Choice not Dogma

Last week a writer for the Financial Times joined the club of those journalists who seem to think there is some awful plot out there to force young girls to study science. Not so long ago it was Cristina Odone, who wrote an article in the Telegraph headlinedMy daughter shouldn’t have to study science‘ followed up by ‘Too many girls are pressurised into taking ‘STEM’ subjects just to appease feminists’. (I took exception to the original Odone article here).

This most recent article, by Izabella Kaminska in the FT was actually tackling a slightly different problems. She was complaining about new advertising guidelines which are designed to reduce the stereotyping long familiar in ways men and women are portrayed. She argued that we shouldn’t see only non-traditional roles as ‘healthy’ and that ‘Liberation for women and men is about choice not dogma’, which was the title of her piece. I’m all in favour of choice not dogma, but that has to be a choice about everything and not tied in with cherry-picking parts of the landscape.

The relevance to encouraging girls into science (or not) arises because these new guidelines have been linked to the study demonstrating just how shockingly young girls decide boys are smarter than them – around 6 – which later impacts on which careers and subjects they think are ‘suitable’ for them. It was a small-scale study, and I hope more work will explore the phenomenon on a much larger scale, but it was certainly a deeply depressing one. Kaminska, however, interprets the response to the study like this:

…exposure to traditional portrayals of women could be a factor behind women’s under-representation in so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Girls, they argue, take their cues from those media messages about becoming ballerinas rather than engineers. This assumes that because I watched adverts featuring Nanette Newman advocating the merits of Fairy washing-up liquid over other brands, I was more likely to veer away from science or technology.

In order to justify that she, personally, didn’t want to be a scientist she has darwn a meaningless conclusion based on what looks like a wilful misunderstanding of the study and the guidelines. Powerful female journalists, like Odone and Kaminska, can be great writers but clearly suffer from anxiety about their chosen careers. Why else do they try to imply because they (or in the former’s case, her daughter) don’t like science personally then, by extrapolation, we shouldn’t be encouraging girls to study STEM subjects?

I could give a feminist reading of encouraging girls into STEM – regardless of the ‘choice not dogma’ point of view — by stressing if girls are to grow up into adults who don’t need to rely on a man to be the breadwinner, a STEM career is a lot more reliable for bringing in the cash than journalism. But that really isn’t the point. The point is that if girls only see the woman at the kitchen sink with the Fairy liquid, only get given dolls to play with passively and conversely only see men in hard hats or coding computers, they are likely to think that’s the way it is and they have to conform. It doesn’t take much for conformity to seem like the norm. I remember a nine year old girl asking me, at the time that Thatcher was ousted as Prime Minister, was it possible for a man to be a prime minister? All her life, in as far as she had been aware of politics at all, Thatcher had been at the helm. Thatcher was a woman hence that must be a requirement.

I don’t understand how a journalist can headline a piece about choice and then go on to say that ‘Even so, academically, I always orientated towards the arts. Not because I had been brainwashed: those were the subjects I was good at and enjoyed.’ Where does brainwashing come in? Given the IOP’s evidence on girls’ progression to A level physics in mixed versus single sex schools (spoiler: girls are twice as likely to do the A level if they go to a single sex school), where does she really believe the brainwashing is going on? Does she not believe, that for generations girls have been ‘brainwashed’ into thinking they don’t want to be engineers? It has nothing to do with who washes the dishes (or at least loads the dishwasher).

A recent video clip put out by the BBC also gives clues as to why children’s views on life get coloured so early on. It shows adults playing with young children dressed, not according to gender but against the stereotype. So a little boy in a dress is handed pink dolls to play with; a girl in blue is given the robot and picked up and put on a toy horse. Not statistically significant, to put it mildly, nevertheless it is a damning indictment on how random strangers stereotype babies and interact with them accordingly. I will try to catch up with the full programme soon. Angela Saini debunks a lot of the myths that perpetuate the acceptance of crude stereotyping in her recent superb book Inferior, reviewed by my fellow OT blogger Stephen Curry over on the Guardian. The evidence for the ‘Men are from Mars, Women from Venus’ view of life and biological determinism (or perhaps in this context I mean a version of the book titled ‘Men are born Engineers, women are journalists’ reworking of the same concept) is sparse at best.

