Comment is Free, but Not Necessarily Sensible

Just as I was leaving my office at the end of last week’s typically frenetic activities, I was caught on the phone with an invitation to write a Comment is Free piece on women in science for last Sunday’s Observer. The aim was to complement a news story being run on the incoming President of the RSC, Professor Lesley Yellowlees.  As the first woman to hold this role she has decided to use it as a platform to plug this important issue, as I described in a previous post. I am delighted to see the RSC re-engaging with this important topic after a few years of it slipping down the list of their priorities. And given the chance to use a national broadsheet as a platform to bring it to the attention of the wider public, I was not going to let the opportunity slip either.

So, I had Friday night and part of Saturday to meet my first ever journalistic deadline(quite generous really). It turned out to be a much tougher assignment than I had thought, because the word count was about half the length of most of my blogposts. This meant, as I discovered, that nuancing the text was well nigh impossible, or putting in all the evidence or a lengthy background to the story. I’d like to think this was why some of the comments were quite so daft and wide of the mark, rather than that some people out there remain hideously misogynistic and ignorant of reality. But maybe I’m an optimist.  I will try to deconstruct some of the more unbelievable comments below.

I completed a first draft on Friday night, but wasn’t really satisfied with it. So I sought a second opinion on the Saturday – from my husband. He also wasn’t very happy with what I’d written, felt it would just provoke responses of ‘diddums’ . So he suggested some replacement sentences. Interestingly, the ones he wrote are exactly the ones that provoked the most ire on the grounds they were sexist. I find that somewhat amusing, even if depressing. Men too can feel that ‘aggressive men with one-track minds’ describes too many men and that they don’t like it.

By the time I looked at the web on the Sunday morning at around 8am, already more than 80 people had commented. Some people, it would seem, just sit there waiting for articles to disagree with in a public forum. So,here are some of the issues that were raised – on the CIF website and through twitter – and my thoughts on them.

Macho

Of course I didn’t write the headline ‘End the Macho Culture that turns Women off Science’, some editor took a casual mention of the word macho in the final paragraph (which tied in with Lesley Yellowlees’ terminology) and turned it into the hook for the whole piece. In fact I use macho in this context as describing someone ‘having a strong or exaggerated sense of power or the right to dominate’, to quote one dictionary, not as something only associated with men as I spelled out previously. I would say Maggie Thatcher was macho; it is a trait that I find unattractive but certainly not restricted to men. However, that was the sort of nuance that got lost in my 550 words, and many got angry with the headline and their translation of it as necessarily anti-male. Interestingly, the defence of many seemed to be that science is full of nerds, geeks and boffins who are necessarily feeble so what was I talking about? Clearly I was ill informed. In fact many started to make…

Dangerous Assumptions 

It was assumed that Ms Donald could not know what she was talking about and – and this comment was my all-time favourite comment for sheer inaccurate unpleasantness –

Article number 132 of a disgruntled feminist targetting one area of society at a time and trying to shoe-horn her ideology into it and pick a fight where none exists in order to keep herself in employment. Anyone who thinks there’s a macho culture in science definitely hasn’t spent any time around scientists and is also scrapping the already well scraped bottom of the barrell. Time for a new career I would suggest, you’re not really cut out for journalism.

This commenter couldn’t even read the tagline which pointed out I was a professional scientist, but just assumed I was, as another put it, simply some sad journo writing

another rant by a Guardian pundit disconnected from the real world.

I do wonder how many of the commenters were themselves scientists, probably few or they wouldn’t have been so rude about us all being dweebs and losers. But they clearly believed they were more well-informed about what happens in science than poor old Ms Donald.

I wasn’t the only one who came in for flak. Sally Davies did too:

Dame Sally Davies should be sacked. She hasn’t any business funding research on any other basis that the excellence of that research and its medical promise. Awarding medical research funding on the basis of presentations on “Gender Issues” is a gross misuse of public funds, an abuse of power and is tantamaount to fraud.

