Helping Children See Gender Roles Differently

By Liz Breen   |   Saturday, June 1, 2013
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breen and davis
From Left: WGBH's VP for Children's Media Brigid Sullivan and Production Assistant Liz Breen, Winship teacher Heather Nord, actress and advocate Geena Davis, Madeline Di Nonno, Executive Director of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media and Winship principal Louise Kuhlman pose with the class at Winship Elementary School in Brighton. (Photo: Liza Voll/WGBH)

At the start of my senior year at Boston University, I had the opportunity to produce a children’s short for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. I knew this had the potential to help my career, and that turned out to be true in ways I couldn’t have imagined initially. I thought I would be creating a video for a celebrity client that I could watch on television, and one that ultimately I could use in a portfolio to land an entry-level job out of school. However, this production changed the way I view my entire career and my role within the television industry.
The task sounds almost impossible: explain and combat gender stereotypes in media to children ages six to nine, and do this in around two minutes. After a few audible GULPS, a little bit of stressed-out pencil chewing and a lot of group brainstorming, we had our idea. We were going to build on the rise of superhero movies by focusing on real-life heroes – a nurse and a firefighter. The twist was that we would feature a male nurse and a female firefighter.
We started the filming process by interviewing two classes of second graders. I went in a little skeptical. I thought of these kids as born in the 21st century, where we have female politicians and stay-at-home dads. I didn’t expect to be giving them any surprising information. Yet the answers to some of our questions were astonishing. When describing a nurse, several of the students said matter-of-factly, “She wears dresses,” despite the fact that they have probably never seen a nurse in a dress outside of old-timey war movies or Halloween costumes. And when describing a firefighter, the children had a definite pronoun of choice: “He wears boots” or “He is fast”. Most confounding of all, when we revealed that the nurse we were featuring was a man and the firefighter was a woman, many children were shocked by this idea or even resisted the idea altogether, stating that they didn’t think the opposite gender would perform their duties as well.
Where could these children possibly be getting these stereotypes from? Certainly, many if not most had mothers who worked, so these stereotypes aren’t being reinforced in the home. Then it hit me – the media. The television and movies they watch (AKA my career).
Geena Davis
Actress Geena Davis talked about gender and media during a visit to WGBH. (Liza Voll/WGBH)
Suddenly, I felt a burden of responsibility that I had not otherwise felt. I thought I was going to school to learn to create things that people could watch, enjoy and ultimately walk away from. But it doesn’t work like that. Media is sticky, even stickier to young minds.
That weight of responsibility only grew heavier the more research I read about gender disparities behind the camera. Only 7 percent of directors, 13 percent of writers and 20 percent of producers are female. Men outnumber women in key production roles 5 to 1, and that singular female in production—that’s me.
So was I scared? I ain’t scared o’ nothin’! I felt empowered. There are fewer of me, that’s true, but that only means that my voice can carry more weight, that my viewpoints are needed that much more. Also true, I’m consistently the youngest person on my production teams nowadays, and yet I feel compelled to do more than exist on the periphery. I know that creating responsible media is in my best interest as well as the interest of future generations.
Is it a coincidence that months after this video wrapped I took a job working for public television at WGBH? Probably not, but who can say for certain? What I do know is this: I created a project that I am tremendously proud of to this day, with some of the cutest darn stop motion animation you can make out of construction paper. Most important of all, that work prompts children and adults alike to think about the media they consume. 

Frontline: Dropout Nation

Sunday, September 23, 2012
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Boston Volunteers Help Vietnamese with HIV

By Phillip Martin   |   Tuesday, July 10, 2012
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July 11, 2012

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — This summer, two Boston College professors are leading a group of students to volunteer at a clinic for HIV patients who are at the end of their lives in a society where the illness carries significant stigma.

A mile from my hotel, the taxi driver looks at the instructions again, does a U-turn and then speeds down the city's main avenue. A good 45 minutes later we are on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, which most people around here still refer to as Saigon. The driver does a zig and a zag past stores selling pots and portable stoves and through an intersection crowded with commuters on motorbikes. Then tucked away on a side street that meanders past several industrial sites we arrive at an HIV clinic run by the Catholic Church, where I’m met by a woman who calls herself Vee, who tells me the name of the facility, Tieng Vong, is pronounced "Tan Vaughn" and means “Hopeful Voice.”

I’m also met at the gate of the “Hopeful Voice” clinic by Boston College professors Thanh Tran and Rosanna DeMarco. They’re leading a group of BC undergraduates on an eye-opening medical mission to help dying HIV patients at the ends of their lives: learning, relating, struggling with it all and then returning to Boston to make a difference back home.