But, just as bad as dividing the human race simply into two gendered stereotypes, lurking beneath the Odone and Kaminska mindset is the idea that science is somehow in opposition to the humanities. I took exception to that position in my article challenging the Odone viewpoint Why do these journalists need to imply that we live in a zero sum game so that if I claim to be a scientist I cannot enjoy music, literature or art? By all means let us live by choice not dogma, but please can we also ensure that we don’t pigeonhole the population into either A or B, whatever those categories might be. I would plead for allowing everyone not only choice between two options, but a bit of everything if that’s what takes their fancy.

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On a Short Fuse

I am frequently astonished by the chutzpah some people possess: the willingness brazenly to ask someone else essentially to do their own work so that they, the asker, can make cash. An email that smacked of this landed in my inbox recently. It told me that the sender, DH, was ‘a writer (self-development + business) and contents planner’. He was intending to write a book

‘aiming to collect and provide wisdom, motivation and inspiration for readers, giving them an opportunity to reflect on their lives. It would be my honor to have you in my book.’

But by inclusion in his book what he actually meant was something along the lines of

‘please will you write a chapter for me, and if I can get enough egotistical folk to want to be incorporated in a book in this way then I can write an introduction and a conclusion, palm it off on a publisher and raise some cash.’

Vanity publishing indeed. I was not tempted. Indeed it just made me angry that someone thinks this is a respectable way to make a living. Since the guy told me he had already published 10 books – in South Korea – I assume it works.

It is perhaps the case that I am on a short fuse at the moment. I realised this when, a day or two later I had an altercation with a taxi driver. I had cycled back to my home – the Master’s Lodge at Churchill College – sadly pondering on the shocking way the trolls were after my friend and colleague Mary Beard again. Trying to stick up for some academic rigour she has been attacked by a posse of internet trolls for holding firm to the idea – and giving chapter and verse of evidence – that there were men of colour in Roman Britain.

Whilst constantly challenging Mary to produce her credentials they, the opposition, seem content to argue along the lines of, fairly literally, ‘my citation count is bigger than yours’, as if citations proved much. Or that remark didn’t smack of the school playground bully. As scientists know only too well, you can get plenty of citations for being wrong. Being wrong, is after all, sometimes more interesting than being right. But it doesn’t mean that you’re either an expert or correct after all. I’m not going to jab my finger at the twitterstorm’s main protagonist Nicholas Taleb. I admit I’d never heard of him before though I was vaguely aware of his best-selling book Black Swan. Interesting topic, made a great deal of; academic worth – no idea personally. I’m not interested in his citation count. I am interested in, or rather I am utterly appalled by, his ability to be totally vicious and simultaneously vacuous within 140 characters on Twitter. I am concerned by why he thinks this is the mark of a good academic. Why he thinks it advances the debate on whether or not the Roman army was anything other than pure white. Mary on her own blog has provided some concrete evidence, but I haven’t seen a sensible response from her detractors. But then I might have missed something.

It makes me very angry to watch her being attacked by many – although supported I suspect by many more – in ways that seem quite gratuitously unpleasant and misogynistic. No one calls a man an old bat, or tw@ or much much worse; the insults all seemed strongly gendered. So, having been pondering over the wanton insults and name-calling, I probably wasn’t at my best when I got back to Churchill that day. Finding a taxi outside my home, knowing that it was not for me or for my husband, knowing that frequently the taxi companies get confused between the Master’s Lodge (where only my husband and I live) and the Porter’s Lodge, which is essentially the College’s Reception and where students will expect to wait for taxis, I asked him who he was waiting for. His screen showed clearly that he had been sent to the Master’s Lodge but for a person whose name was completely unfamiliar to me so I knew he had been sent to the wrong place.

I tried to explain that to him, explained I was the Master and I certainly hadn’t ordered that taxi. At which point he got shirty – although why he thought it was unhelpful of me to point him in the direction of where he’d find his customer I don’t know. His angry sentence ended up with the word ‘darling’. Red rag to a bull, I’m afraid. On that particular day, having been pondering Mary’s plight, I threw back at him (not politely I admit) ‘don’t call me darling’. Things escalated from there with choice phrases from him along the lines of ‘you’re certainly not my darling’ (so why did he call me one in the first place?) and further abuse. It ended up with another shout of ‘darling’ as he drove off. I have complained to his employer.

It is utterly trivial yet also symptomatic of the way some men seem to think there is no need to treat women with respect. Darling in itself is merely demeaning. It’s not threatening so perhaps I shouldn’t care. But if he treats me like that, how might he treat a young female student who flagged his taxi down late at night? What respect does he show others? Tolerating such contempt strikes me as too close to giving him permission to attack the more vulnerable to a greater degree than his mere inappropriate language to me. (Was I supposed to be flattered to be called darling in the first place? What does go through their heads when they say things like that?)