(Spelling as in the original.) Interesting assumption to make, that by working to improve issues around gender she is likely to reduce the overall excellence of the research.

PhD is an Ordeal

This was the topic where probably cutting out words caused most problems. I used the quote that women found their PhD’s an “ordeal filled with frustration, pressure and stress”, but the full story (which I’d reported on before) made it clear many men did too. People seemed to assume that I was implying women were feeble things that couldn’t cope with this rather than, as I’d meant to convey, that I didn’t see why anyone should have to endure an experience that was unnecessarily unpleasant. However I rather thought people responded as if it was a case of ‘I was beaten when a child and it didn’t do me any harm, so let’s continue to beat our children’. PhD’s may be hard work, challenging, but they should also be exciting and stimulating and not simply an ordeal. Of course, I’d put the link to the report in to the online article so people could have read the whole thing if they’d wanted, rather than to assume whatever they wanted to assume from a single sentence. But then, some of these would seem to be people who prefer to complain than to think.

Cherrypicking the Research

I was accused of cherry picking the research I quoted because I used physics as an extreme example. I would have loved to be able to compare physics and biology and where the leaks predominantly occur in the different disciplines. The overall length did not permit, but it wouldn’t have altered my basic premise.

Nursing Mothers

One commenter said helpfully that

It is a rare woman who can think about string theory or the mathematics of population genetics while nursing a baby.

This caused a lot of people to explode with ire over twitter and in the online comments. Comments included

My personal fav is the guy who said you can’t think about string theory while breastfeeding. Really? How does he know?!

I think nursing time, and bedtime often great time to think about science – not much else to do than think..

and more than one person indicated that they stopped reading the comments at this point:

Going to stop reading comments on Athene Donald’s Observer piece due to extreme depression about human race.

Is Alice Roberts a Real Scientist?

Finally, people got waylaid into what strikes me as an irrelevant discussion as to whether Professor Alice Roberts  – whom I’d identified as one possible very visible role model for girls contemplating entering science – was a real scientist, by which they seemed to mean a practicing research scientist. She is certainly a woman who read science at university and is now leading a very successful, and presumably satisfactory, career in the scientific domain. Is academic research the only way to be a scientist? I think not, particularly when it comes to trying to convey to schoolchildren contemplating their futures what careers scientists have and for whom ‘research’ probably means little more than looking up stuff on Wikipedia. On the other hand, was it right to use her as the rather more glamorous image to top my story – as the online version did – than the standard photo the Guardian has of me which the print copy used? Or is this simply another way of drawing the reader in with an attractive image, which a middle-aged woman, who just happened to have written the piece, might not manage?

So, an interesting experience overall. If I discount the vitriol tossed off by inveterate CIF commenters, I can take more satisfaction from the fact the article was picked up on websites around the world, with people as far afield and as different in culture as Australia, Malta and Portugal all agreeing that what I wrote rang true in their own part of the world. But girls being put off science is not a story that is going to go away. Just look at the EU Science is a Girl Thing website, where the EU is trying to tempt more girls into science. But whatever you do, don’t look at the taster video…unbelievably inappropriate, and also viral. I hope by next week someone will have had the good sense to pull it, although some of the other parts of the site are probably helpful for teenagers, despite the lipstick logo which pervades it.

 

 

 

 

 

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33 Responses to Comment is Free, but Not Necessarily Sensible

  1. rpg says:

    I despair at the very existence of CiF. The commenters alone, let alone the daftness of the vast majority of posts, make me determined never to read it again. Until the next time.

    About the only sensible thing published there recently (apart from your piece, of course) was Naomi talking about vaginas.

    • Laurence Cox says:

      I don’t think that CiF is any worse than the rest of the online world (OT excepted of course). Some of the problems come from the journos, particularly the headline writers and the people who pick the pictures for the online edition. I really cannot understand why the online version didn’t use the same picture as the print version (unless it’s a case of ageism).

      As for the EU and their taster video, complain to your MP/MEP. It is right to question why the EU spent money on this rubbish.

