoderated. Making the situation worse, Seven’s response to the comments punished Harris rather than the perpetrators, by simply removing the photograph entirely.
A moment intended to celebrate Harris’ athleticism and skill was deemed too controversial for Seven’s Facebook page because of the behaviour of misogynists online.

Seven’s response to the comments can hardly be classified as anything less than a victory for the abusers against the abused. Seven later re-uploaded the picture, along with an apology for the way they handled the situation. But the whole, ugly incident brought to light a dark undercurrent of our society, in which blatant misogyny flourishes unchecked, while women live with the consequences.

Harris herself was quick to seize on the importance of this moment, saying, “I can see in people’s photos they’ve got kids, or they’ve got daughters or women in their photos even, and that is the stuff I’m worried about ... This is the start of domestic violence, maybe this is the start of abuse.” Her statement reminds us these trolls don’t exist in a vacuum. They are out in the world every day, interacting with women and perhaps raising a generation of them.

While the incident no doubt horrified many people, the reality of the Tayla Harris debacle certainly only surprised men. If you’re a woman and have spent any time whatsoever on the Internet, there is no question you've encountered trolls of this stripe before. They are particularly popular on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and in the comments section of mainstream media websites.

If there is one bright spot in Harris’ situation, it’s shone a light on the very real abuse women face online each and every day. It could possibly begin to shift the onus of behavioural change from the women being targeted back to the men who abuse them. Like so many societal problems which disproportionately affect women, sexual harassment and gendered abuse have typically been explained away as actions of a small group of lonely, bitter outcasts. But Harris’ case shows this understanding of harassment is far from the truth.

Such harassment and abuse are perpetrated by men who interact with women on a regular basis. They marry them and raise them and work with them. They aren’t outcasts at all, because we haven’t made them ones. In fact, these men are so comfortable expressing their views, they do so without the anonymity offered by websites like Reddit and 8chan. They do so with their own names, photos, and often places of work proudly and publicly displayed. That’s how confident these men are in their ability to escape repercussion. They expect, perhaps rightly, they will face no real-world consequences for their virtual abuse.

Again, such behaviour does not exist in a vacuum. It’s allowed to go on because countless individuals allow these men to make rude comments without doing anything to stop them. It's a different version of “boys will be boys” that no one has yet bothered to take meaningful action to address. The Prime Minister and heads of the AFL and Channel Seven can condemn such behaviour in words all they like. But until they take concrete action to punish these men, by banning them from matches, or at the very least suspending their Facebook accounts, they’re merely sweeping the problem back under the rug.

Image Description: Photo of the head and upper body of a muscular person facing away from the camera. They have long, straight blonde hair and are wearing a black sports bra. The muscles of their shoulders and upper back are particularly pronounced. The background is out of focus and in shadow. 

As a woman active in online feminist spheres, who is vocal about my beliefs, I do have to pause to consider the ramifications of this scandal for myself and other women. So many of us have been subjected to hideous misogynistic abuse online. Often, like Harris, those making the comments display their full names and photos of their children alongside their vitriol. It is horrifying to realize the men who espouse these views are all around us. They're next to us on the bus, talking to us at bars, perhaps working alongside us at our jobs. And, as Harris’ case has shown, with the thinnest veneer of anonymity, they’re not afraid of making their disdain for women known.

By: Siri Williams


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Sydney Feminists. Our Blogger and Tumblr serve as platforms for a diverse array of women to put forth their ideas and explore topics. To learn more about the philosophy behind TSF’s Blogger/ Tumblr, please read our statement here:

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Feminism and Health: Our Bodies are not Testing Grounds

Women, transgender and non-binary people's relationships with the medical system have historically been fraughtMany of them have left medical appointments feeling unheard, belittled, humiliated or like they are prone to hyperbole. 

In order to change our collective relationship, interaction and engagement with the medical system to serve rather than hurt, it is important to understand why our relation to medicine has been problematic for us. This piece will illustrate the ‘why’ through the lens of women’s experiences. However, transgender and nonbinary people face a multitude of additional healthcare issues. In order to do this topic justice, I will consider it more in-depth in a subsequent post.

Image Description: Photo of a nurse taking someone's blood pressure. The photo is taken from above and set against a light blue background. Both of the nurse's arms are outstretched, while only one of the patients is. The nurse is holding the patient's elbow in their left hand and squeezing the pump with their right. The patient is wearing a white, long sleeve shirt and black nail polish. On the right-hand side of the photo, you can see the blood pressure monitor and a glass of water. On the left-hand side of the photo is a clipboard with medical forms attached, facing the patient. A black pen and stethoscope are rested on top of it. 

Women, in particular, are statistically more likely to seek out medical services than men. They are less likely to die within five years due to a diagnosable medical condition, despite having perceived poorer health in comparison to their male counterparts. Superficially, it appears women, as consumers of medical services, should have better outcomes as a result of their more consistent engagement.

But this is subjectively and demonstrably untrue.

While women are more aware of medical problems and more attuned to symptoms than men, they are more likely to be treated worse by medical professionals. The ‘doctor knows best’ mentality, teeming with stereotypes about the irrational and hysterical woman, can make women feel as if they are incapable of making decisions in their own best interests.

Granted, regardless of how a person feels, we seek medical opinions because we are not necessarily the best judge of whether the symptoms we have are benign or whether we should start looking into funeral insurance.

