Thank you Sir Tim Hunt. Your comments about the issues with sharing a lab with women (in that it’s so hard when you fall in love with them/ they fall in love with you (really??) and they cry) and the resulting #distractinglysexy hashtag have increased my twitter follows by nearly 30% and given me hug amounts of fun seeing what other female scientists get up to. Here’s mine and a couple of my favourites:
The recent #girlswithtoys trend in response to a professor’s comment that many scientists are ‘boys with toys’ was similarly jumped upon by female scientists showing that they too can play with ‘toys’. Here’s fellow CPOM PhD Rachel with hers:
But, as great as it is to see all these women doing science, it’s 2015, surely now things are more equal and everyone knows that girls do science too? Do we really need these hashtags beyond them being a good story? Ridiculous as comments such as those made by Tim Hunt are, aren’t they just the views of some old men who will soon be retired anyway?
Well sadly that’s not the case, for at least two reasons that I’m aware of. The first, and the one that I think we can change the most is that many people perceive that science is associated with men. If you don’t believe me then try the test– I’m yet to find someone without an unconscious bias, in fact one of my department’s most keen equality supporters admits that their results show that they have one. I’ve given a talk in a school (an all girls school no less) where I’ve had the question “I really like science but I don’t think I can be scientist because I want children, what else can I do?”. At a recent outreach event in a museum we dressed up kids in lab coats and goggles and got them trying out experiments. Trying to encourage one boy I said “look at you, you’ve got your lab coat and specs, you’re nearly a real scientist now”. His response- “yes, all I need now is a bald patch”. Surrounded by young, female scientists, the stereotypes still persist even with the very young (His mother incidentally just laughed at him. It was left to me to point out that none of the scientists there had a bald patch. Or were even male). But this can be changed, and there are loads of scientists doing great outreach work worldwide to help to do this.
The second is the objection to some people of my generation to any moves to try and reduce inequality within science and this is the one I’m honestly not sure what to do about. About this time last year I attended a talk at my University that was celebrating our school having achieved an Athena SWAN Silver Award. Athena SWAN is a system of awards for university departments, part of which involves addressing gender inequality and the “leaky pipeline” in science:
I went to the talk with some suspicion but came out of it feeling overwhelmingly positive. It was not about promoting women over men to meet targets as I’d been led to believe. It was about flexible working, maternity and paternity leave and making the promotion process more transparent. Things that, yes, will help women who want to have families tp still progress withing their careers. But also will help everyone. Dads can work part time and be stay at home Dads. And it will help men to get promoted too.
Yet speaking to colleagues after the talk I heard a lot of anger about how men were being disadvantaged by Athena SWAN, and again how meeting equality targets was not fair on those who were in the majority categories of white, middle class males. It’s easy enough to brush this off as men being scared that actually they might have a bit of competition now. But it’s not just men. I had one female colleague who was genuinely outraged that she might gain unjust career progression through being a female and not through merit.
Needless to say none of these people went to the talk. And therein lies the problem. Any attempt to address the “leaky pipeline” and make things better for everyone is immediately labelled unfair and seen as some kind of fight against men, giving women opportunities over more deserving men to meet some perceived quota of women in senior positions. It’s the same for any attempt to tackle inequality in ethnicity or sexuality.
I often hear the example of one female colleague (the same one who admitted to having the unconscious bias) used as proof that there is no inequality. She has become a professor, she has a family, she even dares to put in her out of office that she won’t work out of hours. Outrageous. But if she can do it then surely everyone can?
Recently I overheard a discussion about this same colleague between two other female members of staff, questioning just how she does do it, and how impossible it seems to them to achieve everything she has. They had nothing but admiration for the things she does above and beyond straight science, but the fact is she is (in the nicest possible way*) just a little bit ridiculous. It’s a bit like knowing the popular girl at school who has all the friends, is the captain of the netball team, volunteers at the local animal shelter, gets all A grades… you know the one, how does she do it? While it’s great that there are examples of women doing it all, the rest of us are still human and one women doing well doesn’t instantly mean we all can, no problems.
I really hope that the attempts to provide more opportunities for everyone do lead to more women being able to stay in science, and also for men to be able to take career breaks. But I do worry that the efforts of those who so strongly and vocally object to any attempts at progress, without any apparent understanding of what it actually means, mean that the leaky pipeline may be here to stay. And meanwhile I’ll just have to try not to be too #distractinglysexy and allow everyone to get on with their science.
*any work people reading this will know exactly who I mean and I genuinely mean this all with the best of intentions. Please don’t fire me.