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Unmask the Reviewer- My Response to #AddMaleAuthorGate

May 11, 2015

2015-05 AddmaleauthorgateLast week, there was a big scandal at PLoS One (a major science journal) for some very sexist comments that were made as part of the peer review process. Retraction Watch wrote a nice summary on this. (For twitter commentary, see #addmaleauthorgate.)

Personally, I was floored by how openly sexist the comments were. Usually, sexism is much more subtle- it’s more about things that don’t happen: third author, not first; section chair, not keynote speech; secretary, not president.

John Gill, the Editor of Times Higher Education invited me to respond to this scandal through a Letter to the Editor. I’ve posted it below.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gender inequality in higher education- A few examples that come to mind immediately: clear biases in Citation Practices (in international relations, in sciences), Teaching Evaluations, Letters of Recommendation, and Lower Starting Salaries. For a statistical snapshot of the problem in the UK, see Anna Notaro’s piece. More controversially, I would argue that the darker problems of rape culture in the US and Canada, and laddism and harassment in the UK, are related manifestations of how society and its institutions deal with gender inequality.

Male Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

Male Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

Female Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

Female Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

But clearly, the problem of gender inequality is not limited to universities and colleges. It persists globally, in just about every field, and pervades more aspects of our lives than we’d care to admit. Some will read this scandal as an isolated incident, but I assure you, it is not. There is now a fair amount of  hard evidence demonstrating that sexism is systemic. Whether it is conscious or subconscious is debatable- but it is definitely systemic.

#AddMaleAuthorGate only scratches the surface of an inequality that runs very very deep- even then, you will only see it if you choose to look for it. And therein lies the problem- most of us don’t want to see it. Including me.

For the first two decades of my life, I genuinely believed that gender inequality was a dying problem. When I was 18, I laughed at my mom when she told me that I would eventually hit a glass ceiling in my career. I was convinced that by the time I was old enough to enter the workforce, discrimination against women in Canada would be in its twilight years- extinct, like the dinosaurs.

Since that conversation with my mom so long ago, I’ve come to realize that culture and norms are powerful things. Gender inequality is structural, sociological, biological, political, geographical, cultural. It is embedded into the social fabric of our societies, and it will take generations for big changes to take root. In the meantime, here’s my small contribution:

Inexcusable sexism calls for action

7 May 2015

The sexist nature of the peer review comments (suggesting that a paper written by two female researchers ought to include at least one male author to make sure that the data are interpreted correctly and saying that only men have the personality necessary to make it to the top jobs in science) that were offered in response to Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head’s Plos One journal submission on gender inequality in the life sciences has been met with a roar of public outrage (“‘Sexist’ peer review causes storm online”, 30 April).

As a female academic, I personally found some of the sexist comments (such as only men have the personality necessary to make it to the top jobs in science) so outlandish that it was difficult to take them seriously. Surely no credible scientist could honestly believe that it is physical stamina that explains men’s publication advantage? That the journal editor(s) accepted such a review without challenge was equally galling.

If these comments were indeed meant to be taken literally, let me ask, rather provocatively: is this a case where the reviewing scientist is so patently sexist that s/he should be unmasked in this particular instance – as a public service to the scientific community? Anonymity plays a very specific function in the research process; when it undermines trust in the system of how work is judged, as demonstrated in this case, should it be withdrawn?

I do not ask this question lightly, but rather because we (myself included) often stand by and tolerate quiet sexism within the walls of academia. If this person is evidently biased, then why are we, as an academic community, protecting such clearly sexist behaviour? If key gatekeepers (such as peer reviewers at major journals) are permitted to express their damaging personal biases without any personal cost to their reputations, then it undermines the trust of female scientists in the fairness of the overall “meritocratic” system. This sense of fairness, by the way, has already been systematically undermined in more ways than a letter allows me to express.

Christine Cheng
Lecturer in war studies
King’s College London

This piece was first published in Times Higher Education on 7 May 2015.

