When I was in the penultimate year of high school, at that point where you need to think about universities, all six of the girls in my physics class got a flyer advertising “girl days” at technical universities, during which we could visit and look around without any boys present.
I instantly decided I did not want to attend either the “girl days” in particular, or their universities as a whole. I was offended that someone thought I needed to be treated differently.
I don’t know if this early offense was the cause of it, or just another manifestation of the same thing, but I always get antsy when I see “women in science” features. Ultimately I just don’t want there to even be a reason to have to produce these things. However, in the past few years I have heard stories of women who were not taken seriously at work, who were bullied out of a job, or simply forgotten. So I can see that it’s necessary to do things. I just question what the point is of always showing examples of women in particular careers in the hopes of – what exactly?
So-and-so has a career AND a family – isn’t she amazing? And here’s another feature about how unfair the salary imbalance is. And, I know, let’s hold a panel discussion with four women who barely have time for this because they’re also the token women on every other panel, every committee, and every editorial board. They can talk about how they’re “doing it all”, where “all” is mainly sitting on panels talking about this sort of thing.
And I’m made to feel like I should read all the features and join in the discussion and spend another good portion of my time supporting other women in science, but just like when I was seventeen I don’t WANT to go to “girl days” or talk about women in science. I just want to do my actual work.
That being said, there are two recent initiatives to improve female representation in the science and tech world, and unlike the well-meant flyers and features and endless discussions, I think these two things might actually change something. For the first time since my first encounter with gender issues in science, way back in high school, I did not cringe at “women in science” initiatives. I actually like these ideas, and that’s pretty high praise coming from me!
1. The panel pledge
Proposed by Rebecca Rosen in an Atlantic piece, this amazingly simple idea is already changing the composition of conference panels. Men who have taken this pledge have promised that when they’re invited to speak at a conference or on a panel, they will only accept if there is at least one female speaker.
It’s a brilliant mechanism that uses the voice of men who notice a lack of women, and who are in a position to change that. They can put the pressure on organisers to invite women at a stage where the programme is still being made, which is much more effective than people complaining afterward that they were left out. It’s also a friendly way to remind organisers that they may have overlooked someone.
Since hearing about this, I’ve also made a point of thinking about who I recommend for panels or include in lists of scientists. So far I haven’t caught myself leaving out any women, but if I accidentally do, I’ll be aware of it, and will think a bit further before finalizing my list. I’m also trying not to recommend the usual suspects. There are more women in science than the two or three that always step up.
2. The Finkbeiner test
Ann Finkbeiner proposed to write about a female scientist and not once mention the fact that she is a woman. This idea was expanded by Christie Aschwanden to the “Finkbeiner test”, which you can use to analyse any piece of writing about a woman in science.
“To pass the Finkbeiner test, the story cannot mention
- The fact that she’s a woman
- Her husband’s job
- Her child care arrangements
- How she nurtures her underlings
- How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
- How she’s such a role model for other women
- How she’s the “first woman to…”
I like this one because it addresses exactly the things I dislike so much about open house days for girls only or feature articles about women in science. There is no reason to write about women in science any differently than about men in science. It’s exactly that tone, that “look how much she can do! She’s so special!”-attitude that irks me about those features, and that made me avoid particular universities when as a high school student I had to make important choices about my own future in science.
Together, these two ideas say: Treat scientists all the same, regardless of their gender, but be aware that there is more than one gender when looking for representative groups of experts.