This week Yasmin Alibahi-Brown wrote a piece in the Independent entitled ‘This is still a man’s world’
At every level, still, even in the West, women are invisible, neglected, kept down, slighted, patronised, objectified, denied and demeaned in everyday life……we women can devalue ourselves and our sisters, often gamely playing along to avoid the dreaded “feminist” tag.
The occasion of her angst? That she had just taken part as panel member in a seminar about broadcast interviews, and during the session not a single woman’s name had been mentioned – including by her – until a woman from the audience explicitly drew attention to it. In other words she found herself being sexist in the names she was putting forward, despite the plethora of good female role models she could have cited ranging from Martha Kearney to Jenni Murray. Although the words I quote from her article seem overly dramatic to describe this situation, what she is saying is that somehow it is simply too easy for all of us – men and women alike – to overlook women. In the world of science, familiar examples would be conference (or seminar) programmes drawn up without a female speaker in the original list. People are now sufficiently conscious of this problem that often a second pass will be explicitly made in order to come up with some women’s names. And the absurd thing is when these names are mentioned the likelihood is that the relevant committee will then say ‘of course, how could we not have thought of her – and her, and her?’ A recent article in Nature highlights a similar problem when it comes to learned societies’ prizes and exhorts
‘Scientific societies must examine practices for selecting awardees.’
But somehow, time and time again, this same thing happens. What is it about our psyches that make both sexes fall into this trap of overlooking well-qualified women? The trouble is, when one thinks about it too hard it starts to reek of affirmative action/positive discrimination, the stuff I wrote about a little while ago as being inappropriate and, in the case of jobs. illegal in the UK, although it is not jobs that are being discussed here. Because this is a sensitive issue, it is extremely difficult – at least for me, the more I think about it – to know where to draw the line about when it is appropriate to ‘notice’ if the numbers of men and women are anything like equal (or rather, in proportion to the appropriate pool) or not.
How about this phrasing which offended at least two male heads of department on behalf of their female colleagues when a request was made by HR personnel about nominations for a senior committee and which they were keen to draw to my attention:
We are expected to have at least one, if not two, women on the sub committee and therefore would you please take this into consideration.
Personally, that doesn’t offend me, but clearly the men felt that women should only be being nominated on the strength of their professional abilities, but at the same time of course women should be being nominated and it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with names. They seemed to be more sensitive on my gender’s behalf than I felt myself. When an appropriate name was proposed, they got even more annoyed by the wording of the minute which said
We would also propose to nominate Professor X, in the interests of gender balance…’
And that does strike me as a singularly inappropriate way to record the decision, and it was going to be rewritten the last I heard.
This week I appeared on Radio 4’s Start the Week (more on this later) with three other guests all of whom were male: they were respectively a psychologist, a historian and an English scholar, whereas I was the physicist and (obviously) a female at that. Does it matter? Should I think, well at least they had one woman, or why didn’t they have two or – what I actually did think – which was it really doesn’t matter, it’s simply a fluctuation! Going up an escalator in London en route to the studio I noticed a series of posters explaining that one of the escalators was being renovated, illustrated by series of images of ‘engineers’ (schematic) doing the sorts of things engineers do (at least when renovating escalators and as imagined by Transport for London): wield pick axes and drills and weld. There were, I would guess, 6 different images repeated up the escalator of which one (but only one) was obviously a woman. My first reaction was that this represented progress. Then I noticed that the woman was the one passively standing around with a clipboard and I wasn’t sure how much progress that really was. One can go round and round this loop of is this right or isn’t it?
At what point do things really matter? Because it is only at that point that it is worth drawing attention to any inequities that may be occurring – if they’re slight, then let it be, if they’re slights then make a fuss. When women’s names are being unreasonably overlooked – in panel discussions, for plenary lectures or for committee membership – then we should press hard. We should also try to work out, for each and every one of us, why it is that women’s names don’t necessarily come to the fore despite there being – as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown berated herself – obvious and respected names that should trip off the tongue. But we should not go for equal numbers simply for the sake of it or constantly beat ourselves up about it.
A media aside: I previously wrote about my media training in advance of appearing on the Today programme when the Royal Society released its report ‘Preparing for the transfer from school and college science and mathematics education to UK STEM higher education’ last week. I duly got my three minutes on air and felt deeply appreciative that I had been so well prepared by the exhaustive/exhausting training I had been given. I came away from the interview with Sarah Montague feeling it hadn’t been anything like as challenging as the mock interviews I had been put through by the Royal Society, which was very reassuring. I had practiced for the trick and trip-you-up questions, which didn’t come, and I had the necessary key facts pretty much at my fingertips and managed to fit at least most them into the allotted time. My interview with Radio Scotland was rather longer (the Royal Society was applauding the Scottish system of Highers, as it keeps almost twice as many 16-19 year olds doing science as in England and Wales), but felt equally comfortable. Maybe it helped that I had no time for nerves due to the fact that the ‘remote’ – and consequently unmanned – studio booked for this latter interview was all but double booked so I hadn’t even had time to sit down before I was live on air – and immediately after that I was whisked straight up to the Today studio so still no time for nerves to overwhelm me.
However, one is never prepared for everything, and the Royal Society training was absolutely no help for appearing on Start the Week less than a week later and completely out of the blue. They had picked up I was giving a talk on ‘Alzheimer’s disease and yoghurt: a physicist’s exploration of proteins’ at the IOP at the end of March, and the title had tickled their fancy. The format of the programme is a structured conversation between four random individuals, and each is supposed to mug up something about the others. Consequently I was given two enormous tomes, one on poets of the Civil War (Reprobates by John Stubbs) and one on the 3000 year history of Jerusalem (by Simon Sebag Montefiore) to be read over a single weekend. This meant I really couldn’t do my homework properly; there simply wasn’t time to read both books, although we were helpfully told which chapters to read to get the gist of them (for the third guest, Simon Wessely, we merely had half a dozen pages of notes). All I could do was plan a few plausible questions I was comfortable asking when, in all truth, I felt so far out of my comfort zone as well as under-prepared in a way I never would have allowed myself for an exam. Andrew Marr as host, an impressive and experienced presenter, volunteered he found the programme far more challenging than his Sunday TV show when all he had to do was ‘poke politicians’. Start the Week, for him, was hard work.
I don’t think I should say too much about my fellow guests, but suffice it to say at least two of the others clearly shared my view of being outside their comfort zone (one actually complained about ‘how much more’ radio experience I had than him, as if it wasn’t fair), and the third guest spent most of the time fidgeting with what looked like a stress ball but I think was probably the foam top of a disintegrated microphone he had somehow acquired. I am sure (perhaps I mean I hope) listeners will have thought we were all relaxed and totally confident about what we were doing – but they would have been wrong.