Friday, May 1, 2015

Veteran Tammy Duckworth sums up the conversation about women in combat, perfectly!

This week the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee heard 18 hours of debate before approving a $612 billion defense policy bill that will now be send to the full House for consideration. Part of the debate centered on the role of women in combat forces, an issue that has garnered significant press attention in the last few years, and has been thoughtfully written about on this blog.

It is hard to think of more sexist workplace than the United States military. It is the epitome of masculine culture, where strength, aggressiveness, and competition are encouraged and admired. It is thus unsurprising that in such a hyper-masculine culture, discrimination or devaluation of women has occurred within the U.S. military since its inception. But the truth is that women have served valuable roles in the military since the American Revolution. In the last 50 years, women’s presence in the U.S. military has grown steadily. 

Yet, despite increasing numbers of women serving in the military, a discriminatory Department of Defense “Ground Combat Exclusion policy” has remained in place to restrict women from artillery, armor, and infantry combat roles.

Serving in the U.S. military is honorable. We respect our service people and veterans; we call them heroes. It can be a good way of life­—a way to get an education, see the world, make a good living wage, and earn a retirement. The problem with these discriminatory combat exclusion policies is that it prevents women from having the same opportunities for advancement in the military. Promotion in the military, including to the very highest posts, is based on combat experience. So, as Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network, states:

If women remain restricted to combat service and combat service support specialties, we will not see a woman as Commandant of the Marine Corps, or CENTCOM commander, or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thus women in the military are being held back simply because they are women. Such an idea is not only completely at odds with military ethics, but is distinctly un-American.
In May, 2012, two female soldiers filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge the combat limits. This set off a chain of events that has led to significant changes in military policy over the past three years. First, in January of 2013 the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously recommended that the combat exclusion policy be lifted, noting:
[T]he time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.
In response, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially lifted the combat policy exclusion. The Secretary’s action gave the services three years to figure out how to integrate women into all combat roles without reducing combat readiness, worsening sexual harassment rates and breaking women’s bodies by assignments for which they don’t qualify.

Since the ban on women in combat has lifted, each branch of the armed services has been “experimenting” with women in their combat troops. 60 Minutes ran a story titled A Few Good Women about the Marines trying to recruit women into their Infantry Officer School. The story highlights a “14 hour Combat Endurance Test” that requires numerous tasks over a 16 mile course.

Two things struck me about the story. First, I simply don’t understand why accommodations cannot be made for females. Is the military unable to recognize that women may have different strengths than men, and that by allowing them to be part of a combat troop but only carry a 50 lb. pack instead of a 100 lb. pack, that may add value? The military needs to re-examine its demands. Perhaps the rigors are justified, perhaps they are antiquated. If the demands are justified, then fine. Certainly some women will be able to meet them, and they should be allowed to do so. If they are outdated to the modern reality of combat, then adjustments should be made. It seems to me that the physical requirements exist just to discriminate against women.

Second, the males within the military are very resistant to women being part of their club. The brave woman interviewed for their story, Second Lieutenant Melissa Cooling, flat out says that the men she is training with don’t want her there. General Dempsey suggested allowing women into combat units may ease the military's ongoing problem with sexual harassment: "I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally." I hope that is the case, but for now the focus by many seems to be that women cannot meet the physical demands and have no place in combat. There doesn't appear to be acceptance. The ad nauseam debate in the House last week about women's place in combat seems to prove this. The discussion still is not ‘how do we make this happen,’ but rather, ‘this shouldn't happen because woman cannot handle it.’

One Congresswoman, Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), summed up this debate, perfectly in my opinion. Duckworth served in a combat capacity during her service in Iraq. She flew combat missions as a Blackhawk pilot and lost both her legs when her helicopter was hit by a RPG (rocket propelled grenade) during a 2004 mission. Since then, she’s made a full comeback, successfully ran for Congress, was appointed by President Obama to be one of the top officials in the Department of Veteran Affairs, and is now running for the Senate. Her social media response to the House Armed Services Committee debate about women in combat was this:
When Members of Congress debate women in combat, I look down at the stumps of my legs & wonder, where do they think I was - in a bar fight?
Exactly, Congresswoman! That says it all. Women can do it, and more importantly, they HAVE done it. It’s time to end the doubt and allow all female soldiers that want to be in combat the right to try, the same as the men do.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Psychosocial theories of self-esteem and aggression: Why gender matters