  2. Spamlet says:

    I know it’s tempting to look at the comments that follow any CiF piece, but really you should try not to. They seem mostly to come from people with nothing better to do than attack the Guardian, however reasonable and worthy the piece.

    On the wider topic of careers in science, I think successful academics, and, indeed, the media, all seem to assume that studying science leads to a good career. Well, it may do, for those who get their degrees and doctorates – from good establishments at that -, but not everyone who is interested in science makes it that far. For those who don’t, there are few decent options, and you can end up treated as the lowest of the low, doing soul destroying work, in quality control or as a lab tech, for peanuts and with precious little job security. I wasted half my life because of my interest in science – and am probably still doing so as I read your blog and write this. Perhaps young women are simply more perspicacious than I was at their age, and know not to waste their time unless they think they really have a good chance of being the next Alice Roberts or Athene Donald?

    And FYI, I notice I am following 4 female and 2 male scientists on Twitter, so women are doing fairly well in my readings at least;-) You might like to look into ratios among the twitterati perhaps?

  3. Mary Beard says:

    I know what you mean. In one way it is really great to get instant comments from something you write in a paper… and I have had some wonderful, supportive and/or seriously critical ones. There are also the rants. The ones I really hate are those that lay into me on classics as if I was utterly ignorant and an airhead who hadnt got the foggiest clue what she was talking about. When I write about Classics of course there is often room for disagreement (how not).. but the idea that I just dont remotely know my stuff (“does she know that…”, “how can hacks get away with such rubbish”, “someone should give Beard a Latin lesson”).. errr? I have been tempted on occasion to reply “Excuse me, who’s the Professor of Classics around here…?”, but have resisted!
    But keep it up Athene.. it is worth doing nevertheless!

  4. rpg says:

    “Excuse me, who’s the Professor of Classics around here…?”,

    Please please please don’t resist any longer!

  5. Owen says:

    Do they let you provide your own hyperlinks for the web version of the story?

  6. I think spamlet has a point about the general problem of careers in science, which we have debated often around here. Of the people I know who’ve done science degrees and even PhDs, the ones who have been the most successful financially and career-wise are mostly the ones who left research, and frequently left science altogether, to do something else. So it is hard to argue that it is a great career in terms of rewards, other than (possibly) being allowed to pursue the things in research that interest you. But, as we’ve said, few make it that far, if we are talking about the much-sought-after “Principal Investigator’ post.

    Also, and perhaps relevant en passant to the CiF problem – if one looks just at academics, I’d say that their social status in the UK is far lower than in most of Europe. My other half, who is German, is fond of remarking that the academic high school (Gymnasium) teachers in her native Bavaria enjoy far more respect than University Professors do here.

  7. cromercrox says:

    Ah, comments. I have a friend – a journalist and published author of at least one well-respected scholarly tome, who is as gentle, cultured, thoughtful and liberal as you can imagine. Due to various circumstances which are not really mine to divulge, my friend ended up being the online comment moderator for the Daily Mail.

    Dante Schmante.

  8. Paul says:

    Many of those who comment on such forums simply enjoy looking for things to criticise (and so should probably be ignored as I don’t think they are a representative sample of general/popular opinion). However, there are perhaps other lessons in how, when restricted for words, the message you hope to portray is not necessarily the one taken by the reader. I have to admit I was a little surprised and disappointed by your unqualified description of male academics as “aggressive men with one-track minds”. The context of the article also meant that your description of problems with the “ordeal” of a PhD came across as something that was a specific turn-off for women and not something that can be a general turn-off irrespective of gender. I enjoy reading your blog posts which are free of journalistic-constraints such as column inches!

  9. Dave Paisley says:

    There’s an interesting comment on CiF that I saw in skimming through. A parent of a girl noted that his daughter had to choose between languages and science in school. If I recall back to the dim, dark past of my secondary school years, that would be around age 15/fourth form or year 9 is it now? (Sorry – been gone from the UK a long time now – only get glimpses of the system through nieces & nephews etc.) His point was, if she hadn’t been forced to choose she would/could have succeeded at both.