Additionally, when something is ‘broken’ we want to know how to fix it. But given the impossibility of a singular person knowing everything, we transfer the responsibility of understanding some things to experts. These experts, who learn the ins and outs of their chosen career path, can then hypothetically explain the meanings of symptoms to us laymen in digestible soundbites.

Medical doctors are archetypal experts and people have been conditioned to trust them. Further, medical doctors are a special kind of expert that can fix one of the most valuable human goods each of us possess: our health. But the esteem afforded this profession, along with our quasi-religious faith in it, combined with the over-inflated egos of some of its members, has generated an enormous human cost. Unfortunately, women and other vulnerable person’s bodies litter medical science’s battlegrounds.

History provides us many examples of doctors behaving unethically. They’ve used unknowing and unconsenting patients as guinea-pigs and made claims about the safety of a drug, or procedure, which did not match observable outcomes in patients.

Worse still, subjects of unethical medical experimentation and practices are more often vulnerable populations; children, pregnant women, the poor, uneducated and non-white who are, at best, coerced into the role of lab rat under the guise of ‘healthcare’. At worst they are unknowing and unconsenting participants used for the sake of medical science.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the drug thalidomide, touted as a way to manage anxiety, insomnia, tension and gastrointestinal distress, was additionally sold as a morning sickness cure for pregnant women. It was available over the counter in some countries, it was considered so safe. Thalidomide may have reduced morning sickness, but it caused horrendous birth defects and physical abnormalities in the babies born to mothers who, trusting the medical profession, used the drug in the belief it would not harm their child.  

In 1987, in New Zealand, the Cartwright Inquiry was set up to determine if those who undertook research into cervical cancer between 1955 and 1976 purposefully withheld information about positive cervical screening exams for the need of the study. The inquiry found the researchers had acted unethically and put patients at unreasonable and unnecessary risk. It also revealed other unethical practices, such as taking cervical smears of newborn babies without parental consent and using anaesthetised women to practice vaginal examinations and IUD insertions without their permission.

Image Description: Photo shows three male surgeons in an operating theatre. Two of the surgeons in the background have their heads down, concentrating on the surgery. The third surgeon, in the foreground of the image, is reaching across a tray of medical equipment including operating scissors, syringe and a jug of water, to pick up a medical dressing.

More recently, transvaginal mesh products were used frequently in the surgical management of pelvic organ prolapse (when one organ in the pelvis slip down from its normal position) and urinary incontinence. Specialists would urge female patients to undergo the procedure rather than try non-invasive treatments to manage symptoms. As many as 14 in every 100 women treated with transvaginal mesh experienced mesh erosion causing infection, chronic pain, difficulty urinating and pain during sexual intercourse. A statistics degree is not necessary to know that adverse outcomes for 14 in every 100 persons is not a medically effective or safe procedure. In late 2017 in Australia, transvaginal mesh was removed from the list of therapeutic goods by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Thankfully our current medical profession responds quickly and proactively to unethical medical experimentation, practices and use of products that have not been rigorously tested for safety. The once ‘god-like’, infallible doctor has been replaced by collaborative health researchers. Yet there are lasting impacts for many women resulting from reckless, unethical and misleading practices by those they entrusted for help.

Why have women been the subjects of morally objectionable behaviours by medical professionals?
So much of our historical understanding of diseases and their presentation in human bodies is through the lens of ‘male bodies’. And historically, diseases that present in women were not well understood because they were not researched thoroughly. Further, normal bodily features and functions such as menstruation, vulva shape, and vaginal discharge were medicalised or discussed in hushed tones, teaching women to feel ashamed for no reason. I cannot begin to imagine the mistreatment and misunderstanding a transgender person would face as they navigate the health system.

So, why do women continue to seek out medical opinions to a greater extent than men? Medical dominance and the ‘doctor knows best’ mentality that forms the core dynamic of healthcare, more broadly construed, inhibited women from learning and understanding their own bodies and bodily processes. This practice is incredibly disempowering. It allows questions regarding normalcy and fears of being abnormal to fester and grow in women.

We still live in an extremely unequal world when it comes to health care and health outcomes. The idea of creating a contraceptive pill for people with penises has been on the medical table since the introduction of the contraceptive pill for people with uteruses. Still, women and other people with uteruses continue to bear the burden of procreating responsibly. 

Image Description: Photo shows a close-up of a person's hand, with the palm facing upwards and fingers slightly curled, holding some white, pink, and blue pills. The nails on the hand are painted black and the person is wearing a black shirt, which is pulled up above their wrist. The pills, of which there are various kinds (pink ones, purple and blue ones, round ones, capsules, red ones) spill out onto the surface on which the hand is resting.

And because nothing is foolproof and unexpected/ unwanted pregnancies occur, women and other people with uteruses are still not able to access safe, affordable abortions. Further, abortion has morphed from a health issue to a political one. As recently as two weeks ago, Australia refused to act as a signatory on the UN’s statement calling for safe access to abortion.

Women have an inalienable right to bodily autonomy. Women’s bodies are not testing grounds, nor should they be politicised by privileged white men in positions of power for political gain. Until all the requisite medical freedoms and rights are given to women and the redistribution of burdens is fairly ascribed, all women remain unfree.

By: Rachael Thurston

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Sydney Feminists. Our Blogger and Tumblr serve as platforms for a diverse array of women to put forth their ideas and explore topics. To learn more about the philosophy behind TSF’s Blogger/ Tumblr, please read our statement here: 

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