In sociology, researchers have long known that men and women tend to cope with problems in their lives differently due to socialization. Men will often blame external events or another person for a problem, while women often blame themselves. Predictably, this can take a heavy toll on women's self-image, and may cause episodes of depression.
On this blog, we have already discussed the fact that women have higher rates of clinical depression diagnoses. A new study published in Current Biology presents evidence that stress-related depression can cause changes in the body which function as a coping mechanism. To discover this result, the genes of thousands of women with recurrent major depression were compared with the genes of healthy control participants.What is interesting, and sad, about the study is that the women with histories of stress-related depression often had suffered forms of childhood adversity such as sexual abuse. Were they more prone to developing recurrent depression due to internalizing hardships or trauma? Perhaps, and a study on the correlation between stress and women's heart disease posits that "psychobiological" responses do differ according to gender.

Understanding how women are internally beating themselves up would help explain stress processing and what women can do to change harmful habits. Psychologists state that society's discouragement of any kind of aggression in women can lead to their turning aggression inward on themselves. Also, it can become "relational aggression," which means that women become aggressive against other women. Making other women into targets, rather than men, could often be easier due to women being conditioned to not openly fight back. Another weakness that women face in relational problems is that they do not see themselves as part of a group, causing perceptions of more stress. Sexism, of course, is probably contributing to this issue with glass ceilings, media under-representation, and objectification. In an odd way, one article advising women on how to stop berating themselves uses common stereotypes like "good girl," "doing addict," and "overly optimistic, partying cheerleader."

Gendered responses in managing self-esteem and aggression also affect men's lives, because while blaming an external event sounds like it would preserve the self-image, it does not always do so. Verbal and emotional abuse can appear in relationships due to men's aggression generally being tolerated more by society. Also, a study of the effects of success and failure on male-female relationships showed that men consciously did not perceive losses or boosts of explicit self-esteem based on women's success or failure. However, implicit self-esteem was affected. One must question the influence of sexism when the men in the study lost self-esteem when their partners were successful in certain tasks, and registered higher self-esteem when their partners failed. To conclude, when there are media lines such as "unequal doesn't mean unhappy," everyone should remember that gender roles do seem to play a factor in some kinds of unhappiness.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Women in comics

Back in March, DC Comics solicited their June 2015 comic book releases. In tribute to the 75th anniversary of their most iconic super-villain, the Joker, DC arranged for Joker-themed variant covers for all of their monthly publications. Unfortunately, a large number of fans and feminist bloggers flocked to Twitter to protest the variant cover planned for issue #41 for DC’s Batgirl series.

On the cover, the Joker is physically restraining Batgirl, whose eyes are filled with tears and fright. The villain, holding a gun, is applying one of his infamous “Joker grins” to the heroine. Although a number of the month’s variant covers show the clown terrorizing various heroes, the Joker and Batgirl have a particularly horrific and sensitive history. The cover heavily references arguably the most famous Joker story of all time, one told in the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke. In it, the Joker kidnaps Barbara Gordon (unbeknownst to him, Batgirl’s alter ego), shoots her in the spine, paralyzing her from the waist down, and presumably rapes her. Afterwards, he takes pictures of her bruised, undressed body and sends them to her father, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. Despite the Joker’s eventually defeat by the Batman, Barbara Gordon’s character spent the following 20 years in a wheelchair (this development was recently undone).

A large, vigorous debate – at least for a relatively niche market – arose. Critics of the cover raised two main issues: 1) the cover glorifies violence against women; and 2) the fear depicted in Batgirl’s eyes reduced her to a damsel-in-distress. Surely, they argued, a male superhero would not be robbed of his dignity in the same way. The backlash resulted in DC cancelling of the cover (a decision even supported by the cover artist himself). To some extent, this move proved just as controversial among readers.

According to Time Magazine’s Cathy Young:
Sexism in popular culture is a valid concern. But when feminist criticism becomes an outrage machine that chills creative expression, it’s bad for feminism and bad for female representation. Making artists, writers, filmmakers, and even audiences walk on eggshells for fear of committing thought crime against womanhood is no way to encourage quality art or enjoyable entertainment — not to mention the creation of good female characters.
But to be fair, the comic book industry has not done a great job in creating “good female characters,” historically. And left to its own devices, it’s unclear whether it was ever going to get any better. Throughout the years, women were commonly written into stories as sexual objects that would need saving from super-villains on a monthly basis. Even as women’s empowerment and super-heroines became more prominent in comic books during the 1990s, they were typically depicted with hyper-sexualized bodies in skin-tight suits, big hair and high heels.