    In the sixites, IIRC, I was forced to choose between French and Chemistry, History and Biology and some other equally bizarre options. In the end, that’s a poor age to start making those kinds of forced choices. And in general, boys avoided languages and girls liked them. Interesting to look at it that way round.

    The US system veers to the other extreme – high school classes are pretty much a la carte – students choose which classes they want to do. The problem with that is that advising is poor, so if a student chooses not to take the harder math & science classes early on (and let’s face it, how many average teenagers volunteer for the extra hard stuff?) it can be impossible to qualify for science and engineering degree programs when they are applying to colleges.

    These are some structural problems that might bear looking into.

  10. Laurence – I tweeted (along with many others) the EU Chief Scientific Advisor, Anne Glover rather than my MP. The video has now been removed, and they seem to be constructing a list of #realwomenofscience through twitter, although whether that will go onto the website so that girls can see how many of us there are isn’t yet clear.

    Mary – I would agree with rpg and say ‘go for it’ next time the airhead line is applied to you. But, more seriously, I am curious to know whether we, as women, are more likely to be assumed to be dim, uninformed, uneducated etc than our male colleagues. Any males out there like to comment on whether they have been similarly ‘patronised’ on CIF or other similar sites?

    Owen – Yes I supplied my own links. I chose which links to put in, and sent them 2 versions of my piece with and without links (they didn’t suggest I did this, but it did seem sensible).

    Paul – yes, this post was partly an an admission I hadn’t done as good a job as I could have done. The fact that I hadn’t been mulling it over for several days (which typically I do with blogposts) before I started writing probably also contributed. However, the questions in the first paragraph were meant to be just that, questions, not a blanket statement about the evils of male academics. If women have bad experiences from someone being aggressive, it will colour their picture undoubtedly, but lots of women won’t have been subjected to that. Clearly that was a nuance that got lost, just as with the PhD quote, as I indicated above.

    Dave – you are right that the English system causes exactly this problem, but the Scottish Highers system make it much easier to keep a breadth of subjects going longer. It is for that reason that the Royal Society came out in favour of revisiting A levels and thinking about something more like a Baccalaureate of the kind much of Europe has when it launched its final State of the Nation Report last year (concerning the transfer to higher education from school), a report which I fronted as Chair of their Education Committee. You may want to look at the full report and the accompanying press coverage e.g. here.

    • Austin says:

      Agreed about the problems of subject concentration at A level, which is certainly one of the things Europeans that live in the UK often comment adversely on.

      I think one of the (perhaps lesser known) advantages of private school education in the UK (at least when I was at school in the late 70s) was that they made it possible for you to ‘maintain breadth’ post-16 by doing extra ‘option’ subjects in the 6th form. So we did only three A-levels, but also did three further subjects at 2 lessons/wk each. In my own case, doing Maths, Chemistry and German as my A levels, I did Computer Programming, ‘post-O-level’ French, and basic Russian as my 2 hr/wk options.

  11. Dave Paisley says:

    That EU video was jaw-droppingly, amazingly bad. It’s like they hired an 80’s music video director and told him to squeeze in a little science.

    It’s so bad that if you wanted to parody it you couldn’t because, well, there is nowhere to go from there.

  12. Dave Paisley says:

    I see that the video is pulled from the EU site, replaced with something that looks like it could have been clipped out of a BBC2 documentary that aired at 1 am…

    Interesting, though, that the picture for the link is still a shot from the original video (one of the girls writing on the transparent board).

  13. Athene,

    Regarding that gobsmackingly awful European Commission video to which you refer at the end of your post – and which, as you predicted, was pulled rather quickly – my colleague Meghan Gray has posted a great riposte: Science, It’s a Girl Thing – Fail . (I should mention that the video was filmed, edited, and uploaded by Brady Haran ).

