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Science, Technology, and Gender: A Sociologist’s Quest for Equality

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Mary Frank Fox. Credit: Marsha Walton

Much of the world is coming to grips with the subject that sociologist Mary Frank Fox has spent decades researching: Gender inequity, and how science can help find answers to it.

Across the globe, stark revelations of sexual misconduct involving entertainment moguls, movie stars, politicians, and an Olympic doctor have dominated the news, showing patterns of harassment for years.

"The line of responses and excuses that, ‘oh, you’ve misinterpreted’ or ‘oh this really didn’t happen’ are going to hold less merit, less validity. I think it changes the standards of belief because this has been so dramatic," said Fox, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy.

And beyond the crimes, she said, are the cover-ups by what should be respected institutions.

For example, Larry Nassar, the former Olympic team doctor for USA Gymnastics, was convicted of sexually abusing young women at Michigan State University. “I think another part of the Nassar case especially is the layers of implication. Layers not only of people, but of organizations that appear to be involved in a kind of complicity. It is absolutely chilling,” said Fox.

As co-director of the Center for the Study of Women, Science, & Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Fox has spent her career examining gender disparities in scientific fields and helping to craft solutions to them.

"Science is very important in the study of inequality. Scientific organizations and industries are powerful and influential. They interact with the government, that public funding sustains," she said.

Fox had an early introduction to justice and human rights issues. Her parents worked for voting, housing, and workers’ rights.

"As a child I attended meetings and events. I was little and saw and heard my mother with the courage of her convictions," said Fox.

In high school, with tools from the public library and encouragement from a social sciences teacher in Plymouth, Michigan, Fox designed and completed a study of gender and opportunity for high school students.

“I had a finding: That the status of the students in the school and their families corresponded more closely for girls than for boys. Boys, it appeared, had some independent avenues. They could become socially mobile through athletics. That wasn’t available to girls at the time.

This then opened a world of inquiry for me,” she said.

It was a world she had to help create. At the University of Michigan, there were no courses exploring gender. She pursued the topic, until classes in this new field of social science were developed while she was in graduate school there.

Fox credits Georgia Tech with its forward thinking on this nascent specialty. She was recruited in 1993 to teach classes in the study of gender and to take the lead in research on gender and science.

She established one of the nation’s first curricular programs in the study of women, science, and technology, making it part of the national agenda.

Whether she is helping young women in STEM programs, or getting women on tenure tracks in engineering or computer science, she said it’s crucial everyone is playing by the same rules, and everyone knows exactly what the rules are.

"Advancement does not occur without evaluation, clarity of evaluation and communication; open, transparent means of communication about how people will be evaluated, and what they can expect in performance for advancement," she said.

She said if that criteria are established as fair and open, they inspire and promote trust; if they are not, then the public trust is violated.

In academics and industry, Fox said clear, written guidelines can help create a fair chain of command and responsibility. Committees, chairs of committees, and deans working within this system are all needed to ensure a level playing field.

“There is nothing impossible about this. It takes organizational will and it takes attention and responsibility. But it is not magic," she said.

Fox’s work has had positive impacts on real world issues. There is not a more stark gender disparity than the fact that women have babies — and they need some time off to do that. Corporate and academic policies can either make this a horrible experience, or no big deal. She has helped create realistic family leave policies, and she sees that as an example of notable change for women.

"They don’t have to go into a lot of drama to attain these leaves. Leave programs have become more normalized," she said.

Lack of gender diversity in industry and academia often follows the path of least resistance, rather than a pathway of genuine improvement.

"It is not because people are poorly intended, it is because they are doing what they regard as feasible; and we have to go beyond what is easy. In my experience people are passive and myopic for their own conditions, not malevolent," said Fox.

Doing what’s harder may not only mean doing what’s right; it can also have long term payoffs. While a homogenous workforce may be easier to manage, it will seldom produce a staff with the new ideas and creativity likely to come from different cultures, genders, and world views.

Many of her students are now focused on the seemingly intractable gender imbalance in computer science. Businesses can be even more judgmental and subjective than academia. Fox said the organizational structure of many tech companies has allowed for the toxic treatment of women.

In 2016, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women made up just 26% of the computing workforce; less than 10% were women of color: 5% were Asian, 3% African American, and 2% Hispanic. 

Those numbers are getting worse. And threatening, belittling, even dangerous situations for women are well publicized.

Fox said change is possible when big money is at stake. “If investors find that their financial resources are threatened by this, one could expect that alterations would occur,” said Fox.

Fox seeks successes like her parents’ generation achieved in voting and civil rights, a trend toward increasing justice and equity. The work is ongoing.

“It is never too early, it’s never too late, it’s always the time,” she said “We would have a world with a better range of participation, and a world of understanding. Bias reduces us as human beings. It reduces everybody. It reduces human potential.”

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<p>Mary Frank Fox. Credit: Marsha Walton</p>
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