It would probably shock no one today that women remain under-represented in the mainstream superhero genre. Although there have been huge strides (Did you know that the comic book Thor is currently a woman?), there is nothing resembling gender equality – either in terms of characters or in terms of creative talent. This is despite the fact that women make up nearly half of all attendees at comic book conventions.

Looking at the titles slated for release in July 2015, only about 10 out of the 83 (12 percent) Marvel Comics issues have a titular female protagonist. Over at DC Comics, it is 11 out of 76 (14 percent). In contrast, Marvel is scheduled to publish 30 male-led titles to DC’s 38. For someone who has followed the industry since the early-1990s, these numbers actually represent a huge improvement. Just more progress needs to be made to excise the sexism in what has generally been a boy’s club.

If you’re a fan of films, you’ve probably noticed that superhero movies have been dominating the box office for quite a few years now. And despite a few notable flops (e.g., Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern, Halle Berry’s Catwoman, Josh Brolin’s Jonah Hex, etc.), it doesn’t look like the super-powered gravy train is about to quit any time soon. Late last year, both Marvel and DC addressed one of the growing concerns among their fans – Will see any female-led superhero films?

At the time, the only super-heroine to make her way onto the big screen in the new universe was Black Widow. And despite her competence in a fight, she has so far been used as a trope – being a romantic interest for Iron Man in Iron Man 2, then for Captain America in The Winter Soldier, and now for the Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The actors portraying Captain America and Hawkeye jokingly called her a “slut” during an interview as a way to explain the way her character has been used, something they apologized for last week.

At the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel responded with plans to release Captain Marvel in July 2018, and DC finally planned to give us our first Wonder Woman-led movie in June 2017. Additionally, Marvel will premiere a female-led series on Netflix later this year. Somewhat similarly, we will also see the first black male-led films of the new universes – Marvel’s Black Panther in 2017, and DC’s Cyborg in 2020.

Still, a lot of soul-searching needs to happen in the superhero industry, as well as in Hollywood generally. Like Disney’s animated movies, superhero movies have historically left a lot to be desired in how women are portrayed in their stories. Tokenism is simply not good enough anymore. Hopefully, they’re up to the challenge.

Minor's Prostitution in Switzerland Banned in 2013

In Europe, there is still a debate regarding whether prostitution should be legalized or not. I also have some difficulty to decide between the two principal arguments. On one side, legalization allows a better protection of sex workers, which is more than necessary regarding the danger of this occupation and the abuses that are committed. On the other side, I can’t see it otherwise than an exploitation of human beings that should be banned. Whereas the discussion is complex, it appears much easier to decide when we are talking about minors’ prostitution. The answer seems clear: children should be legally protected from prostitution. If someone would have asked me five years ago if the prostitution of minors was legal, I would have sworn that it was not possible in Switzerland … And I would have been wrong. Indeed, until 2013, the prostitution of minors aged between 16 and 18 was legal.

How that could be possible in 2010 in a western, supposedly developed nation? That seems crazy, but it was possible due to two factors combined together. First, prostitution is legal, contrary to the US, and only the forced prostitution is illegal. Second, the age of consent, which is the age at which a person is deemed legally competent to consent to have sexual intercourses, is fixed at 16 years old, as it is in most of US states.

Fortunately, in 2010, The Swiss Federal Council, approved the 2007 Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (or “Lanzarote Convention”), which took effect on July 1st, 2010. The modification of the Swiss Penal Code necessary to respect the terms of the convention was adopted in September 2013 and took effect on July 4th, 2014, which means legislators took 4 years to produce a law stating that requiring the services of minor prostitutes is a crime.

This situation was qualified as “ gap in the law” when it came to the attention of the public through the media, but I can’t prevent myself from thinking we did not legislate on that earlier because it was mostly a feminine problem. As often, these questions take years to solve and don’t seem to be taken seriously as a real problem.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Women, patents, and innovation

The fact that we need more women in the sciences has been discussed many times before on this blog. See the previous posts here, here, and here. Yet these questions remain: how badly is sexism hurting scientific progress? How do we measure innovation?

One way of measuring innovation and conferring recognition is awarding patents. So, how are women faring at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)? The National Bureau of Economic Research found in 2012 that women hold 7.5% of all patents, and 5.5% of commercial patents. The gap between men and women is not due to a lack of women in hard sciences and engineering. Only 7% of the gap can be explained by that observation. It was stated that more representation in those fields would not make a difference absent other changes. While the lack of women in electrical and mechanical engineering, along with design and development, accounts for 40% of the gap, 29% is due to women being younger than their male counterparts in patent-intensive fields.