The Art of Academic Writing (for Policy Makers & Everyone Else)

April 21, 2015

Many of my students in the MA in Conflict, Security, and Development at King’s College London have come directly from the policy world. They are diplomats, military commanders, NGO workers, social activists. They bring with them diverse knowledge and skill sets to the classroom, but they also bring with them particular ways of communicating that are very different from what is required of them in academia. Key to this is academic writing.

For people who worked as practitioners, it is hard to understand what could possibly be more important than deriving policy recommendations from a piece of writing. What is the point of writing about something if you can’t decide what to do about it? This is a common complaint of academic writing.

The first thing practitioners should appreciate is that deciding what to do is not the goal of an academic essay or article. The goal usually has to do with understanding the nature of the problem. With a proper diagnosis/analysis/explanation of the phenomenon, policy recommendations will follow.

So, how can practitioners-turned-students learn to write academically? The key point that needs to be appreciated is that what matters is not the impact of the argument on the real world, but rather, how this argument impacts upon the existing literature. The foundation upon which an academic essay is constructed is the literature.

First you need to build comprehension. Start your academic writing journey by reading deeply and understanding how the literature fits together. How are the debates constructed? On what ideas do they build? Where are the agreements and disagreements? How are leading thinkers grouped? What are the big ideas? You need to synthesize these ideas for yourself to figure out what fits where and who is arguing against whom.

Once you fully grasp the importance of the literature, the next task is to mimic the form. The goal here is to learn to write academically (tone, style, word choice, format, methods, presentation style, terminology, citation practices). This is like learning the grammatical rules of a new language. The goal is to look and sound like others in the discipline. If you are writing a sociology paper, you want your work to mimic the way that other sociologists write.

Once you’ve mastered the form, then you need to be able to meaningfully ‘engage with the literature‘. What does that mean? Well, you have to be able to play with it, to dance with it, to critique it, to comment on elements where you agree and disagree. When you’re able to do that, then you’ve found your ‘voice’ and you should put your own ideas into this form.

Once you’ve mastered the form and learned how to engage, you can subvert academic form- if you want. This is the fun part. Now, you can disregard the rules- up to a point. Having developed the confidence to express your ideas in your own style, you can start to improvise, and decide whether you’d like to continue using existing formats, or whether you’d like to create hybrid forms, or whether you’d like to create your own forms of academic expression.

Think about Picasso. He first had to learn classical drawing techniques. He began by copying traditional forms. Then he had to master them, and find his own style within a classical tradition. Finally, he was able to question existing forms, and discard them in order to create new styles and modes of expression.

To recap:

1. Build comprehension.

2. Mimic the academic form of your discipline.

3. Engage with the literature and find your academic voice.

4. (Optional) Experiment with new forms of expressing your ideas.

Buhari’s win- A watershed moment in Nigerian politics

March 31, 2015

Today’s election win for Muhammadu Buhari is a watershed moment in Nigerian politics. The results deserve comment because Nigeria was at a crossroads- and it seems like the citizens made a decision that is going to benefit not just Nigeria itself, but African politics as a whole.

Nigeria's president-elect: General Muhammadu Buhari

Nigeria’s president-elect: General Muhammadu Buhari

Since Goodluck Jonathan officially took power in 2010, he has run Nigeria into the ground. For a taste of these problems, there has been the firing of central banker Sanusi, the mishandling of the Chibok kidnappings, the government’s incompetence in dealing with Boko Haram, and the staggering corruption problems within the Jonathan administration, including $20 billion that went “missing from the account of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.”

I never thought I would say this, but I’m actually happy that a former dictator has won this contest fair and square (thanks to new biometric voter’s cards). Here’s why it’s good for Nigeria, and good for African politics:

1. Nigeria now has a viable opposition party. This will hopefully mean a more inclusive, and more stable political system.

“This is the first time an opposition party with a diverse national support base has taken on an incumbent party: it is the end of a long period of elite pacts in national politics,” said Africa Confidential. This is extremely significant because there has long been a power-sharing pact in place within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP)- this saw the Christian south and the Muslim north alternate the presidency every four years. This was an informal elite pact and voters in each region stuck to the rules of the game- for a period. Then in 2010, when Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim northerner, died part way through his first term and Goodluck Jonathan formally assumed the presidency.

