The Future is Feminist

Shivani Dave.

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Mae Carol Jemison. Marie Curie. Ada Lovelace. Mary Leakey. Ida Noddack. Rita Levi-Montalcini. Dorothy Hodgkin. Lise Meitner. Rosalind Franklin.

Just a few names of female scientists. It is only when these extraordinaires are referred to as scientists without the emphasis on their gender that science becomes truly feminist. These examples are inspirational and daunting for the young, aspiring female-scientist. In an industry publicly regarded as male dominated, where to be recognised as having achieved a life’s ambition, a woman must not only perform on par with male counterparts but exceed their ability or their achievements or consigned to footnotes, save for in the estimation of special interest groups. In some situations, even if a woman has out done herself and her colleagues, she doesn’t get the credit she deserves. [1]

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Young women are being bombarded by campaigns attempting to attract them to science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics (STEM) subjects, but this targeted recruitment does not correspond to a heightened interest, proportionally. Perhaps it’s because women in STEM are consigned to patriarchal categories: unfairly compared to the iconic women which opened this article, or trivialising their contributions. Marketers also have a responsibility to target their messages appropriately to their target audience. For example the European Union’s 2012 campaign called ‘Science: It’s a Girl Thing’[2] is a clear example of how the marketing can be so wrong, condescendingly glamorising science with stereotypical infatuations such as lipstick and make up, causing incredible public outrage and potentially having an adverse effect than that which was intended. In the current media savvy society it is difficult to believe that that campaign was approved. Whilst this campaign, well-meaning as it was, might be an extreme example, it shows the definite and prejudicial perception of what it means to be a female scientist, defining femininity with pink frills. Anyone with basic scientific training will testify that the study of science is the same, irrespective of gender: a lot of confusion followed by a little less confusion and finally, in a few lucky cases, understanding… Maybe.

Despite much effort from the scientific community and public figures, the impression of women in science has not changed dramatically. This resistance to adapt to modern views has resulted in extremes. Nobel Prize winner Sir Tim Hunt’s comments, taken out of context and perpetuated by special interest groups, a headline hungry press and unedited propagation of sensationalist extracts resulted in his forced resignation. In an attempt to shine a light on how women are still marginalised when working in laboratories he stated: the “trouble with girls [is that] three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”[3] This excerpt of an extended interview was taken out of context and no amount of recounting on the part of Sir Hunt got the airtime or prominence deserved. If anything the ferocity of the attack against as Sir Hunt claims, for comments which he claims are “light hearted ironic remarks”[4], has, I fear, further entrenched the public perception of women in science. Worse still, it risks making the subject a taboo one, stifling open and honest debate on the matter. This being the case or not it is a representation of how women are looked at in the scientific community.

Speaking at the National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce[5] in 2005, Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and former United States Secretary of the Treasury under the Clinton administration highlighted three[6] reasons why women aren’t represented in science. He first made a comment about the large time commitment, claiming this is something “fewer women than men are prepared to make”. His second was that women have a “different availability of aptitude at the high end” and his final reason was because of “socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search”, which means women are actively encouraged against pursuing careers in science and engineering. Without addressing the overwhelmingly offensive stereotypes, Summers is a clear example of what is wrong with the perception of women in science within society, even at levels where advocates of such thinking would be considered intelligent, liberal people with intellect. We know where the problems are, but attempts to debunk these fallacies fail when they are perpetuated by influential people.

More attention has been given to drive women into STEM by enforcing recruitment quotas, but by enforcing these and increasing pressure for universities to accept girls into STEM courses the overall opinion of the student’s capability as a scientist declines, the focus shifts from their academic achievements to their genetics. While opening the doors for women into STEM will by default mean more women work in the industry, there is a real fear that people will not believe women got these jobs based on their abilities. The women who get into STEM continue through their careers, unsure of their validity as a scientist, a stigma that if their colleagues maintain would damage the credibility of women not only in STEM but all women generally… Women don’t want to be handed diplomas based on what’s essentially a genetic twist of fate, but rather on what they have achieved academically.

Dr Sue Black, founder and CEO of Techmums and honorary Professor at UCL said to IT Pro “When I was younger I thought quotas were a bad idea, but the older I get the more I just think we need something like quotas so that we can make a change. We need a period where we use quotas to get more women in or more diversity happening. Then, when we’ve got more diverse boards, we won’t need the quotas anymore because everyone will have realised its better if you have more diversity on the board.”[7]  Propagating the culture that women in science exist only to fill quotas is where I fundamentally disagree with Black’s ideas. When I was applying to university a teacher told me I didn’t need to worry about being accepted onto my first choice course, because I’m female. “You’re a girl doing physics” she told me, “everywhere will take you”. For a female scientist to say that to her student amplified how deeply rooted the gender imbalance is in science, especially in physics.

Quotas hurt male students too. If a female candidate is prioritized because of her gender, a potentially more suitable male candidate could miss out on opportunities. Quotas aren’t feminist, they don’t give women opportunities because they are equally talented, and they perpetuate the notion that women are held to a lower standard and damage the reputation of the women who work hard to reach the top. Rather than having quotas that emphasise the disparity between the sexes the scientific community needs to shake the reputation that science is a boys club by representing and promoting strong female scientists. Condescending campaigns aimed at young women should be eliminated in favour of efforts directed toward erasing the stigma from a primary and secondary school age, so when girls come to consider further education they don’t have preconceived notions holding them back.

 

[1] Contributions. Chainsawsuit by Kris Straub. http://chainsawsuit.com/comic/2012/02/23/contributions/ Retrieved 21 November 2016.

[2] “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMOqpxlW66E Retrieved 21 November 2016.

[3] “Nobel scientist Tim Hunt: female scientists cause trouble for men in labs”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jun/10/nobel-scientist-tim-hunt-female-scientists-cause-trouble-for-men-in-labs. 10 June 2015. Retrieved 21 November 2016.

[4] “Sir Tim Hunt ‘sorry’ over ‘trouble with girls’ comments”. BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-33077107. 10 June 2015. Retrieved 21 November 2016.

[5] “Sexist Statements Regarding Women in Science”. Geek feminism Wiki. http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Lawrence_Summers. Retrieved 21 November 2016.

[6] “Why women are poor at science, by Harvard President”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/jan/18/educationsgendergap.genderissues. 18 January 2005. Retrieved 21 November 2016.

[7] “International Women’s Day: Do diversity quotas help or hinder woman in tech?” ITPRO. http://www.itpro.co.uk/strategy/26185/international-womens-day-do-diversity-quotas-help-or-hinder-woman-in-tech. 8 March 2016. Retrieved 21 November 2016.

The Future is Feminist

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