Do we need a Female Brian Cox? Inspiration, Role Models and the Media

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.

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12 Responses to Do we need a Female Brian Cox? Inspiration, Role Models and the Media

  1. Brian Cox (in popular science mode) is well worth a watch, even for professional physicists, the main things that come over are passion and wonder. Just as a small vignette, at one point in the Wonders series (the Sun episode) he sits in Death Valley with an umbrella and a tin of water and explains how you can estimate the power output of the sun. The way he did this encapsulates exactly why I’m a physicist. Having said this, I think it’s very much his own style.

    As for more women in science photographs, my perception as a male having worked in university science departments and on industrial sites is that there has long been a great enthusiasm to take photos of women in labs *but* it’s a sham. Everyone knows that the photographer/supervisor/university PR have gone on a “woman hunt” to make the picture. In many cases it doesn’t reflect what is going on in the lab.

    I think Alom Shaha has it right with his article, TV presenters make a big impact – photos don’t – however many of them there are.

    • Ian, I agree photos are often a sham and can anyhow be overdone. I once complained about draft Cavendish publicity material because it looked like there were no men present at all: deeply misleading and unconvincing (it was changed). But I simply think we shouldn’t get hung up on a single route to inspire by trying to find a female superstar to present science. We need to use multiple routes – not just the either/or you imply in your comment. If women turned up frequently in many different guises practicing their science we could motivate more girls, because there would be more triggers which might impact on different parts of the teenage population. Apart from anything else, those who watch Brian Cox are already those who have a positive feeling for science; a scientist in Coronation Street (perhaps that beggars belief) or something similar might catch some girls earlier before they’ve started making choices. It could also imply that this is not an unusual thing for women to want to do, and that they could feel safe taking this path.

      • I didn’t intend to sound like an enthusiast for a single route! Scientists of *any gender* turning up in everyday situations in the media is something scientists are keen on. Dara O’Brien is sort of an example of this, but he keeps his physics background fairly well hidden.

        Going back to TV though – a lot of scientists of my generation talk about being inspired by things like “Life on Earth” and “Cosmos” – which are very strongly presented by one man in each case – Wonders of the Solar System fits into this mold. I was also inspired by “The Great Egg Race”, which I seem to remember being much more of a team effort. If you take science programs very generally, formats like “Coast”, “Time Team”, “The Gadget Show” or “Springwatch” have teams of presenters with moderate levels of female representation. Just to be clear: I see this as an observation, rather than a program for action.

  2. This reflects many of my reactions to Alom’s post.

    I like the podcast idea – a lot of science podcasts do have women, something I realised recently when someone asked me for a list last week. I wonder if there is a way of facilitating them to teenagers/ having more.

    The girls’ magazine idea is interesting too – I remember working on a sleepover at the Science Museum for teenage girls sponsored by Just 17 once – though the magazine content didn’t seem to connect in anyway, it was just a branding project (the cynicism of which I don’t think the girls cared for). More interestingly, I think, I did some consultancy for Girl Guiding UK – that is an interesting group to do coms work with.

    I’d also add that things like I’m a Scientist project is spot-on in terms of what you’re calling for

    • I’d never thought of teen magazines until Glamour magazine named me number 1 in their science and technology category earlier this year. Now I realise this is a useful demographic/readership to reach out to. Unfortunately Glamour gave me no opportunity to comment, talk about my research or anything else – i.e lack of connection as you found with Just 17 – and neither did any of the other magazines I thereafter ‘cold-called’. Anyone have ideas for how to penetrate that sector? Undoubtedly being placed adjacent to Cheryl Cole ought to be an effective strategy for catching teenage girl’s attention.

      Hadn’t thought of Girl Guides, but clearly that is a good target group too.

  3. Melinda J Duer says:

    I don’t think role models need to be women; what is important is the point you make about your own education, that no one ever told you women COULDN’T be scientists. I remember well when I first decided there was something in this science thing – it was watching Carl Sagan (clearly, a man, and yes, as I remember he was tolerably good looking too) on television when he gave the Royal Institution Christmas lectures. And why was I watching this in the first place? Because my FATHER said he thought I would enjoy it. Later at school, an enthusiastic chemistry teacher, Ron Trevithick, inspired me sufficiently to make me decide to study science at Cambridge (and it was he who told me to apply to Cambridge, another man. I never met a female scientist until I went to university). So all along, it was male role models, but their gender was not their important feature. What was important about them all was that they encouraged me and told me I could do it. Years later, when I wrote my first book (on NMR), I dedicated it to Ron Trevithick and my father, as the two people most influential in my scientific life. I went back to Cornwall to give a copy of the book to Ron Trevithick, the first time I’d seen him since leaving school. It was also the first time I’d seen him lost for words. No one had ever told him before that he had inspired them. We don’t do it enough.

