Last week I talked to undergraduates in Cambridge about my new role as Gender Equality Champion within the University, about the sort of activities I envisaged in my new role and how I had got to where I am in my career. I was really pleased to get an email about 24 hours later saying how I had ‘inspired’ at least one of my audience as she had listened to me talk about my life. As teachers – of whatever level and whatever subject – to inspire someone is an incredibly satisfying thing to do, but so rarely do we get told we’ve done it. It is indeed one of the key motivations for teaching, to be able to pass on one’s passion to at least a fraction of those listening. Teachers are so incredibly influential in determining our individual trajectories, but often do not know the impact of their actions.
A little while ago, I wrote about this from the pupil’s angle, citing my own experience at school as putting me off biology as a teenager but inspiring me to do physics. Around the same time a piece appeared in the Guardian by Alom Shaha asking Where’s the Female Brian Cox?, pointing out that “ Girls are crying out for a female scientific role model” . As it happens Alom Shaha is a science teacher at my old school, Camden School for Girls in London. In my day it was a girls’ grammar, now it is a comprehensive for girls with a mixed sixth form. (By the by, this is something I had found quite disconcerting when I went back to talk to the sixth form earlier this year: same hall, differently populated, no longer white and female!) I happen to think the fact that it was an all girls’ school was relevant to my career choice and the topic of this post – no one told me girls didn’t do physics. So, my only role model may have been my excellent Physics teacher, but I also had no one putting me off. That my choice of subject was unusual was not brought home to me until I turned up in Cambridge as a fresher. Single sex teaching will have to be a subject for another day, however.
So to return to Alom Shaha and his argument that celebrities can lead to aspiration, and possibly also inspiration. He says
‘There are lots of initiatives out there to promote female scientists as role models, but I suspect that having one woman scientist with Brian Cox’s level of fame would have the same impact as many of these initiatives combined. Like it or not, appearing on TV is still one of the best ways to become a role model for young people.’
I only agree with this up to a point, as I’ll explain below. Teenagers are so overwhelmed with images of celebrities – who clearly are making megabucks, something else that is hard for them not to feel aspirational about – that it is difficult for them to realise that celebrity in itself does not bring satisfaction or happiness, and that something quieter but more cerebral might have its own attractions. It is not going to be an easy message to get across. This fixation on celebrities is true whether or not one is talking about role models. I was staggered to be told by a young woman, at this same meeting with undergraduates last week, that her housemates seemed to think wanting to do a PhD and follow an academic career was rather sad, and implied she was lacking something because she didn’t want to settle down, have a family and be a housewife. This is 2010 and I thought that was left behind around the time of my own youth. It is hard not to see this as the WAG model of success, and I had not expected to find it in Cambridge where students undoubtedly have the wherewithal to be a great deal more than someone else’s other half.
So, there are 3 different concepts being discussed here: role models, inspiration and the charisma of a TV presenter like Brian Cox. I think they are different and will influence different people in different ways. But specifically I want to question whether role models have to be the same sex to inspire, and secondly if a single presenter really is sufficient to change girls’ worldview of science.
Alom Shaha’s implication in his article was that girls at his school needed to see a female presenter to be able to identify with science as a career – this must be particularly directed at physical sciences and engineering, since the number of women entering university to study biology is at least equal to men. But I wonder if that needs to be true. Do they look at Brian Cox and think I would love to be able to do the exciting kind of science he does (and I must admit I haven’t watched any of his programmes myself, so have no idea how he comes across), or do they look at him and think science looks fun but it can’t be a career for me because he is male? I would propose that for many of them – if they have any penchant for science – they are as likely to feel the first emotion pure and simple without necessarily regarding his gender as relevant. Only if the girls never come across images of female scientists then, yes, I would agree with Alom Shaha; as long as they do I am not so sure. The article that was brought to my attention after my post on stereotype threat makes clear that if pupils never see a woman scientist portrayed they can undoubtedly draw negative conclusions about their own abilities as a female scientist. But if they do, I wonder how influential a single iconic figure may be as a role model (unless specifically they are seeking a scientific media career), so that the gender of this iconic person may be less important than implied.
Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if there was a female Brian Cox, but he has his own mystique due to his previous existence in D.Ream. He has been able to come to the fore not only because he is articulate and passionate and the camera loves him, but also because he has had the support and knowhow behind him of a wife Gia Milinovich herself from the media, who has been able to facilitate his transformation into a TV star (at the same time, incidentally, as losing much of her own status). So, if there were a female who happened to have a similar pedigree, it would be totally wonderful but, as the responses to the Guardian article made clear, there are a lot of women scientists who have got onto mainstream science programmes but not prospered or been taken up by the media in a substantial way, perhaps in part because their pedigree does not contain all these additional fortuitous elements.
But, for myself I am not convinced a single superstar female scientist would necessarily do as much good as a steady stream of many women scientists – both images and in the flesh – who just start turning up in many situations: textbook and publicity photographs, on TV and in podcasts, being used as ‘experts’ by the media written and visual, and dropping into schools to talk about their passion. If TV is to be used as a vehicle to encourage girls I suspect, as I said in a previous comment, actresses portraying women scientists turning up in much acclaimed serials and soaps would be substantially more effective than a single high profile female presenter. The trouble is currently that the concentration of visible women is so miserably low that the scientific profession remains looking overwhelmingly male. So can we start a campaign for having women scientists photographed more and displayed casually in more places (incidentally I know a professional photographer who was desperately keen to create such an exhibition to take around the country, but could never raise the funds to do so – any funders out there?); for having more podcasts by women that can be played to schoolchildren of all ages; for girl’s teenage magazines to feature scientists from time to time; and – scriptwriters please note – some lab dramas featuring smart (young?) women doing exciting things in science, or a female Dr Who. All these strands are important. If female scientists’ (apparent) presence were as ubiquitous as male’s, maybe we wouldn’t need to worry about the gender of science presenters on TV – and then maybe we could stop having this debate.