Remembering the Women

This week Yasmin Alibahi-Brown wrote a piece in the Independent entitled ‘This is still a man’s world’

She said

At every level, still, even in the West, women are invisible, neglected, kept down, slighted, patronised, objectified, denied and demeaned in everyday life……we women can devalue ourselves and our sisters, often gamely playing along to avoid the dreaded “feminist” tag.

The occasion of her angst? That she had just taken part as panel member in a seminar about broadcast interviews, and during the session not a single woman’s name had been mentioned – including by her – until a woman from the audience explicitly drew attention to it.  In other words she found herself being sexist in the names she was putting forward, despite the plethora of good female role models she could have cited ranging from Martha Kearney to Jenni Murray.  Although the words I quote from her article seem overly dramatic to describe this situation, what she is saying is that somehow it is simply too easy for all of us – men and women alike – to overlook women. In the world of science, familiar examples would be conference (or seminar) programmes drawn up without a female speaker in the original list. People are now sufficiently conscious of this problem that often a second pass will be explicitly made in order to come up with some women’s names. And the absurd thing is when these names are mentioned the likelihood is that the relevant committee will then say ‘of course, how could we not have thought of her – and her, and her?’  A recent article in Nature highlights a similar problem when it comes to learned societies’ prizes and exhorts

‘Scientific societies must examine practices for selecting awardees.’

But somehow, time and time again, this same thing happens. What is it about our psyches that make both sexes fall into this trap of overlooking well-qualified women? The trouble is, when one thinks about it too hard it starts to reek of affirmative action/positive discrimination, the stuff I wrote about a little while ago as being inappropriate and, in the case of jobs. illegal in the UK, although it is not jobs that are being discussed here.  Because this is a sensitive issue, it is extremely difficult – at least for me, the more I think about it  – to know where to draw the line about when it is appropriate to ‘notice’ if the numbers of men and women are anything like equal (or rather, in proportion to the appropriate pool) or not.

How about this phrasing which offended at least two male heads of department on behalf of their female colleagues when a request was made by HR personnel about nominations for a senior committee and which they were keen to draw to my attention:

We are expected to have at least one, if not two, women on the sub committee and therefore would you please take this into consideration.

Personally, that doesn’t offend me, but clearly the men felt that women should only be being nominated on the strength of their professional abilities, but at the same time of course women should be being nominated and it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with names.  They seemed to be more sensitive on my gender’s behalf than I felt myself.  When an appropriate name was proposed, they got even more annoyed by the wording of the minute which said

We would also propose to nominate Professor X, in the interests of gender balance…’

And that does strike me as a singularly inappropriate way to record the decision, and it was going to be rewritten the last I heard.

This week I appeared on Radio 4’s Start the Week (more on this later) with three other guests all of whom were male: they were respectively a psychologist, a historian and an English scholar, whereas I was the physicist and (obviously) a female at that. Does it matter? Should I think, well at least they had one woman, or why didn’t they have two or – what I actually did think – which was it really doesn’t matter, it’s simply a fluctuation!  Going up an escalator in London en route to the studio I noticed a series of posters explaining that one of the escalators was being renovated, illustrated by series of images of ‘engineers’ (schematic) doing the sorts of things engineers do (at least when renovating escalators and as imagined by Transport for London): wield pick axes and drills and weld. There were, I would guess, 6 different images repeated up the escalator of which one (but only one) was obviously a woman. My first reaction was that this represented progress. Then I noticed that the woman was the one passively standing around with a clipboard and I wasn’t sure how much progress that really was. One can go round and round this loop of is this right or isn’t it?

At what point do things really matter? Because it is only at that point that it is worth drawing attention to any inequities that may be occurring – if they’re slight, then let it be, if they’re slights then make a fuss.  When women’s names are being unreasonably overlooked – in panel discussions, for plenary lectures or for committee membership – then we should press hard. We should also try to work out, for each and every one of us, why it is that women’s names don’t necessarily come to the fore despite there being – as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown berated herself – obvious and respected names that should trip off the tongue.  But we should not go for equal numbers simply for the sake of it or constantly beat ourselves up about it.

