Afterthoughts on the lecture ‘Gender Research in Science & Technology Studies (STS): A Closer Look at Variables’. Interview with Professor Alesia Zuccala

This is the first interview connected to the Invited Lectures in the Humanities organised by the Doctoral School of the Humanities of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. The series of lectures is designed to enable PhD students to learn how to conduct research at the highest level through direct contact with experienced, as well as young, researchers who have already achieved notable success in their disciplines. This interview was conducted after the inaugural lecture given by Professor Alesia Zuccala on gender research in Science & Technology Studies, in which she indicated a crucial role of variables, i.e. characteristics of analysed group of people or objects, for understanding gender inequality in science. The lecture took place on the 16th of January 2020 in the Rectorate Building of Adam Mickiewicz University. 

We would like to start with the following question: as a researcher working in the field of bibliometrics and scholarly research evaluation, what was special and interesting about gender in science that has drawn you into this topic? 

I would like to point out two things, one general and one more personal. First of all, there is already a huge debate on gender among scholars working in the field of science and technology studies, and we can already find really exceptional research on the subject. It is not only women and feminists that participate in and contribute to the research, but we can also see a growing number of men doing really good work on this subject. And funding attached to the research in this field is also growing, so men are well motivated to investigate it. This, in turn, can be partially explained by the increasing level of funding allocated for research on gender, which is a typical way of attracting people to pursue a certain topic. However, when we are looking at these disadvantages and disparities in science connected to gender, that’s my gender after all that we are talking about. So, I simply wanted to join this growing conversation. 

The other inspiration came during a conference. I met a woman there, and as she had done some good work on the subject and I was appreciative, we stared an informal conversation. After the initial idea of studying productivity and disparities in terms of the academic career advancement of women, we realised that to get to the bottom of this, we would have to consider an enormous number of psychological underlying confounding factors. Then, we just started throwing around terms, like gaslighting or moral licensing, and we asked ourselves: have you experienced this? It turned out that, in fact, we had. Those are the psychological effects that you are seeing everywhere on the Internet and in society in general. And I thought, why don’t we highlight them and bring them to the forefront.

As you have argued, gender research is a huge global field of scientific inquiry that connects people from many different academic disciplines. What do you think is unique in your research perspective and approach?

Moral licensing, gaslighting—those are not easy topics. When we talk about them, in fact, we speak about abuse in the academia. However, there is more and more permission to reflect on them than ever before. So, I had a conversation with my friend, with whom I was originally going to co-write a research article on the subject of gaslighting or one of the other variables, and in the course of our conversation, I had the idea that before we do that why don’t we just look at all the variables in general. The community of Science, Technology and Innovation studies must be aware that if we are going to jump into this realm of gender research, we should be conscious of all these types of variables that exist out there. And then we have to assess if they are universal and whether they are constant, and if they are not, how can they be re-examined. So, I think this is a new part of it; of course, it is not new data but rather a new theory or framework of variability. It is an approach that proceeds from examining all these different variables, of which some have already been studied. 

Can you share with us your future plans in regard to this topic and tell us a bit about the next steps?

My friend Gemma Derrick, with whom I have been working on this topic, and I plan to hold a workshop where we encourage people to discuss the variables. This will help us create a space for a new way of looking at things and for not being afraid to say: ‘Well, look, these are variables, these are proxies, but we don’t know what the underlying confounders are or we need to find a way to actually study them’. Therefore, my plans are twofold: bringing a broader community of researchers to this topic and seeing what else I can do, based on all the insight I have collected just from this one overview. 

Tackling gender inequalities and abuse in academia is, of course, a great challenge and a huge discussion, but could you provide us with some insight that arises from your own research on what can be done to create a more equal academic community for all genders to prosper? 

I think it is safe to say that things are gradually improving. For a long period of time, we had more and more conversations around this issue, and feminist movements played a significant role in advancing this cause. However, we still function in what can be called a consistent state of noticeable forms of disparity. It is difficult because any practical approach or way of tackling this problem must also tackle its underlying logic. Solutions that are based on the logic that in order for someone to win, someone else must lose, simply do not work. What we are dealing with here is dominance and power—which is always a zero-sum game. Contrary to this logic, we have to come up with ways of creating more and more win-win solutions. And the only way of doing this is to be honest with ourselves. If we don’t see a broader perspective of men and women winning in the game, then we need to be honest and ask what is going on. This means looking at and examining every possible variable. We have to turn over every stone before coming up with a policy. Maybe afterwards it will turn out that it is not a policy that we need, but simply turning over the stones and having constant conversations will help. 

So, one could say that the research process itself is a process of change, as it makes us aware of these variables and conditions and lets us reflect on them and question them?

Yes, it helps us to change behaviour patterns, change expectations, change our view of competition and change our understanding of what it means to win and what it means to lose. Self-awareness is always key. Some people say that I cannot single-handedly stop, for example, climate change, but what I can do is self-reflect. I know what I can do better as an individual. Self-reflection is key. Maybe to say this as a researcher is not in fashion; however, self-reflection might be our best antidote. After all, we are not lacking in hard evidence.

Finally, during your lecture, you have addressed the community of doctoral students in humanities, researchers who are still at the early stages of their academic careers. If you could give them one piece of advice on how to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of academic work with many new pressures to face, what would that be?  

First of all, I think you are doing well. I would like to be complementary to the ones who are working hard in the communities and research teams where there are young women, men and non-binary people together. This is always great to see. I would say you are in for a tough ride. Although there is a lot of competition out there, try not to forget to re-examine yourself and to reflect on how you perceive gender. Always try to maintain self-awareness, always be honest, smart and uncover the variables at work. Look around as much as you can, and most of all, enjoy cooperation. Have a conversation with all your colleagues, enjoy it and bring the best out of each other, regardless of gender. 

Thank you very much for this conversation. 

Alesia Zuccala is currently an Associate Professor at the Department of Communication, University of Copenhagen. In 2004, she graduated with a PhD in Information Science from the University of Toronto, Canada, and has travelled widely to take research and teaching positions in Australia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. She specialises in the field of bibliometrics and scholarly research evaluation. Dr Zuccala has been a long-time member of the International Society for Scientometrics and Informetrics (ISSI) and an active participant in the European Network for Research Evaluation in the Social Sciences and Humanities (ENRESSH). She has recently served as co-editor of a special issue on ‘Scholarly Books and Their Evaluation Context in the Social Sciences and Humanities’ for the ASLIB Journal of Information Management, and many of her publications have appeared in journals such as ScientometricsResearch Evaluation and the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology.  

The interview was conducted by Franciszek Krawczyk and Jakub Krzeski—members of The Scholarly Communication Research Group.