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#DistractinglyHonest exhibit highlights women’s work in STEM

Eden Hennessey focuses on the positive in her latest interactive artwork at Laurier.

By ASHLEIGH VANHOUTEN | NOV 04 2016

Eden Hennessey, a psychology PhD candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, now has two art exhibitions about sexism in the STEM fields to her name. The latest, #DistractinglyHonest, launched this fall at Laurier and features 15 interactive pieces built around portraits of women in science across a range of demographics, careers and interests. A collaboration with Laurier’s Centre for Women in Science, where Ms. Hennessey is a student research coordinator, the exhibit is closely linked to her doctoral research on the consequences and perceptions faced by women confronting sexism in STEM.

“It aims to shine a light on the reality of women’s experiences as scientists,”says Laurier physics and computer science professor Shohini Ghose, who is featured in the exhibit.

Professor Shohini Ghose in #HonestlyIngenious, a portrait from Eden Hennessey’s latest show. Photo courtesy Eden Hennessey and Hilary Gauld.
Professor Shohini Ghose in #HonestlyIngenious, a portrait from Eden Hennessey’s latest show. Photo courtesy Eden Hennessey and Hilary Gauld.

#DistractinglyHonest follows Ms. Hennessey’s #DistractinglySexist, a play on the hashtag that followed Nobel laureate and biochemist Tim Hunt’s comments about women in the lab, which were widely viewed as offensive. Working with her supervisor, associate professor Mindi Foster, Ms. Hennessey says discussions she’s had with women studying in STEM fields has illuminated their challenges.

“Why would anyone want to go into an environment where you have to study for 10 years and are under constant pressure, only to be sexually harassed and criticized for any decision you make, from wearing makeup to having children?” she says.

Ms. Hennessey adds that the feedback on her latest exhibit has been overwhelmingly positive. “I think one reason this work is well-received is that it does not derogate men. Instead, I focus on the successes of women in science and how we can all improve gender diversity in science together,” she explains. “More diversity in science will benefit innovation and the economy, and those are things we all want to happen, regardless of gender.”

The exhibit aims to raise awareness and understanding of pervasive issues surrounding women in STEM, and Ms. Hennessey has some tangible takeaways for how to use that knowledge.

“If you see behaviour that isn’t OK, say something,” she says. “Research shows that if you use an educational approach, the confrontation is less threatening and more likely to be received. Talk to women about their experiences so we can normalize it and understand that it’s a systemic issue. Sexism happens across decades and nations; we have to start looking at women who speak up as agents of change rather than complainers.” This advice, she adds, goes for women and men; everyone should be encouraged to actively join the conversation.

The event has helped garner interest for Ms. Hennessey’s expertise throughout North America and the U.K.: she’s guest lectured at Caltech in Pasadena, and at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California; and recently collaborated with a group in Los Angeles on a similar exhibit about sexism in comedy. Ms. Hennessey is now working on a website to promote the exhibit and to offer ways for people to contribute and even be a part of upcoming events.

“I want to spend the rest of my life turning data into expression so everyone can understand how these issues impact the greater world,” she says.

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