It’s the second trivial incident recently that has got me fired up. The first was once more over Twitter in the wake of the BBC gender pay gap revelations. Philip Hampton, as some people may recall, appeared to blame the women for their lower pay because they ‘never asked’ for a rise. I tweeted ‘Philip Hampton clearly doesn’t understand you need to fix the system not the women’ linking to this story. Some smart guy responded

‘Sir Philip Hampton to you my dear’

Like Mary I attempted to be polite in my fury saying

‘As a Dame myself I think I can skip the formality but you might want to reconsider calling me ‘dear’’.

To which this joker simply replied ‘no’. Clearly, a woman with an Honour is not worthy of being treated with respect although he expects that same woman to bow and scrape about others’ knighthoods. I couldn’t care less about people using my title, I’d far rather be introduced as Professor than Dame. But I do hate being called ‘dear’, ‘darling’ or other random if meaningless terms of endearment by total strangers. Maybe I should have called this twitter joker ‘laddie’ and seen how he liked it, or the taxi driver ‘boyo’ or ‘sunshine’ –  but one never thinks of such responses in time. I must find some suitable terms to have to hand the next time some idiot tries this on me again.

Any suggestions of choice phrases?





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The Sound of Silence

There is the blissful silence away from email because you are lounging on a warm beach somewhere (or up a cold and wet mountain, according to taste) with your smart phone resolutely turned off. But the silence only lasts as long as your resolution lasts, before the hideous sounds or noisy vibration of your phone kicks in. But that isn’t quite the sort of email silence to which I’m referring. I am referring to one that will have had a direct snail mail equivalent, in which the silence is an absence of a response.

Recently I saw a plaintive appeal for a word to be coined to describe the ‘emails that are so important that you leave them until you have time to answer them’, with the corollary that that moment never arrives and slowly they burn a metaphorical hole in your inbox and your conscience. I find, most irritatingly, that the memory of their existence tends to resurface just as I’m about to drop off to sleep. At which point I completely wake up and lie there in a guilty haze of embarrassment. That of course does not help the email to get answered. It doesn’t produce an obvious word or phrase to describe this guilt-inducing email either, but perhaps if some wise guy could come up with such a word then it would help people like me to frame the ultimately, week or more late response. It would explain to the recipient that it really was an important message, and you knew that perfectly well, but its importance in and of itself made a rapid answer impossible.

There is another more toxic kind of silence though. The email sent, say, to a head of department (or supervisor or chair of a committee according to circumstances) requesting a meeting to discuss something close to your heart. Greeted with silence it can be extremely disconcerting. Have you overstepped the mark? Have you stood on someone’s toes? Or are you just so negligible a correspondent within the hierarchy that no response is deemed necessary. You can be ignored. Your request is contemptible and so are you. Interpreting silence that way can be personally very damaging, even if often your anxious analysis can be extremely wide of the mark – or at least it might be.

Because silence can mean so many things. It can mean you are thought to be a lesser mortal who can safely be ignored. Your anxiety in that case might be justified. It can also mean that the other person is off sick, without having had the opportunity to set up an out-of-office email because it was an emergency appendectomy; or that they wanted to consult with someone else who is at the other side of the world currently and won’t be back for a couple of weeks; or that they are attending a workshop at a military establishment where email contact is forbidden. (I have actually been faced with that specific dilemma when I was trying to get urgent advice and yes, the silence was unnerving.) There are many good reasons for silence, although the judicious use of out-of-office messages should resolve some of them.

But silence, just silence, how are you to know what’s going on? Is the other person giving your request serious thought and then getting side-tracked – as in the first example – or legitimately not at the end of their email but neglected to set up the means of saying so? Or are they, as does indeed occur, actively ignoring you? Playing power games. Making you sweat. That I have also endured. With some characters, those you have a long-running feud with perhaps, such games are all too plausible. Yet, the optimist in me at least always hopes that if I just write again maybe they’ll deign to reply; and then the pessimist in me says that that is just giving them more grist to their ego-inflating mill. So, sitting on the horns of that dilemma I can sit there with a second email ready to go and my fingers hovering over ‘send’, indecisive as to whether a follow-up email will inflame or calm the situation.

