Words and Images

As my last post said, I have been sitting on a lot of committees recently and consequently reading a lot of references. I am pleased to observe that it has been the men round the table who have been complaining about the gendered tone of some of these letters, picking up both when a referee envisages a job in a very masculine way and so complains if some woman operates in a different way (stereotypically with more of a collaborative than lone hero style), or when different standards for men and women are used. In this latter case, for instance, it was noted that the women were referred to by what they hadn’t done, whereas for the men it was consistently what they had achieved. These differences are quite subtle in their tone and I was delighted to note how the men around the table (and this particular committee had not had specific unconscious bias training so they had picked up these skills elsewhere) got quite angry about some of the referees’ failings. This is definitely progress. And, since there were far more men than women round the table I was encouraged to find it wasn’t the women who had to speak out. It is everyone’s problem if the best individual is disadvantaged by the application of stereotypes or a subtle marking down in ways the referee themselves were not necessarily consciously intending.

The trouble, however, remains that negative tones stick in the mind. If someone (OK, a woman) is described as feisty, for example, it is very easy to read that as ‘trouble’. The second thought may be, it’s not a word you’d use about a man, but the third thought may still be, ‘but would it be risky to employ this person?. Once you’ve heard that word, how do you strike it from the record, as a court of law might require. It’s lodged in the brain and hard to ignore. If the letter is sufficiently blatantly sexist or unacceptably rude, suggesting some long-running feud between groups perhaps, then it is easy to say such a letter should be cast aside. The less dramatic the damning, the more pernicious the effect, I suspect.

I don’t know what the answer to this conundrum is, other than trying to ensure that the referees themselves get exposed to unconscious bias training. Maybe that the url’s for those sites which try to identify the gendering of words used should be more widely disseminated so that people at least think before they type some dubious word, such as feisty (see here for some guidelines). I know I have become much more cautious in what adjectives I use, trying to be clear that if I say someone is a team player I also stress their independence, or noting that someone who is good with people is also brilliant and a game changer. Many of the words used stereotypically about women are good words, in that they describe traits of people we would tend to want to have around us, but if the words search committees look for are more likely to be those of quite self-centred but smart people we have to make sure we emphasise the smart even if we don’t lose the niceness in our descriptions.

Raising awareness that women can be scientists (and more specifically physicists in the particular cases I’ve recently been involved with) by imagery is another aspect of the march towards a level playing field. Or maybe I should say the slow crawl in that direction. Although I fear this is a sad reflection on my own progress towards ‘old fartdom’, I have been involved with two unveilings of representations of women in the last couple of weeks.

First up was the unveiling of a portrait of Gillian Gehring in Sheffield. When Gillian was appointed a professor of physics at Sheffield University in 1989 she became only the second woman to attain that rank, the first being Daphne Jackson at Surrey (in my turn, I was the seventh). I remember her elevation, although I had at that time never met her, because my mentor Sam Edwards made a point of drawing it to my attention, along with the fact that she was a mother too. Given that at that time I had just returned from my second period of maternity leave the point was well made. It clearly left its mark because all these years later, when asked to say a few words about Gillian before the actual unveiling, that was the story that came to mind. She has undoubtedly been a role model to many and no doubt will continue to be so as her portrait hangs prominently in Firth Hall in the University. Hers will be the first portrait of a woman in this central space within the University; it is to be hoped it will soon be joined by others and by a more contemporaneous and welcome feel than perhaps that generated by men of distinction from an earlier age.

The second unveiling was of a terracotta bust of the astrophysicist Lucie Green at an event on ‘Women writing science‘ at the Royal Society. (In the end the sculptor, Marcus Cornish, wanted to do the unveiling himself to protect the bust, so I merely read the eulogy.) When asked why he chose Lucie, Marcus said he was inspired by the story of Clytie from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. As the myth goes, Clytie, who loved Apollo, god of the Sun, was turned to a sunflower, which was forever changing, following the Sun’s passage in the sky. The sculpture is based on this story, and Lucy’s passion for studying the sun. In her hands are gold sunflower seeds, which represent the legacy of her involvement in science communication, and passing on what she has learned, inspiring and educating others.

It is a striking story and a striking piece of art that is intended to be prominently displayed near Reception at the Royal Society, along with the other 3 busts of female scientists that they already possess: Miriam Rothschild, Mary Somerville and Elsie Widdowson if I recall correctly (and which don’t seem currently to be on display). These are part of the plans for the revamping of imagery that has been talked about for too long without visible changes occurring. Diversity at the Royal Society will soon be led by Uta Frith, who will be chairing a reconstituted Diversity Committee, so I am confident it is in good hands.

Finally, it is perhaps worth highlighting the film that I had to sit and watch at this event on the big screen in the main lecture theatre at the Royal Society, starring Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and (ahem) me. Sarah-Jayne and I were filmed as part of the celebrations surrounding the 350th Anniversary of the first publication of Philosophical Transactions (aka Phil Trans), the first scientific publication in the world and one that the Royal Society’s President Paul Nurse has said changed the world of science as much as any discovery. She and I talk about women who published in Phil Trans but weren’t FRSs, focussing on Hertha Ayrton  and Alice Lee at the start of the twentieth century. To find out more watch the film!

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5 Responses to Words and Images

  1. Sarah says:

    http://tomforth.co.uk/genderbias/ is a website where you an analyse letters of recommendation for gender bias, in terms of word use. Obviously there are more subtleties as pointed out above, and “feisty” isn’t on the list.

  2. Claire_M says:

    This is interesting thank you – how do you consider it to fit with the Cuddy, Glick and Fiske research that suggests that women need to seem stereotypically female to be likeable enough to hire, but if they are stereotypically female enough to be likeable then they are not competent?


    • I wasn’t familiar with this work. A quick glance at it suggests it is looking at the general population. My suspicion would be that likeability may be less factored in in academia than elsewhere, although I am sure the basic idea will feed into unconscious bias. My specific concern here was with the letters of reference rather than the interview process. I think this is,however, a very double-edged sword for women and not just in hiring but once they are in post. If you speak out as a woman you may be disadvantged; if you don’t you certainly are.

      • Claire_M says:

        It’s looking at general population drawn from the US, was wondering whether it entered into the gendered language in letters of reference really, i.e. if the letter doesn’t have enough ‘female’ words in it then you don’t look hireable (on likeability grounds) and if it does then you don’t look hireable (on competence grounds).

        (There are other papers by these academics looking at the issue – picked the one above as no paywall and reasonably short – this one I think offers a better explanation DOI: 10.1111/0022-4537.00128)

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