How the Boston team got involved

“I am an expert in the area. I have been working with black women who are living with HIV who are aging with the disease,” says DeMarco.

DeMarco, a professor of nursing, is far from the HIV clinics of Blue Hill Avenue and the African American and Hispanic women she counsels in Boston. But HIV cuts through boundaries and knows no borders. “I partnered with Dr. Tran and we got five other students interested. All of us came together to try to learn. And see how the health care system works for these patients and what it’s like for them.”

Six students, with plenty of choices for a carefree summer, choose Vietnam instead, a place where HIV carries with it a stigma and a personal and cultural challenge. Says DeMarco:

“Vietnam, although stable in a sense, the rising rates among women and men who have sex with men is very significant. Thus the stigma in the Vietnamese culture. When you are perceived as doing something wrong, like IV drugs or sex working or doing something related to the usual connotation of why people get HIV, then you become ostracized and how painful that is in this culture because there’s so much value on family and connection.”

The students' motivation and the scope of the problem

In the doorway of a one-story suntanned brick building, Pauline Tran of Worcester extends her hand. She is one of five Vietnamese-American students at BC who’ve returned — if you will — to a country they have never known.

“I’ve always had an attachment to my background, to my culture. I’ve always been interested in helping the vulnerable, especially for my family who came from something like this,” she says. Her family escaped to the U.S. after the war. She and the other Vietnamese American students were born in the U.S. They say they have also come to this HIV clinic as a way of giving back to the country of their heritage. And everyone on this trip has a role. For instance, Nguyet Chau, a native of Worcester, helped translate the documents the team uses for the HIV prevention program.

They can use all the help they can get. Vietnam has very limited human resources. In a country of nearly 89 million people, about 300,000 have been diagnosed with HIV. But there are only 1,300 health workers assigned to this population, and many of them are volunteers.

Still, stigma is probably the greatest obstacle to controlling the epidemic, says clinic director Co Vinh, speaking in Vietnamese. “About 13 years ago when we founded this clinic there was no treatment for HIV here in Vietnam and most people had no knowledge about the disease. So their own families discriminated against patients and many of them were thrown out in the streets. Some live in the park under the benches and in the bushes.”

The scene at the clinic

We take a tour of the clinic: There are eight beds, a needle cleaning machine, photos of Jesus and Saigon’s archbishop on the wall; clothing, food and medicine are piled in one corner, medical charts in another. Local volunteers bathe patients, hand out supplies, chart their progress or lack thereof and offer moral support. BC nursing student Mary Gerardo is the only non-Vietnamese student among the six from the U.S.

“I’m from Richmond, Virginia. I don’t travel very much," she says. "They contacted me and I said that would be a great opportunity. Professor DeMarco, after meeting her, I said, 'I can do this.'”

Most local volunteers here are congregants at the Catholic Church that sits on these grounds in Ho Chi Minh City. One is a former clinic patient with HIV who seems amazed by his own survival. “They gave me free medicine starting in 2004,” he says, and that has stabilized his medical condition.

IV drug use in Vietnam is on the rise, as is voluntary and forced prostitution, according to the United Nations. Vinh tells me about a patient who was sold by her own mother into sexual slavery across the border in Cambodia and ended up with HIV.

She says, “The young woman ended up in critical condition with tuberculosis and I met her in a local hospital. I got her address from the hospital and later I was looking for her but the address wasn’t clear. So one rainy afternoon I was looking for her and found her sitting on the streets; coughing on the streets by herself. And when I saw her like that I just could not stand it and I used my own money to rent her a small room.”

To listen and to learn

While most of the Boston College team are visitors to this faraway land, Professor Thanh Tran knows Vietnam well and struggles — perhaps more than we can ever know.

“I was born and raised up here until I finished high school and came to the U.S. at the end of the war," he says. "I’m always very hesitant to return to Vietnam because I belong to a different generation and a member of the Vietnamese community in the United States that’s extremely anti- this government. But I came here with Dr. DeMarco and a group of students to learn about the health care system; how these people find resources [to take care of patients] under very limited conditions.”

And the commitment to reducing HIV infections and the stigma of AIDS outweighs any ideological tug of war between Vietnamese Americans and Vietnam, between heritage and politics, says Professor Tran.

DeMarco agrees and says being here offers an invaluable lesson: “No matter what the care is, whatever level it is, whatever is here or isn’t here, when people come here — they come with their family members and they don’t feel any stigma, they feel respect. When they come here they don’t have people not listening to them. They have people listening to them.”

