First post

Hi.  My name’s Nicola, and I am a scientist.  What kind of scientist probably doesn’t matter here; there are in fact a number of things you probably don’t need to know about me, but it may be worth pointing out early on that I am a woman.

A couple of months ago I gave a talk at work to an audience of fifty-odd scientists, on the subject of this blog: “why science is sexist”.  Despite the deliberately provocative title, I was a bit surprised by the level of interest — surely this was not the first time that these people were thinking about these things?

Yet the talk was of sufficient interest that I was asked to give it again just three weeks later — and then again, a month after that.  This has hammered home one point to me: thinking about these issues day after day, for a sustained period of time, can be profoundly depressing.  I was not expecting this.  In fact it came as rather a surprise: the initial exercise of pulling some data together to present in a friendly and non-confrontational way was not unpleasant.  However, since starting to pay attention to matters of gender equality I find that I am constantly seeing more information and online discussion. Somehow, this talk that I put together in a rush a couple of months ago has stimulated a steady flow of unpleasantness and frustration.

The horrible thing is that I’ve always enjoyed doing outreach — for example through school visits (such as those facilitated by the great people at futureintech) and careers fairs, where there is a chance to talk to young people about what it actually means to be a scientist.  Opportunities for international travel, the importance of communication skills, and all the other things that no one ever told me and that actually count for an awful lot.  But the question that came up, somewhere after the second rendition of this talk and before the third, is this: would I actually recommend that a seventeen year old girl go on to study science, with the same enthusiasm and expectation of success (and happiness!) that I would give if that girl happened to be a boy?  And the sad thing (though one that I hope is not fixed in stone) is that honestly, I don’t know if I would anymore.

It reminds me of the time several years ago when I went in to make a submission on the annual cycling plan of the Wellington City Council.  What I hadn’t realized previously was that some councilors would turn the safety data on its head: cycling is dangerous, (look you say all these improvements are needed on the grounds of safety!) therefore encouraging people to cycle is ethically wrong, and the council should not do it.  I remember then suggesting that since the data indicates that what you need for cycling to become safe is a critical mass, the council should be looking at ways to create a step-change rather than an incremental improvement in cycling in Wellington.  Hire a whole bunch of students over the summer, to do nothing but circle the streets of the CBD for several hours a day — that would make a difference!

Sad to say, my proposal somehow never made it into the plan…

Being a woman in science has a lot of parallels with being a cyclist on the roads of Wellington.  Lots of little things just don’t seem to have been designed with you in mind.  Physically vulnerable, you have to wear fluororescent clothing and protective attire just to get around.  It can also seem like you have to put in a lot more effort in order to get anywhere!  — though there is always the fun of the downhill…

Ok, I should make it clear that the last thing I want to do is make this a whinge.  (If it isn’t clear to you already, however, please note that there will be gratuitous use of analogy.  I love stretching analogies like melted mozzarella.)  The healthiest thing to do as an individual, probably, is not to look at any of the data on gender bias.  If you do, you must make it clear to yourself that it isn’t about specific people, it’s about the statistical outcomes.  But science is a pretty small-world community, and when you look at just the women in science, the numbers get smaller.  The problem with small numbers, is that it gets a lot harder not to take statistics personally.  This makes it rather difficult, for any individual woman in science to talk about the situation of women in science.  But I have come to think that it is incredibly important that we do this, if we want things to change.

Anyway.  Those are my thoughts on why I am putting this up on line.  I’ll write the next post on why I thought to put a talk together on this subject to begin with…

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