16 July 2014

Female Role Models: Ends and Beginnings

For a long time I had a feature on this blog called Female Role Models, where I would "introduce" readers to a handful of women I thought were great examples of success for the rest of us.  I would write an installment whenever I noticed a man said or did something particularly stupid and sexist.

Then last year I learned about the everyday sexism project, and started reading more from women who wrote about these issues.  Some of the writers were self-identified feminists, others were simply women who wrote about current events. I quickly realized if I tried to write an installment every time a guy did something stupid, I'd have no time to do anything else. 

This issue is personally important for a few reasons. I was raised by a single mom for some of my formative years. I've spent my life surrounded by strong, smart women.  I think we solve problems faster and make better decisions when we incorporate diverse perspectives, and women bring some of those perspectives to light. I also know women start most small businesses and are the driving force behind America's entrepreneurial spirit.

Through my work, I've had the opportunity to see some great examples of this - particularly online moms who launch their own successful startups, pursue and excel in science careers, attain positions of leadership at large companies, and serve as advocates and mentors for other women. 

I've also seen disputes over the behavior of others. I've seen people dehumanize other people who make mistakes, and I've seen people try to defend the indefensible.  I've seen people I know and respect call other people I know and respect "the horde," "the mafia," and "the lynch mob."

It's important to identify bad behavior and make examples of those who engage in it.  It's important to have candid and provocative discussions about right and wrong. It's important to challenge convention and question authority and fight for the things we believe in. 

And while none of this should stop, I think we need to reframe this discussion a bit.  We should spend more time identifying and celebrating the people who work so hard and overcome challenges. We should find young people who may have a goal but don't perceive an opportunity and show them there are people who look like them pursuing the same goals.  We should give people something to be "for," not just "against." 

So while I won't be writing blog posts about female role models - it just takes too much time for me to sit and write posts - I will be adding pins to the FMR Pinboard as quickly and as regularly as I can. My criteria are relatively vague, but they work for me: 
Someone an online mom can show her daughter [or son, a great point my wife made] and say, "See her? See what she's doing? See how she's living in the same world you are, with the same challenges you have, and see how she succeeds? THAT is how you do this. THAT is what I stand for. I want you to be like HER."
I hope it's a resource for people who want inspiration or really just confirmation that yes, despite all of the crazy, there are legions of people out there who are showing the rest of us how it's done.  And I will consider any recommendations sent my way, so please share. 

27 May 2014

Homophily, Astrophysics, and #YesAllWomen

I've read the #YesAllWomen discussion on Twitter with great interest, hoping to learn a few things.  I have.

I don't know that I have much to add about misogyny, violence, "pick-up artists," and all that. People who read this blog know my politics; I think you can find a good collection of the smartest thoughts here. But I do have something to add on a related problem - the consequences of homophily and how social media is making it worse.

I saw this today:

I can obviously see why Dr. Hills describes this as "male entitlement over women." But from my perspective as a PR guy, this also has something to do with "filtering your feed." While I think the man who made this initial tweet may have deleted it, I did notice his explanation:

Set aside for the moment that this man seems to be missing @sciliz's point.  He was really just doing what millions of people do online every day - filtering his information feed to more closely reflect his interests and his worldview.  He likes astrophysics and golf.  Looking at his Twitter feed, he also likes conservative politics.  Today's technology basically allows him to screen everything else out.

Unless, of course, a really smart astrophysicist also happens to have a different opinion about feminism and occasionally shares it, like she did in the #YesAllWomen discussion.  So he asked her to filter her feminism out for him.

The online argument that appears to happen next leads me to believe he screened out the astrophysicist from his feed as well.

And that's the real problem.  We have spent so much time and energy filtering out "distractions" or uncomfortable viewpoints that the "communities" we form have no dissenting opinions or alternative perspectives about anything.

It reminded me of the piece Dr. Alice Marwick wrote for Wired - ironically, reflecting on another act of misogyny: "When people of likeminded beliefs congregate together, they collectively move toward a more extreme position." In the case Dr. Marwick examined, Adria Richards got death threats after she called someone out for telling penis jokes at a professional conference. #YesAllWomen addressed an even more extreme case of misogyny, arguably fueled by the feedback loop of a homogenized online community.

We see this so often now. In politics, in culture, in religion, in business, and now apparently in science.  We assign an "otherness" to people who likely share more in common with us than we realize.  The digital marketing and PR plans I develop account for this phenomenon - we leverage the intensity of feeling a community has for a topic or product, but understand the consequences if we take an even slightly different tack than the consensus point of view.

Technology has the promise and the capacity to bring countless diverse perspectives to our attention and help us make more informed and constructive choices.  It can also drive us apart.

01 May 2014

Dark matter in 140 characters or less

Last week Dr. Katie Mack held an "Ask Me Anything" session on Reddit. Dr. Mack is an astrophysicist.  The AMA was on the science subreddit - the section of Reddit where scientists go to talk about science.

But then I noticed one of the questions: "How do you explain dark matter to kids?"

These scientists wanted to figure out how you talk about science with people who don't do science.

Matt Shipman occasionally does this really cool thing where he asks people what they would ask a scientist about a certain topic, and then he presents the questions to the appropriate scientists at NC State.  (He just did one of these about food, and it's great.)  So I thought I'd give something similar a try.

I got the questions from members of a Dad Bloggers Facebook group I'm in. (One of my all-time favorite videos has two dads in lab coats.)  I threw in a few of my own questions in case I couldn't get any takers.

I got the answers from real-life scientists - but since I don't work at a university I just pinged scientists I follow on Twitter and maybe have met at a blogging conference.

Despite its limitations on length, I decided to use Twitter as my medium for a few reasons.  First, it's enormously useful for people with short attention spans or those who use mobile platforms to get their information. Second, it presents an interesting challenge to scientists who want to describe their work.   Can you explain "dark matter" in a single tweet?

Finally - and most importantly - Twitter is an amazingly open platform that can connect people from completely different walks of life with a simple "follow."   If these dads wanted to know more about astrophysics or chemistry or biology, a simple click gives them access to an expert. If these scientists want to know more about how they can describe their work to parents, they have a wealth of resources a click away.

So here's my own little experiment in outreach.

I got some great ones on the doppler effect:

Andrea Kuszewski was particularly helpful with neuroscience:

And there were a few more:

I'm still trying to get tweetable answers for a couple outstanding requests - string theory and wormholes - but I'm confident they will come.  The scientists were very eager to be helpful.

I don't know that these tweets are really the answers to questions - but I do hope they will prompt more questions, and I hope everyone will be connecting more to create a sort of user-generated Twitter glossary of science or something.

You know, just for fun.