  4. Kate Cooper says:

    Media personalities? It’s a numbers game, not a celebrity game. We simply need more women in science, and a career structure that’s family-friendly. (There’s no getting away from the demands and sheer hard work involved in having and bringing up kids, work that almost always falls more on women than men.)

    It proved difficult to recruit women scientists to The New Optimists project in 2009; I ended up with only 26 out of a total of 81. The (admittedly low) number of dropouts were disproportionately women, and the reason each gave was sheer pressure of what they had to do in their lives at that time.

    One of the things that did impress me, though, was the number of women in high profile jobs at Aston University. The VC there is a woman, the engineer Julia King . . .

    Progress in my lifetime? I was born in 1948, the year in which women were officially allowed to graduate for the first time. It takes more than one generation to make a difference . . .

    • Kate, it is of course a numbers game, but this becomes a vicious circle if young girls don’t enter the pipeline in the first place. I think that is where celebrities come in, but I wanted to say in my post that we mustn’t get hung up on that. There are lots of little things that we just have to keep pushing. In the twitter conversation that followed my post, there was some discussion of the pros and cons of single sex classes, although that hasn’t featured in the comments here. Maybe a topic for a later post, although too much of what I know on this is purely anecdotal. Times have improved since you and I took our degrees, but not as much as perhaps we expected – certainly that’s true in a subject like Physics. So we just have to use every available mechanism to attract girls into physics and engineering in the first place. Julia King – also of our generation – has certainly made her mark and made a difference: the proprotion of women you mention in your book is probably commensurate with the population in academia. Nor are they all in the biomedical sciences, which is encouraging (in fact I am currently half way through reading your book!). Things may be changing, but given all the evidence about what little things make a difference it is disappointing they aren’t more universally adopted. And I suppose that is why something so hugely visible as a female Brian Cox is seen as a potential quickfix – and an easy one which requires most individuals to do nothing.

  5. Pingback: Bluestockings . . . & Do we need a female Brian Cox?The New Optimists – a popular science book | The New Optimists - a popular science book

  6. As long as celebrity culture retains a firm grip over young people, I think we do need more highly visible female scientists who can role model being smart and feminine – too frequently I talk to young women who seem to think they are mutually exclusive. What disappoints me is how frequently, when a female role model in the sciences does come along, other women and some men criticise her that she is not a “real” scientist – I don’t mean the Gillian McKeith’s of the world, but women who have an advanced degree in the sciences but perhaps not a PhD or indeed they are “science communicators”. Who does it serve to tear them down? Anyone who can get young women engaged with the ubiquity and wonder of science should be lauded for their efforts – not torn down by others for not being “a true scientist”.

    • I think it is interesting you mention the word feminine. Some of the comments about ageism and (female) news readers I suspect may apply equally well to any woman being considered to front a science programme: there is a danger she will need to be under, say 40. Do women over 40 cease to be feminine (a question that probably needs a separate post all of its own and not by me)? I certainly suspect that if, as I have indicated I think would be good, teen magazines took to interviewing female scientists they would need to look acceptable for them to have much impact on the readers. I fear that is unfortunate but true. However, Jocelyn Bell Burnell – a trifle over 40 – did a grand job when profiled on Beautiful Minds, but then she wasn’t fronting a series.

      I also entirely agree with your comments about it being a shame people are torn down for not being proper scientists when they are most certainly ‘proper’ science communicators and great at it. Kathy Sykes is a case in point. When Jenny Rohn recently posted on the subject of the missing women in the media, various people absolutely said of her in the comments that she wasn’t a ‘proper’ scientist, by which they meant she wasn’t a practicing scientist. I pointed out that she was indeed a polymer physicist – and in fact does have a PhD in the subject from Bristol. Absolutely not in the Gillian McKeith category, and we should all be glad she does her communicating so well and with such passion, particularly since so many ‘proper’ scientists don’t have any desire to communicate much to the media themselves.

  7. Sarah Burge says:

    Interesting post!

    I think it’s worthwhile looking at the experiences of young women who chose to do medicine. In that field, there seems to be no shortage of young women aspiring to be doctors, yet I consider medicine to be a scientifically rigorous profession. I’d like to understand more about why medicine seems to escape from the negative connotations attached to other sciences.

    Is it simply because people understand what doctors do? Is it because that medicine is seen as a respectable/safe career choice? When I was at school (an all girls’ school in the Back of Beyond in the 1990′s), if you were good at science, then the only career option put to you was medicine. No other science or engineering degree choice, let alone career option got a look in. Increasingly I suspect this was simply because the vast majority of the staff had *no idea* about what scientists do. And why does this mentality affect young women more than young men?

    As an aside, I am another female scientist who never had any female scientific role models. I did, however, go to an all girls’ school where it simply never occurred to me that I shouldn’t do science, which I was great at and enjoyed hugely. I also was fortunate enough to have two inspiring teachers for physics and chemistry, who are probably the reason I am where I am today.