This all comes to mind because this week I detected myself guilty of silence in a way post hoc I felt uncomfortable about. No, not the power games version, but the one where I’d forwarded an email and then forgotten completely about the enquiry and enquirer. Unfortunately forwarding an email to a busy and overstretched colleague does not equate to a response. I should have kept track and I hadn’t. I didn’t really know the sender (although technically we had met previously) so I guess it was a bit easier not to keep the original message in mind. In this case, though, the person concerned was made of stronger stuff than some of us. They had been in touch with my PA, who had found a slot when I was around and they simply turned up in my office. They greeted me with ‘I don’t know if you remember my email’ and I had to say I didn’t. But as they explained what it had been about memory did come back. And I remembered that I had actioned it to the extent of forwarding it. I didn’t have the honesty to say so, or at least the conversation had moved on before recollection returned.

I hope in the end my visitor got what advice they wanted from me. The moral is, I suppose, don’t let silence stop you in your tracks. Don’t let the lack of a reply get you down. There may be perfectly innocent reasons. Or there may not be. You’ll never know if you don’t keep trying. Some people out there are jerks, but not all of them. Some of us are simply overworked.


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What Genre Do You Write In?

I’ve been reading a surprising amount about conehead crickets recently. An insect I had never previously encountered but which crossed my path, metaphorically, twice in one day due to my bad habit of reading multiple books simultaneously. On my Kindle I’ve been enjoying A Sting in the Tail by Dave Goulson, a book recommended to me by Mary Beard as being stuffed full of interesting anecdotes. (She had read it when judging the Samuel Johnson Book Prize and it had obviously stuck in her mind even several years later.) Whereas, for bath-time reading where the Kindle does not follow me, I have been dipping into Claxton by Mark Cocker, made up of brief articles dated day by day, following through the seasons. In high summer up turns the conehead cricket in Claxton (Norfolk), as it does in the explorations of Goulson around the New Forest.

These two books are in very different styles and serving different purposes. Claxton is a collection of short articles written as nature columns for a variety of publications, whereas A Sting in the Tail is a memoir of a bumblebee researcher’s life, along with accompanying science. The brief columns seem to be much more self-consciously lyrical in their vocabulary, with many vivid adjectives depicting everything that crosses the author’s path. Indeed, although this may be heretical to say, sometimes I find the lyricism excessive, almost too self-consciously beautiful. Perhaps that’s because I’m a prosaic scientist for whom clarity matters above all. I think I prefer the writing of Robert Macfarlane: lyrical as he can be about our landscapes, he never seems to be too far away from some underlying science.

I seem to read a lot of books about the natural world. No doubt it is one form of escapism, but it does seem to me that nature writers are particularly prone to indulge in the flowery adjective (no pun intended) and get unduly poetic so that the message they may be trying to convey gets buried in an endless descriptive stream of words. It is hard to imagine ‘lablit’ or even a campus novel à la David Lodge expressed this way. For my amusement – well it is the vacation so clearly I have nothing better to do as Lord Adonis has made so plain – I have tried to frame things this way.

Consider the typical scene of a 9am lecture:

Early in the morning, when the frost was fresh and glittering on the grass and the trees looked stark and beautiful against the rising sun, the young lecturer swung into the packed lecture theatre to greet his students with his customary exuberance. Their stony visages met his cheerful greeting, their phones still clasped in their hands as they struggled to cast the shadow of last night’s drinking binge from their befuddled brains. The lecturer unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled his sleeves up, gracefully striding over to the podium so that he could beam down with his sunny countenance upon their tired, morning-after, eyes-half-shut unwelcoming faces.

Just as the vixen sniffs the early morning air to seek her mate or prey, so the lecturer briefly gazed upwards to ensure that his brimming, bubbling confidence could not be dented by a crowd of less than warm-welcoming too-early-in-the-morning unenthusiastic medics whose task it was to get to grips with the intricacies of the lower intestine and its multiple possible malfunctions in the middle-aged. He welcomed the churlish crowd by singing his mundane words of greeting to an Aria from Cosi Fan Tutte in his deep baritone voice, precipitating a flurry of surprised eyes to open or temporarily to lift from their phone screens, like a herd of nervous sheep who hear the first bark of the sheepdog. The excitement was brief but palpable.

No I don’t think that would do at all. But it is interesting to note that a lecture theatre’s environment does not lend itself to adjectives, whereas moorland or the shore’s fringes might. We expect students to ‘know’ how to write in a correct style; I suspect I have always assumed that they – like me in days gone by, because I certainly was never given any formal training – will simply absorb the correct style from reading the papers they will necessarily be studying for the content. There are, of course, centrally-run courses on how to write your PhD. But writing doesn’t necessarily come easily.