  14. Cromercrox says:

    Vagina! Vagina! Vagina!

    There. I’ve said it.

    I feel better now.

  15. Mike says:

    Perhaps the piece just wasn’t very good or well written.

    Blowing your on trumpet about how well Cambridge is doing by appointing you as equality champion is likely to get the commenters backs up for a start. And then there’s the L’Oreal Women in Science Fellowships. Did you mention that you chair the jury? Oh, you did.

    Couple those with vague gender-based generalizations like “Along the way, the choices women make may lead them in different directions from male colleagues” (which would be described as “sexist” if they were applied to the detriment of women rather than in their favour), and sloppily throwing around words like “macho” (which most dictionaries define along the lines of “showing aggressive pride in one’s masculinity,” not in-line with your attempts to justify your way out of it being a negtively sexist adjective), and, not surprisingly, you will get a reaction out of the green-ink comment brigade.

  16. Jon says:

    This blog post is very interesting as an account of an academic’s foray into public engagement. Like them or loathe them, the below-the-line comments on CiF represent “public engagement” – a discussion prompted by your communication above the line. And that, we are told, is apparently a good and worthwhile thing.

    “people got waylaid into what strikes me as an irrelevant discussion”

    Engagement is a two-way process, not just one-way communication, and that two-way process means that those initiating the interaction also learn about what people think by listening to them. You might not agree with them, but at least you can reflect on their views before dismissing them as “irrelevant”.

    The comments also represent a discussion among the audience, which can develop into different areas – they don’t have to follow your agenda. It becomes as much a conversation among audience members, prompted by your piece, as a series of feedback comments on your piece.

  17. Hi Athene

    I have just found this blog having heard your interesting comments on ‘Something Understood’ this morning, and was particularly pleased to find this posting about your experiences on CiF. I have published quite a few articles on CiF in the last year and can very much relate to your experiences. The article are at http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/guillam-peter

    CiF is a strange forum in that one might imagine it to be similar to the Guardian itself in the sense of expecting that commenters will be to some degree in tune with some version of the progressive or liberal-left values which characterise its editorial line (in the same way that commenters on the Mail or Telegraph sites are usually pretty much in step with the editorial line of those newspapers). This is very far from the case, and the bulk of those who comment ‘below the line’ are actually extremely hostile to ‘Guardian values’. I am not sure how this has come about. At one stage there seemed to be a semi-organised campaign against Polly Toynbee, in particular, and it may have spread from there. It may also be because the interface is very easy to use compared with other newspapers. At all events, it makes for a large disjuncture between the ATL articles and the BTL comments with at least some commenters clearly animated solely by a visceral hatred of everything vaguely progressive, and use CiF as a forum to vent their bile.

    When I started writing ATL this did not surprise me, as I had been a BTL poster for some years so knew what to expect. Even so, it is extraordinary to experience the sheer hostility of some of the comments. Whilst the moderators remove comments which are personally insulting or obscene, that still leaves the kind of arrogant, condescending and dismissive posts that you refer to. Often posters will sieze on one word – and often in the headline which of course as you say is the one part of the article you don’t write – and analyze it to death. Many seem unable to understand that a short article will necessarily be highly simplified. Others simply start from the assumption that the author is stupid, mendacious and ill-inentioned. Of course there is no problem with people disagreeing – that’s the point of an online debate – but the sheer weight of nastiness and uncharitableness is wearing and even intimidating. On some threads, you get good support from other posters, on other occasions it can be a very lonely business.

    My way of dealing with this is two-fold. First, I don’t use my real name, and that does at least mean I don’t get some of the stranger characters contacting me ‘in real life’. But secondly, I respond as much as I possibly can to the comments made BTL, and in particular go out of my way to take on the nastier of the posters and challenge them. Often they either do not even try to justify themselves or are so lacking in coherent arguments that they can easily be exposed. And, occasionally, it even leads to an interesting debate. However, this is extremely time-consuming and so may be impractical for everyone, and it can also be very emotionally draining.