A media aside: I previously wrote about my media training  in advance of appearing on the Today programme when the Royal Society released its report ‘Preparing for the transfer from school and college science and mathematics education to UK STEM higher education’ last week. I duly got my three minutes on air and felt deeply appreciative that I had been so well prepared by the exhaustive/exhausting training I had been given. I came away from the interview with Sarah Montague feeling it hadn’t been anything like as challenging as the mock interviews I had been put through by the Royal Society, which was very reassuring.  I had practiced for the trick and trip-you-up questions, which didn’t come, and I had the necessary key facts pretty much at my fingertips and managed to fit at least most them into the allotted time.  My interview with Radio Scotland was rather longer (the Royal Society was applauding the Scottish system of Highers, as it keeps almost twice as many 16-19 year olds doing science as in England and Wales), but felt equally comfortable. Maybe it helped that I had no time for nerves due to the fact that the ‘remote’ – and consequently unmanned – studio booked for this latter interview was all but double booked so I hadn’t even had time to sit down before I was live on air – and immediately after that I was whisked straight up to the Today studio so still no time for nerves to overwhelm me.

However, one is never prepared for everything, and the Royal Society training was absolutely no help for appearing on Start the Week less than a week later and completely out of the blue. They had picked up I was giving a talk on ‘Alzheimer’s disease and yoghurt: a physicist’s exploration of proteins’ at the IOP at the end of March, and the title had tickled their fancy. The format of the programme is a structured conversation between four random individuals, and each is supposed to mug up something about the others. Consequently I was given two enormous tomes, one on poets of the Civil War (Reprobates by John Stubbs) and one on the 3000 year history of Jerusalem (by Simon Sebag Montefiore) to be read over a single weekend. This meant I really couldn’t do my homework properly; there simply wasn’t time to read both books, although we were helpfully told which chapters to read to get the gist of them (for the third guest, Simon Wessely, we merely had half a dozen pages of notes). All I could do was plan a few plausible questions I was comfortable asking when, in all truth, I felt so far out of my comfort zone as well as under-prepared in a way I never would have allowed myself for an exam. Andrew Marr as host, an impressive and experienced presenter, volunteered he found the programme far more challenging than his Sunday TV show when all he had to do was ‘poke politicians’. Start the Week, for him, was hard work.

I don’t think I should say too much about my fellow guests, but suffice it to say at least two of the others clearly shared my view of being outside their comfort zone (one actually complained about ‘how much more’ radio experience I had than him, as if it wasn’t fair), and the third guest spent most of the time fidgeting with what looked like a stress ball but I think was probably the foam top of a disintegrated microphone he had somehow acquired.  I am sure (perhaps I mean I hope) listeners will have thought we were all relaxed and totally confident about what we were doing – but they would have been wrong.

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18 Responses to Remembering the Women

  1. Jenny Koenig says:

    Out of interest, do you know what they gave the others to read up about you?

    • Yes, I asked to see this because I wasn’t sure how – after 2 long phone conversations with the researcher – they were presenting what I’d said. In particular how much they’d put in about the science and how they tied that in with the line they were keen I discussed – because it was generic enough – about science being creative. I was very impressed by how they’d distilled the conversations; a highly professional group of people at Start the Week clearly. Why do you ask?

      • Jenny Koenig says:

        Oh so it sounds quite generic then. I wondered if they might have been given something with lots of physics and been even more daunted by that. Am just listening to it now and you do all sound very relaxed!
        btw, I have written a comment on the Royal Society report on my blog and would be interested in any comments.

        • I take your point Jenny, but the numbers have still increased beyond the pre-2002 level in maths in the graph you include on your blog. The RS only gathered data over 2005, 2007 and 2009 A level entries, and the reality is that the numbers have recovered very substantially -following the crash in numbers you allude to earlier, and now exceeded the earlier plateau level. That is encouraging. However, that was not the main thrust of the report, which is concerned at least as much with the (lack of) breadth of subjexts the A level system permits, and the fact that students are oftne not well-informed about necessary combinations of subjects. We have to hope that the new careers’ service being rolled out from September 2011 helps students to make wise choices.

  2. rpg says:

    “the woman was the one passively standing around with a clipboard ”

    I’ve seen those ads, and I’d assumed she was the one in charge.

    Make of that what you will.