Many individuals became encouraged when The National Women's Business Council released a report that found women had doubled their share of patents in the last 22 years. Women hold 18% of the patents filed since 1990, and the number of patents granted to women increased by 35% in 2010. However, some researchers claim that the data used in these reports has too many problematic elements to be accurate. Gender on patent applications is indirectly sourced, and aggregate USPTO data may have been used incorrectly. Regardless of how women's patenting achievements are measured, it is agreed that women are closing the gap, but they are not at men's levels.

Helen Anderson and Mindee Hardin, patent holders of products for busy mothers, say that women need to disregard discouragement, and believe in themselves. Women have higher participation in trademarks, and the USPTO now has its first woman director, Michelle Lee. But the lack of a peer network in some areas is still a problem. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) acknowledges that women also tend to avoid commercialization, have less access to venture capital, and contend with laws that favor men. Also, women are often employees, instead of employers, in research and development teams. Service patents, which are awarded to the employer, would thus reflect disparities within companies.

If women are not on par with men's patenting rates, what of innovation? Whether patents are indicative of innovative progress is questioned, and even the definition of innovation has been criticized. Innovation is assessed by technological and industrial standards, and the term could be excluding many "feminine" improvements in human welfare. Therefore, women's contributions could be difficult to measure.

To end this post, here is an interesting account of Elizabeth Magie, the feminist who invented and patented the game of Monopoly. Magie also made headlines in the early 1900's for advertising herself for sale as "a young woman American slave" in order to make a statement about women's position during that time.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Hashtags, feminism, and social media

It is undeniable that social media plays an increasingly important role in mobilizing support for causes and campaigns. It has become an important platform for presidential elections, and will soon be saturated with gendered commentary following Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement to run for President. After all, unlike Republican candidates Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz – who all announced their run in speeches and rallies – Hillary Clinton recently released a video on social media to announce her run. Thus, the question remains: how does the use of social media impact women?

As Nisha Chittal recently stated, “a new wave of feminism is here, and the most powerful weapon is the hashtag.” #Askhermore trended during this season’s award shows, encouraging reporters to ask female celebrities other questions besides what they were wearing. #Notbuyingit trended during the Super Bowl in an effort to call out sexist ads. And #whyIstayed trended after a talking-head asked a survivor of a domestic violence scandal why she stayed, prompting other survivors to share their own personal stories on social media. And the list goes on.

Chittal goes on to explain how social media has democratized feminism, making it accessible to anyone with internet access and the desire to fight patriarchy. In a sense, she describes how the Internet is able to negate spatiality, creating solidarity among women nationwide, which allows for a more effective space for public dialogue.

However, despite Chittal’s optimism, her argument isn’t entirely convincing, because at the end of the day, the Internet is a double-edged sword. Women can champion causes by using the Internet as a public forum, but that doesn’t mean the public won’t respond. And unfortunately the public seems to exist in a very patriarchal and misogynist form.

A recent study done by Sydney University found that women’s voices are marginalized on the Internet. Women make up only between 3 and 35 percent of comments on the Internet. The professor who conducted the study stated that these findings are consistent with research about women’s voice in public spaces—spaces that are consistently dominated by men. And more over, she stated the imbalance seems to be driven by everyday gender dynamics, in which men routinely dominate women.

So if men are dominating the conversation on the Internet, what exactly are they saying? In a recent Op-Ed, Ashley Judd illustrates what can happen to women who express unpopular opinions on social media by describing her own experience of receiving responses that sexualize, objectify, insult, degrade, and threaten physical violence. After receiving such backlash in response to an unpopular comment about a March Madness basketball game, she stated in the context of twitter, “what happened to me is the devastating social norm experienced by millions of girls and women on the Internet. Online harassers use the slightest excuse (or no excuse at all) to dismember our personhood.” And she has a point.

If you read through some of the hateful, sexist tweets Judd received in response to her comment about a basketball game, you might think her particular experience is particularly extreme. It is not like every single woman who posts something about feminism on the Internet is going to receive responses that threaten violent sexual assault, right? The point is, I’m not sure we should be praising social media just yet. It is an incredible medium to garner support and spread information, and we should not refrain from using it out of fear for negative responses. But it’s important to keep in mind that as a public forum, it reinforces the fact that the public still responds to women with patriarchy and misogyny. And a response only takes one anonymous tweet.