    Anyway, I suppose my main point is that what you experienced should not be taken too personally in that it is something about the nature of the CiF forum – especially on threads related to gender, although anything related to immigration is even more vitriolic – and I hope will not deter you from writing there again.

    Regards,
    PG

  18. Peter (G) Thanks for those thoughtful comments, which I find encouraging. If I’m ever asked again I suspect I would risk doing it again, but I would hope to get more time to think in advance about the precise ‘pitch’. As you say, it is strange how CIF commenters do seem to differ from what one thinks Guardian readers are like. But that’s just another example of stereotyping/unconscious bias about which I have written not infrequently on this blog (by the way, I don’t know if you found the ‘impostor syndrome blogs , but they are here and here to save you wading through a couple of years of musings). As for responding to the comments, I felt I would have been too intemperate and merely propagated the bile deluge further. I find it hard enough to keep up with comments on my blog anyhow; to do it with 300+comments on CIF would have destroyed my week’s schedule completely.

    Jon I understand what you are saying about not dismissing comments but I stick by what I said. The discussion of master’s/PhD progression was irrelevant to the thrust of my piece. It may be an excellent opportuntity for individuals to glean information they cannot otherwise easily get hold of , to share experiences and understand a bit more about academia. That is obviously a potentially constructive side-effect of what I wrote, and I’m happy that my piece activates productive ‘public engagement’ in that way, if that’s what it was. But nevertheless it was irrelevant to me and the discussion of scientific culture, which was why I said what I did.

    Mike You may not like me blowing my own trumpet. I can’t say I particularly like it either. However, for CIF – where I am a complete unknown – putting in some context about why I have some credentials on the topic, and why I feel moderately optimistic that things may change because good stuff is going on, for instance in my own university, was something I consciously did. Proving I had credentials obviously backfired since certain people clearly still felt I was an inexperienced, ill-informed journalist. As Mary Beard said above, that seems par for the course (and she is of course a great deal better known than I am in the media). And now you tell me it just got your goat (I assume both that you know who I am in the academic sphere, and I know who you are, although you have chosen to hide behind not giving your full name). Clearly I can’t win – hardly surprising when putting one’s head above the parapet on a topic which people feel strongly about from both sides. However, I am not budging from my definition of macho. As I said in this post, this is the way I use it consistently – and I have done so previously as I linked to. I am far from alone in trying to distinguish a ‘male’ way of doing things from a ‘macho’ one. If I had used the word male you would be right to object. I did not. But, it is the title that screamed the word – which was not of my construction – not my piece in any case.

    Henry A|e you trying to get me to act like your Daily Mail moderator friend? You may feel better, but your comment is another ‘irrelevant’ thread!

  19. Jon says:

    Incidentally, I don’t think the Alice Roberts point (although tangential) was irrelevant. Your article focused on barriers that women face specifically in a research career, as you usefully covered issues at PhD and beyond in academic institutions.

    Alice has a PhD, followed by a successful career in science communication. But are women under-represented in that area? On TV, we have Alice, Charlotte Uhlenbroek, Kathy Sykes, Tooni Mahto, and others. A browse through the bylines of New Scientist etc also shows plenty of female science communicators working in print.

    Where we seem to be wasting talent is among those pursuing a research career, where the typical metrics for advancement and somtimes general culture are often not supportive of anyone having a career break / other demands (regardless of gender; I had a break in my research career to pursue other opportunities, and it was hell getting going again).

    So for women facing PhD-and-beyond barriers in a research career, Alice is perhaps not a great example (contrary to the photo caption, which I appreciate you did not write) – you yourself would be better! The issue of encouraging girls at school to consider science is broader; in that context, of course Alice offers a “role model”.

  20. Mike says:

    I don’t think our paths have crossed before, so you are mistaken in your belief that I am someone you know.

    Use the word “macho” in any way you choose, but don’t be surprised if your audience is unaware that you have arbitrarily redefined it and reacts against it accordingly.