  3. cromercrox says:

    I’ve been a guest on ‘In Our Time’ with Melvyn Bragg twice. Both times the producer and a researcher phoned me up and pumped me at length for information in assiduous detail. So when Lord Bragg sounds so ridiculously well-informed about absolutely everything, it’s because he has a really thorough team behind him. I couldn’t resist adding this story because, you know, one has to name-drop don’t’cha know.

  4. j0ns1m0ns says:

    I know this is slightly tangential to the point of this post, but on Radio 4 very early this morning, the female head of a European venture capital company was talking about a proposal for a quota of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies. She argued that a culture change is needed such that the people making the decisions about appointments to boards or other positions (and I guess about who should be on Start the Week too) are better educated about the *benefits* to their organisation of greater diversity. I guess she was saying that if people feel it is to their benefit, then rather than “ooh, we’d better have one, if not two, women as well”, it will be “ooh, it will be much better to have one, if not two, women as well”. A subtle but crucial difference.

  5. @cromercrox At least it means Melvyn Bragg is employing people who can make sense of what you say down the phone line and he himself can make sense of the sense they make. Could be worse!

    @j0ns1m0ns The question of quotas is interesting. There is a lot of debate as to how effective it is or whether, as in Scandinavia, it just leads to the ‘same 70 women’ sitting on lots of boards, as I saw quoted recently. I think what is needed is undoubtedly a culture change, but one that actually lets people think widely about who is appropriate – diversity in all its forms – rather than forced to accept people because of some particular characteristic. We have to change our collective mindsets!

  6. @bureauista says:

    Thanks for this interesting and insightful post. The problem seems to be endemic across all industries. I wrote an similar article last year examining why I was creating so few female characters in the computer game I was scripting. In the end, just becoming aware that it was an issue helped me and my team create a more gender-balanced game. I think we need to keep raising it as an issue and encouraging people to think about gender balance in all areas of society, hopefully until it stops being something forced and becomes something natural. I don’t think we can change centuries of tradition without sustained and repeated effort (although I do hope that we can do it without quotas, which I believe might be counter-productive).

  7. Sue Halliday says:

    I find it fascinating that in my job as a science communicator at a hands on science discovery centre visitors ask in a slightly surprised way – Are you really a scientist? Would they ask a man that question or just assume of course he is!

    • Do you have male colleagues (also science communicators) whom you could check with to see if it is gender-related or simply because they don’t know what scientists – of either sex – do, let alone look like?

  8. I believe that in the US the NIH guidelines for the inclusion of women and minorities at NIH sponsored scientific meetings require that plans be specified for ensuring appropriate representation on organising committees and selction panels and also among invited speakers, session chairs and panel discussants. They also require plans for how to encourage women and members of minority groups to attend the meeting.

  9. Steve Caplan says:


    I am looking forward (hearing forward?) to listening to “Start the Week” this weekend on the podcast. Sounds fascinating!

  10. Heather says:

    I thought of this post yesterday when I had an MRI of my knee and the radiologist knocked on the door to give me the verdict. It was one of the most gorgeous, well-dressed young female fashion models I have had the privilege to meet in person. I was taken aback for a split second. I immediately hated myself after that and we had a fine professional conversation. But even the best intentions can’t overcome inherent prejudice. However, we could always be in control of our behavior, and luckily we aren’t mind-readers.

    • Heather, it certainly is good to remind ourselves none of us are immune from these sort of reflex actions. But thinking of names for speakers, committees etc are certainly not dominated by reflexes and – as you say, we can – and should – all control our actions. We just have to try that bit harder.

  11. Steve Caplan says:


    That was a great “Start the Week” podcast on BBC4! Really enjoyed it, and I think you did a great job as an ambassador for the creativity of science and the importance of imparting a sense of discovery in science education (as well as the need for a broad interdisciplinary approach)!
    Please let us know when your interviews are recorded. I enjoyed the rest of the program as well.


    • Thanks, Steve, glad you enjoyed it. Despite recent experience to the contrary, I don’t expect there to be a plethora of further radio appearances that I need to keep you up to date on! (However, you can listen to me on Desert Island Discs from 2009 on iPlayer now, since they have archived many older episodes recently – at least assuming iPlayer works beyond these shores.)

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