The election of Buhari has ended this pact and proven the viability of an opposition that can harness widespread geographical, ethnic, and religious support. In this way, it becomes an important step for consolidating  democracy.

2. Jonathan’s willingness to give up power signifies that he is not above the rule of the people, and that he respects the election results, even when these rules don’t work out in his favour.

It will be the FIRST time in Nigeria that an incumbent president will have lost to an opposition candidate. This is a rare moment on the continent- we have just witnessed a relatively peaceful election, followed by a graceful admission of defeat from an incumbent. Watching Jonathan concede is critical to democratic consolidation not just in Nigeria, but across Africa.

To get a feel for how truly momentous this was, read Yetty Williams’ Huffington Post piece:

Up until now, the average Nigerian was not sure whether his or her vote really counts, wondered whether votes can actually make a difference or cause a change. Till this most recent elections majority of the nation had only heard about the idea of free, fair and violence-free elections….There are people still in shock that change happened! We were able to vote out the sitting president and guess what? The sky is still intact. Life is going on! And to top it off our outgoing president called the president elect to concede prior to official announcement of the results…We are suddenly in a new era, an era where the old are hopeful that things can actually change in their lifetime — free and fair elections… Can I repeat, it was largely violence-free, free and fair — we do not take this for granted.

3. If anyone has a chance of changing Nigeria’s culture of corruption, it is Buhari.

Several years, I attended the UN Convention Against Corruption conference. I met a civil society leader there who told me about General Buhari’s rule in 1984-85. At the time, what I found fascinating was that he seemed to imply that there was a brief ordering of society. He told me that people started queuing up for buses, and that petty corruption seemed to have briefly plummeted. Until Buhari left office. Then it went back to business as usual. This civil society leader recognized that there were a lot of problems with Buhari’s rule (see his human rights record), but corruption was not one of them.

Fast forward several years to a recent Wilton Park conference on African peacekeeping: What was interesting was listening to the Nigerians express their appreciation for Buhari’s clean record when it came to corruption. My sense is that a good part of Buhari’s election win was due in part due to this contrast between a Jonathan government that has been perceived to be extremely flashy and corrupt, and the relatively modest lifestyle that Buhari has consistently lived (and has promised to maintain). Buhari, hardliner though he is, has been pretty honest about who he is, and what he has accumulated. That is rare in a country of political leaders who are renowned for corruption.

And if you believe Sarah Chayes’ thesis on how corruption contributes to the conditions that drive religious extremism, then Buhari may be also be good for dealing with Boko Haram- but not in the way that the West thinks. In searching for purity and consistency, Boko Haram has argued that the West is a corrupt and contaminating influence- if Buhari shows that he will not live the flashy life of previous leaders, then Boko Haram loses an important narrative for driving recruitment.

The right leader can have a transformative effect for a country (Mandela), a cause (Martin Luther King), or even a religion (Pope Francis). Without wanting to set expectations too high, it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve felt this hopeful about Nigeria’s political prospects. It’s been less than 24 hours since the election, but I’m already hoping against hope that Buhari doesn’t disappoint.

Women in Frontline Combat Roles

December 23, 2014

On Friday 19 Dec 2014, I talked to the BBC about allowing women women to take on frontline combat roles in the UK military. The Ministry of Defence has been reviewing its policy on this matter, and the BBC asked me for some thoughts on this issue. For a whole variety of reasons, I think women should be allowed to take on combat roles.

I have a lot more to say about this topic- hopefully I’ll be able to expand on some of the points from the clip when things are less busy. But to begin this conversation, I’ve posted the BBC interview clip below.

Some of my ideas are also summarized here in this Independent article.

Remembering December 6th and the Montreal Massacre

December 6, 2013

I wrote this email when I was 23 years old, in my final year of my systems engineering program at the University of Waterloo. Even though the Montreal Massacre happened so long ago that many of you may not have even heard of it, I hope that we can still take the time to remember the women who were killed, simply because they were women. Let those fourteen young women never be forgotten.