If I think back to my school days, our science homework (certainly our Chemistry homework, which was the first science I encountered at secondary school), had its own prescribed formula consisting of sections of Aims, Methods, Results and Conclusion. So, to continue my frivolity, here is the lecture theatre scenario of my young lecturer above written in this second style.

Aim: To deliver a lecture on the lower intestine to 250 medical students.

Method: Use of pre-prepared Powerpoint slides and a laptop. Students were already in the lecture hall before the lecturer walked in so before delivery of the full lecture some preliminary experiments were carried out to make sure the audience was awake. The appropriate end-point of the lecture was established by careful clock-watching. As the hands pointed to the hour the lecturer shut down the computer and swiftly left by the nearest exit.

Results: The preliminary experiments ensured that at least half of the students put their phones away, at which point it was decided it was time to switch into full lecturing mode. During the course of the ensuing hour one student fell off their seat due to being overcome by drowsiness, three phones rang with excruciating ring tones and the Twitter feed of the MedSoc President indicated they were more interested in US politics than the lower intestine.

Conclusion: Charismatic lecturers are not sufficient to compensate for dull teaching topics.

It is equally unsuitable written like that. All of us need help with our writing and reading other people’s words can only take us so far in our progression.


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You’re Crazy, It’s Impossible

Many people get told messages like this.  You’ll never manage this, you’re insane to try that, don’t even think about starting the other…..every reader will have their own particular bête noire version of these phrases thrown at them as a put down. Perhaps it was something you were told at 11 – ‘girls are no good at maths’ for instance, or ‘boys are no good at languages’ conversely. These phrases can stick in the mind and five years later deter the 16 year old student from taking that subject further. (In my case it was being told I had a rubbish French accent at the end of my first year of French, and I gave up trying to improve it although my written French at school was fine.)

Or perhaps at university you were advised not to try your hand at some option that appealed, or it was recommended that you weren’t suited to do a particular PhD. If you follow the advice you will never know whether you were right or wrong to be swayed by your elder’s words; if you don’t you may end up bitterly regretting it. I know my PhD supervisor advised me against the first postdoc position I took when I went over to the USA. I ignored him and did indeed end up bitterly regretting it. It did not suit me at all and I became bored and disenchanted. All one can do is listen to the advice and then factor in all the other relevant ingredients, including your own passion (or lack of it) and act accordingly. You have to make your own choice as to whether to pay any heed or not.

The particular phrases included in my title were reported to me as advice given when he was a PhD student by an eminent, emeritus Italian engineer Bernhard Schrefler, whom I had the pleasure of sitting next to at a dinner when I was in Padua with the ERC. He laughed about it all as he explained that the way he intended to tackle his research (something to do with porous media and soil mechanics whose details I’m afraid I didn’t grasp) was seen as undoable at the time – but he proved them wrong, very wrong and went on to an extremely successful career in the field of Mechanics. Most of his life had been devoted to computational and finite element analysis in the engineering realm.

But if you look him up now, his web pages describe him as a member of the Centre for Mechanics of Biological Materials at the University of Padua and much of his work is related to cancer: tumour growth modelling and analysis of the transport of nanoparticles in diseased blood capillaries. He told me how he realised that the same mathematical approaches he had used for decades in heavy engineering applications were just as relevant to these biomedical questions and he set out to get to know this very different community. He clearly had made a great success of the transition and had set up numerous fruitful collaborations. He was a man full of life – though well past retirement – and still full of enthusiasm for the joys of research and keen on supporting the young.

But for him, as for so many young researchers, he could have backed off in the face of the negativity he received about his PhD plans (by the sound of it, these were plans that were his own and not his supervisor’s). It is incredibly difficult to know when to bow to the apparent voice of authority and give in. The Twitter group @womanthology are running a campaign they call #Ididitanyway, inviting tweeps to submit their examples of being told something was beyond their capabilities; advice which was ignored and subsequently proved to be very wrong. Examples such as

(This is close to my heart as a physicist, but there are many more to be found under the hashtag). The campaign is also to raise funds via crowdfunding for @womanthology’s digital magazine, where they challenge stereotypes around women at work. Their tweets are always worth following and they have showcased many exceptional women with heartening stories for all to read through the magazine.

The stories linked to the hashtag show just how many people ignored advice and were able to say, in essence, Yah boo sucks #Ididitanyhow. People in fact like Bernhard Schrefler. Some things never change. More senior people have forever been telling their juniors that what they are proposing is a waste of time, impossible, crazy or whatever. Some people take this quietly, others do not.

Post edited at 11am 27-7-17 to include link to @womanthology’s crowdfunding campaign.


Posted in Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 2 Comments