  21. Hi Athene

    Thanks for your reply. Yes, I agree, it is incredibly time-consuming to engage in the BTL debate. You were obviously asked to write something at short notice, whereas I have submitted pieces and agreed a publication date timed for a day (usually the bulk of the comments come in the first 24 hours) when I can make time to deal with them. Yes, it’s difficult to know whether responding inflames the bile but my experience for what it is worth is that it can draw the sting: many of the posters are simply unused to being challenged by the author, and the bullies tend to duck out if you take them on. It also tends to be appreciated even by people who disagree with you. But it can also result in long, drawn out conversations which can be exhausting and uninteresting, and once you have gone down the route of debating it is hard to disengage, so I’m certainly not saying that it is pain-free process. Anyway, I do hope that you will write for CiF again (and, again, my limited experience is that having done one piece you don’t need to wait to be invited, you can just pitch another piece when you feel like it).

    Regards

    PG

  22. Tiffany Wood says:

    Hi Athene,

    I tried to comment on your article but I was too late so I’m glad to have a chance to comment here – I thank you for taking the time to write the article and generate a discussion on it.

    The major issue for me is the ratio of pay in science to the cost of childcare – I spend all of my salary on childcare and petrol to get to work. I wonder whether I am sensible pursuing a scientific career, leaving the care of my 1 and 3 year olds in the hands of others when the family would be better off financially if I stayed at home.

    It is frustrating given the fact that any scientific career is a continual learning experience and a considerable amount of knowledge and skills are lost if women leave science at the point they have children.

    The real question in – can the pay in science be improved? Something is wrong with the system when 3 of my brothers-in-law are each paid twice my salary to sort out paperwork for PIP insurance complaints. Why are understanding and innovation valued so low?

    Tiffany

  23. BB says:

    I think it is like student feedback on your lectures…..when some of them are saying ‘too fast’ and some ‘too slow’ then you are doing as well as can be done.

    In this case you have both comments saying you are uninformed and also comments saying you have over blown your qualifications, hence you are doing as well as can be done.

    I also found the comments along the lines of ‘yeah well, science is supposed to be tough, getting a PhD is supposed to be painful’ particularly telling.

    Although I will admit to some soul searching around writing up time, the majority experience of my PhD was one of enjoying discovery. I think if you found your PhD tough and painful then maybe you were doing it wrong…or possibly in the wrong group/department.

  24. BB – I appreciate your comments, especially about your PhD experience! You are probably right about the commenters too, so thanks for that encouragement.

    Jon – I didn’t mean to imply the discussion of Alice Roberts was irrelevant, simply the digression into what the correct path into a PhD is (via masters or not).

    Tiffany – there is no doubt that many financial/managementjobs seem much better paid than science. I think that is because too many people now believe we are a service economy and those sorts of jobs should be regarded (and paid) accordingly. Not very smart given the state of the economy now, but BIS etc seem reluctant to go the whole hog and really create an innovation economy, or revitalise investment in science in industry (for a useful discussion of some of this you might enjoy reading this).

  25. Hi Athene

    I enjoyed reading this, and seeing how Cif looks from another perspective.

    Like PeterGuillaum (Hi PG!) I’m an old hand at Cif both above and below the line, and agree with pretty much everything he says.

    It’s a mistake to think of Cif as being a constructive discussion. It’s a highly competitive, sometimes brutal gladiatorial contest. Many of the commenters see it as their role to pick out the flaws in the argument, so they’ll look for a weak spot, poke at it, try to open a wound and then the pack will smell blood and move in for the kill.

    That can be one falsifiable ‘fact’ or statistic, or it can be one poorly drafted sentence or ill-chosen word (eg ‘macho’).

    The effect of that can be quite hard work and draining, occasionally soul-destroying, but once you understand what is going on it is quite a challenging discipline. It forces you to consider carefully the case you are making and how your presentation of it will be perceived by others. Whether you’re a scientist, science communicator, blogger or journalist, I think that is quite a rewarding and useful experience.

