Where are all the damn women?

I was lucky enough to get tickets to BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions a few weeks ago held in St. Peter’s College (Oxford) chapel. It was a great atmosphere, if you ever get the chance to get tickets to such an event, go, it’s great. The panel consisted of 4 people, 1 female the other 3 male. While Any Questions might have a dearth of scientists on their panels (you can sign Martin Robbin’s petition here)- I find they are pretty well balanced in the male-to-female ratio department. Then they picked the questioners out of submitted audience questions. They selected 10 people. 9 men, 1 woman (the audience distribution was a bit more balanced). Unconscious bias? or just the nature of the questions? Impossible to tell.

I watched Brian Cox’s the Science of Dr Who yesterday. Which was actually quite interesting. Prof. Cox called on several volunteers during the course of his show. None of them were women. Unconscious bias or just no women available? Impossible to tell.

I had a conversation with a female colleague this week, she obtained her PhD (in Chemistry) a good 20 before I did. When she first went to University, she said there were very few women professors but that didn’t bother her, her generation was much more equal – so she figured it would slowly change. But it hasn’t. Bias – unconscious or otherwise? It’s impossible to tell.

I don’t want to be known as a “women in science”. The scientific queries I choose to pursue have nothing whatsoever to do with what gender I am. Zip. Nothing, Nada. Having an opportunity to do science might do, but I can’t tell because I have a job in science. I don’t feel particularly discriminated against for being a female, personally, I don’t think I ever have felt that way. I certainly have had people say stupid things to me in many jobs I have had, but who hasn’t? This happens to men as often as women – you don’t have to be female to be discriminated against or be bullied. It happens to everyone (sadly).

But where are all the women? My fellow Occam’s Typist, Athene Donald blogs about this issue, thoughtfully, often. My friend Professor Polly Arnold produced a great document (and film) about this issue. They are to name two examples of many who think/write/hope about this issue. But it’s hard to see how things are actually going to get better until we do something more drastic. Gradually doesn’t seem to be working. Targeting institutions is hard because they are institutions not people (not that the tireless work by some to do just this isn’t effective and to be applauded, it’s just a hard thing to do!)

It’s not about promoting women just because they are women – I would never in my right mind have voted for Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth Dole or Sarah Palin, as I can’t abide their politics. It’s not about hiring someone that isn’t really qualified just because their gender, race, whatever is under-represented.

But still, where are all the damn women? People like Brian Cox should strive to put them on TV, after all they don’t have to be scientists for shows like The Science of Doctor Who – Charles Dance isn’t one and he was a ‘volunteer’ in Cox’s show. The Any Questions panel can pick women just as easily as men. They can say OK, right, – 5 questions from men, 5 from women. It can’t be that hard. Otherwise little girls might, just might, be left thinking … where are all the girls?

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @girlinterruptin
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6 Responses to Where are all the damn women?

  1. Sadly all too true. Regarding the recent Brian Cox programme, over Twitter it was said (by his wife) that women had been approached for this and earlier programmes but, for whatever reason, they fall by the wayside before transmission. Sometimes it seems women just don’t want to stand up and be counted. But then, if the culture of the programme is ‘laddish’ maybe that isn’t so surprising (less true of Question Time than Science Club I’d say).

    • If women dropped out, why didn’t they just replace them with more women? eg Charles Dance is an actor – why not pick another female actor? I am sure that happens, I wouldn’t want to be on TV – but then I think well this is the thing people have said for years about not asking women – ‘oh they wouldn’t fit in’, ‘ we couldn’t find any’ and in many senses that is probably fair but maybe we have to look harder …. on a case by case basis?

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    I think that as far as appearing in the media is concerned, women scientists face two disadvantages: sex and age. There seems to be a tendency, particularly on TV, to pick young women as presenters, but also to drop women presenters at a much younger age than their male counterparts. As scientists rarely develop their reputations with the public at large until middle age at the earliest, this could be why we see so few female scientists. And even when the BBC decide to replace a long-standing (male) presenter of a flagship gardening programme (The Chelsea Flower Show) with a female presenter who do they choose: not an experienced gardener and outstanding presenter on Gardener’s World (Carol Klein or Rachel de Thame), but the autocutie Sohpie Raworth who admits to knowing nothing about gardening. Enough said.

    • that actually makes me sad- though I think it’s getting somewhat better, at least I have seen a few films lately where the actresses aren’t all *perfect* by holywood standards but still aren’t jokes – if you see what i mean …. maybe not – it is sad though…

  3. Kaye says:

    In reply to Athene’s comment, Dara O’Briain’s Science club featured an impressive number of women scientists and presenters. From memory it was a high proportion of the total. I didn’t find it particularly “laddish” either but that’s probably just me! I’m a woman who enjoys science programmes, and works in science, both of which seem to be percieved as “laddish” by the general population

    In reply to Laurence, it’s not really fair to dismiss Sophie Raworth, a professional journalist and broadcaster, as an “autocutie” – but I get the point you were making :-)

  4. Kaye says:

    Sylvia, I enjoyed the post by the way!