From The Daily Bulletin, circa December 4th, 1998:

After our conversation last week, I sat back and thought long and hard about what we’re trying to do with this event, because like it or not, it has become an “event”. The members of the organizing committee are trying to de-politicize it by making it personal, but we can’t deny that it is a public event for a reason.

1989 seems so long ago . . . that was the end of Communism and the height of the real estate boom. Nine years later, here we are: so much has changed and yet, nothing has changed. You said to me that it seemed like just yesterday that the killings took place, but nine years is a long, long time. Especially when you’re only 23, like me. I was 14 years old and in grade nine on December 6, 1989. I did not completely understand the killings and why they had happened. I had no idea I would end up, five years later, studying to be an engineer. And for those of us in first year at UW, these students would only have been 9 years old, and in the middle of grade 5 — how can you relate to this experience at this age?

I understood at the time that the gunman was a sociopathic killer, but I had no explanation as to how this could have possibly happened in the world that I had grown up in. His irrational behaviour didn’t fit into my model of how things worked and I had no reason to think of him as anything other than an extremist, someone who would not and could not listen to reason. My solution was to exclude him from my world, to cast him out. I guess this also meant that, to some extent, I ignored the impact of what he had done and the hatred that he represented. There was nothing in my social conditioning that allowed me to understand his deep-seated despisal of women, and in particular, of feminists.

Now, nine years later, I have a slightly better sense of the methodically rational side of his actions. After all, it was not in a rage of passionate fury that he committed these murders. A virtual hit list was found on his body consisting of fifteen high-profile women: these included the first woman firefighter in Québec, the first woman police captain in Québec, a sportscaster, a bank manager and a president of a teachers’ union.

Society recognizes that he was a psychopath — but to what extent was he a product of social influences, and how much of it was sheer and utter isolated madness? The two of us talked about the continuum and where this event would sit on this continuum. I don’t have an answer for this. What I do know is that it was and still is, to a greater or lesser extent, a reflection of society’s attitudes towards women.

So we must ask ourselves: How do these attitudes filter down through the rest of society? When a male classmate jokingly says to me that I won my scholarship because I am female, how am I supposed to interpret that? How does that relate to the fact that the killer felt that these women got into engineering because they were female? He certainly felt that they were taking up his “rightful” place in the program. Am I taking up the “rightful” place of another disgruntled male in systems design engineering?

He committed an extreme act, but society is at a crossroads right now — we value women’s equality, but the lingering effects of centuries of discrimination is not going to disappear overnight and we have to recognize that together. We are valued in the eyes of the law. But in practice, systematic discrimination still goes on, even if it isn’t as obvious as it used to be. Women are not equal. If we were, everyone would understand that December 6, 1989, was just an aberration, a blip in the stats. But obviously, the need for an event like Fourteen Not Forgotten implicitly underscores the fact that there are many of us who still harbour a milder version of the killer’s views. How else to explain the fact that women are more likely to be killed by their spouses than by an outsider?

Also, we have to remember that fourteen women were killed, but hundreds, maybe thousands of people were affected, men and women. What could my male classmates have possibly done if I was being shot at? Not too much. And how can we accept this conclusion: that we are helpless in the face of irrational evil? That is why we remember December 6. Hopefully, by speaking out against these attitudes and these acts of violence, we are helping society address these issues to make sure that it never happens again. Men and women who survived the massacre still have to bear the burden of the death of their classmates. These people will live in fear all their lives. How do we collectively deal with that? What about when these fears are conveyed to their children and grandchildren? All it takes is one gunman to spread his hatred, and the effects are felt far and wide. This memorial is, in many ways, a show of solidarity against everything that killer stood for. That is why we mourn, and why we must continue to remember.

Charles Taylor and the logic of relative justice

September 27, 2013

A version of this article was first posted on Al Jazeera on 26 September 2013.

Yesterday, the Special Court of Sierra Leone upheld Charles Taylor’s conviction for aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone’s civil war. The Appeals Chamber also rejected his request for a reduction in his 50 year sentence, pointing out that he had not shown ‘real and sincere remorse’ for his actions. On the face of it, this decision appears to be another victory for transitional justice: the international community succeeded in locking up another brutal dictator, and now, it has also thrown away the key.