    I was involved in your thread (don’t think I said anything mean to you, thankfully!) and believe it or not, that was actually one of the good ones. There were a few completely batty wingnuts, a few very well-informed contributors (on both sides of the debate) and plenty of reasonable points raised. You also had one genuinely funny (in my humble opinion) troll, taking the mickey in quite an amusing and gentle way. That’s a pretty good balance for CiF. You should see some of the threads about gender issues, they can be total bloodbaths in comparison!

    If you’re to do CiF again (and I very much hope you will) the one bit of advice I’d offer is to engage with the thread. As early as you can, get in with a quick hello and something like “thanks for your interesting comments everyone, will be interested to see what others have to say” , just to let people know you are reading. Then if you can find time, respond to one or two of the posts. Not necessarily the crazies, but pick out one or two intelligent critics and talk to them, even if it is just a brief “well, you raise a good point, but don’t you think…”

    Commenters on Cif want to be noticed, and it is a nice thing when authors reply to your comments, it makes it feel worthwhile – that your point has been noticed and taken on board.

    Authors who do that tend to get a lot more respect, and also people talk to them more politely in the hope that they might get a reply from you too.

    If you can get in a few comments on the first page or two, 9 times out of 10 the rest of the thread will be much more polite and constructive.

    Oh, and just in defence of the Guardian staff for a mo – CiF articles (unlike the print edition) always have a photo at the top, and it is never a photo of the author. If you write about someone prominent or famous, they’ll normally use a photo of him/her from their files. If you don’t, they’ll dig out some stock image. Since you were wrote about Alice Roberts, I don’t think it is in any way unreasonable that they used her photo – although I don’t doubt the fact that she’s pleasant on the eye helped to sway their choice!

  26. Jon says:

    Hi Athene – thanks for responding. Just one further query – if you “didn’t mean to imply the discussion of Alice Roberts was irrelevant”, why does the text of your blog post here say: “Finally, people got waylaid into what strikes me as an irrelevant discussion as to whether Professor Alice Roberts – whom I’d identified as one possible very visible role model for girls contemplating entering science – was a real scientist”? That’s what prompted my comment; honestly not being pedantic, but interested in what you think!

    • Sorry Jon, trying to deal with comments too fast and getting myself confused as to which bits of the comment thread were ‘irrelevant’. The reason I didn’t feel it was pertinent, was because Alice Roberts undoubtedly is a trained scientist. I think there is a danger in dismissing her credentials because she is no longer primarily doing research. If children believe fronting a TV programme is a reasonable career aspiration after doing a science degree, I may think the odds of fulfilling their dream may be low, but I don’t think it is a reason for or against doing science at university. So, in terms of putting girls off due to the culture I don’t see that her current role is really relevant. I have no reason to believe she opted out of bench science because of the culture, so much as because of the opportunities that were offered her.

  27. Abbie says:

    Hi Athene – I read your article with interest and was too deeply depressed by some of the comments.

    One point that I picked up that was a positive was that most people felt that women were well represented in science at school level. I agree, I myself had a female chemistry teacher at A-level and certainly wasn’t put off at this stage from pursuing a scientific career.

    If we take my own field of chemistry, we see roughly 50:50 female to male ratio for undergraduates that is more or less continued up to post doc level. It is at this point that something appears to happen and the ratio of female to male permanent members of academic staff drops dramatically. In my own department this is roughly 4 in ~40.

    So what is it that prevents women from making the move from post doc to academic? We obviously have some very talented female post docs out there that have the drive, ambition, and talent to pursue an academic career but somewhere it goes horribly wrong. Perhaps the Science: it’s a girl thing! project would be better placed by trying to address these issues rather than try to fix a problem (badly) that doesn’t exist?

  28. The final line implies a net contribution of the UK to structural funds of £20bn but taken alone that’s a rather meaningless figure without seeing the UK’s net contribution to agriculture, foreign aid etc.