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.
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…
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.
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.