Charles Taylor sits impassively, waiting for the Appeals Chamber to deliver its decision.

For those who follow international war crimes tribunals and the workings of the International Criminal Court, the Special Court’s decision would not have come as a surprise. On the one hand, it was certainly theoretically possible that the Appeals Chamber could have set Taylor free by adhering to the precedent in the Mom?ilo Periši?. Yet this outcome seems fantastical in light of the political context in which this seven-year trial has taken place. The conclusion was foregone before the ink was even dry on the appeal documents. The reason is simple and has nothing to do with the merits of the case: A free Charles Taylor would have entailed too many risks to the region.

After many years of civil wars and border skirmishes, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire are finally stable. For the moment. As the driving force behind the region’s conflicts through the 1990s and early 2000s, setting Taylor free could have upset the fragile balance in West Africa. Even though Liberia’s civil war ended over a decade ago in August 2003, Charles Taylor remains a powerful force in the country- despite not having set foot on Liberian soil since 2006. The Special Court could not afford to let him go free, not without the possibility of risking Liberia’s security and undermining the integrity of the tribunal itself.

Still, it would be unfair to say that the Appeals Chamber is not impartial. There is no evidence that this is the case. The justices appear to be qualified and of international repute. Nevertheless, as independent as the judges themselves may be, they are appointed by political bodies with political interests. Valerie Oosterveld shows how deeply political considerations affected many critical aspects of the Special Court, from the drafting of the SCSL’s statute to its judgments to its decision to physically close the court. It would be naive to think that any shortlisting process of the Appeals Chamber justices would not have been shaped by these political dynamics, or that the justices themselves would be unaware and unaffected by the desires of those who appointed them.

In fact, we already know from the work of Ruth Mackenzie, Kate Malleson, and Philippe Sands that selecting judges to international tribunals is a fraught process. Ultimately, Sands has asserted that ‘the horse-trading and politicking is endemic.’ He also claims that ‘vote-trading, campaigning, and regional politicking invariably play a great part in candidates’ chance of being elected than considerations of individual merit’. While their study was conducted on the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, there is no reason to think that the same political dynamics would not hold true of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Bear in mind too that the Special Court received most of its funding from the West (US, UK, Netherlands, and Canada), and Western countries have contributed billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and reconstruction to the region. In addition, the UK has offered Sierra Leone an ‘over-the-horizon’ security guarantee. Effectively, this means that the UK is committed to responding to a national security incident within 72 hours. Given these considerations of national interest, it is hard to imagine how the desires of the UK and the US would not have influenced the environment of the court. Keeping larger political influences and geopolitical considerations at bay in a case like this would have been near impossible.

Westerners might wonder how any of these factors could affect the final decision of the justices. After all, justice should be blind. And yet, we can see that it is not. None of these revelations would surprise Sierra Leoneans and Liberians. In Africa certainly, war crimes tribunals are widely acknowledged to be deeply politicised institutions. In fact, the African Union has recently called a special summit to discuss a mass withdrawal from the ICC in October because international justice is seen as baldly biased against Africans.

I have argued elsewhere that the ICC is perceived by many as a tool of Western powers. Other UN-backed tribunals also suffer from this problem, including the Special Court of Sierra Leone. Others have made similar arguments. Guardian columnist Seumas Milne has asked why Western leaders have not been indicted for aiding and abetting war crimes when they too supplied arms and assistance to Libyan militias in the fight against Gaddafi— just like Charles Taylor did for Sierra Leone’s rebels. International legal scholar Richard Falk has questioned why American leaders have not been charged for the systematic abuses that have been widely documented at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

The facts are clear: justice is applied selectively depending on what country you are from and whether you are in favour with the West. By nudging, suggesting, and sometimes coercing international courts to serve political interests, Western powers manage to achieve desired political outcomes. But these tactics are putting delicate norms of transitional justice at risk.

If international war crimes trials are ever to achieve genuine global justice— for the weak as well as the powerful— there must be some acknowledgement that these tribunals are currently being used as political instruments of the powerful. Only when this premise is accepted by the West can the ICC evolve into an institution with real international legitimacy.


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