And that’s perhaps the most important lesson here. These professors and their students are not missionaries. They’re not here to tell Vietnamese clinicians, caregivers and patients what to do and how to do it, but instead they listen and learn, says DeMarco. “As professors we’re interested in helping students not understand research like they are reading it out of a book but understanding that it’s a relationship with people who have real experiences and in order to ask good questions and to figure out the answers to those questions you really have to get to know the problem, up close and personal.” 

And “up close and personal,” says DeMarco, is a step nearer to addressing the stigma of AIDS that keeps many from admitting a problem that is worldwide in scope — from Ho Chi Minh City to Boston.

Want to Go to UMass? Get in the Lab

By Sarah Birnbaum   |   Wednesday, June 20, 2012
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June 20, 2012

test tubes

BOSTON — Massachusetts high school students will soon be required to take at least 3 years of lab-based science classes to get into the state's public universities. The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education announced the new entry requirements on June 19.
Currently, students looking to get into a four-year university in Massachusetts have to take 3 years of high school science but only 2 of them need to be lab-based. And those classes have to be in biology, physics or chemistry.
Starting in 2017, high school seniors will need to have 3 years of lab-based science courses instead of 2. And classes in computers, engineering and technology will count.
Massachusetts Education Secretary Paul Reville said the new entry requirements would better prepare Massachusetts college grads to compete in key industries.
“Engineering and technology should be a prominent part of our curriculum and part of our admissions requirements," he said. "Because that’s where the future is in terms of jobs that are coming to Massachusetts."
He added that the emphasis on experimentation and problem-solving would persuade more kids with scientific inclinations to stay in the sciences:
"We have what I call an 'inspiration gap' in Massachusetts. We do better than any other state on average in terms of student test scores in math and science. And yet when our students expressed what they’re interested in majoring in college, we are well below the national average in terms of interest expressed in STEM majors. Kids aren’t excited."
Reville said he worries traditional science education shuts out too many kids at a time when the state needs more scientists and lab technicians.

New Mass. Lawyers Feel the Squeeze

By Abbie Ruzicka   |   Monday, June 18, 2012
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June 19, 2012
BOSTON — As the number of people graduating from law school has gone up in recent years, the amount of available jobs in the legal field has gone down due to outsourcing and technology. A recent study by the Massachusetts Bar Association revealed possible ways to improve job prospects for new lawyers — many of whom have taken on six-figure debt and are graduating with little experience in the legal field.  
Eric Parker, a Boston lawyer who worked on the study, said more law schools need to have clinical programs that introduce practical skills to students so they will be more qualified when they leave.   
"You can come out of law school having passed the Bar and go right to a jury  trial and try a case having never been in a courtroom in your life. It sounds crazy but it's absolutely true," he said. "Imagine just for a moment being on a gurney in an operating room and your surgeon walks in and says, 'So, this is the operating room. Yeah, there's the anesthesia machine just like on "Grey's Anatomy." It all looks so real.'"
In addition to having law students get hands-on experience before graduating from law school, the task force that conducted the study recommended that law schools admit fewer students, make the Bar exam more difficult to pass and encourage new lawyers to take on pro bono and community work to build experience.
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Inside MIT's $100K Entrepreneurship Challenge

By Kara Miller   |   Friday, June 15, 2012
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Part 1:

Part 2: 

Twenty-three years ago, MIT wanted to find the very best start-up ideas out there. What new companies were waiting to be born? What inventions could change our lives?

Today, the winners of MIT’s 100K Entrepreneurship Competition have, together, created businesses worth $16 billion and generated nearly 5,000 new jobs.

A screen shot from, the first product from the team that created CloudTop, this year's MIT 100K winner.

But the competition is stiff. 

This weekend, we meet the winners of this year's challenge, who may have started the next big thing — while trying to finish their homework. And we'll hear about some fascinating entrants in the competition, like Liquiglide -- which promises to help you get that last bit of ketchup or mayonnaise out of the bottle -- and IoVista, a small device which helps residents of poor countries get a prescription for glasses.


About the Authors
Phillip Martin Phillip Martin
Phillip W. D. Martin is the senior investigative reporter for WGBH Radio News and executive producer for Lifted Veils Productions. In the past, he was a supervising senior editor for NPR, an NPR race relations correspondent and one of the senior producers responsible for creating The World radio program in 1995. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1998. Learn more at
Sarah Birnbaum
Sarah Birnbaum is WGBH News' State House reporter. Send her a news tip.
Kara Miller Kara Miller
As a radio host, Kara Miller has interviewed thinkers from E.J. Dionne to Howard Gardner, Deepak Chopra to Lani Guinier. She is a panelist on WGBH-TV's "Beat the Press," as well as an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The National Journal, The Boston Herald, Boston Magazine, and The International Herald Tribune.

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