From Invisibility to Power

What can be done to render women in science less invisible? A few women may stand out from the crowd, both historically and at the present time, but the list of women scientists most people – by which I mean other scientists as well as the general public – are able to name tends to be remarkably short. I’ve written a couple of pieces elsewhere which touch on this theme recently addressing very different aspects of this problem, although their more-or-less simultaneous timing was unplanned and uncoordinated. The question of this invisibility is nothing new; what matters is what can be done to change the situation.

The first piece, which appeared in Nature, related to the well-documented Royal Society Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. Many people have written about this event in the broadsheets as well as elsewhere (see for example here and here). The occasion was a good opportunity to take some small steps to redress the balance of biographies on Wikipedia, and to give a few more women (15 I believe) the opportunity to get to grips with being a Wikipedia editor in the hopes that they will continue to contribute or expand articles about unsung scientific heroines on Wikipedia in the future. In the case of this online encyclopaedia, the challenge seems to arise from a combination of the vast majority of ‘editors’ apparently being male and the low visibility of the relatively small numbers of women who were able to make a contribution to SET subjects in one way or another historically. The headline to my piece ‘Throw off the Cloak of Invisibility’ – chosen by the Nature sub-editors – shines a light on the problem. Women are too often overlooked and such positive action as the Edit-a-thon is just one way of trying to improve the situation.

One consequence of this article appearing, is that I have been emailed directly by various people with issues relating to the piece. One writer – Jevin West –  in particular drew my attraction to a project analysing the ‘gender gap’ in publishing, which has a write-up here.  Analysis has been carried out for all the publications held in JStor, looking at the over- (or under-) representation of women in different fields, and their place in the author list. Such work could be seen as providing a basis to identify some of the names for women who might deserve Wikipedia entries but who have previously been overlooked.

However, my own view is that we need to do much more than worry about women from the past on Wikipedia, because by and large these are unlikely to inspire the current generation of young women contemplating careers in science. We need to identify living women role models and celebrate their successes; we must continue to press conference organisers not to tolerate all (or predominantly) male slates of speakers, unless there is some very compelling and unusual reason; and we need to get more women scientists into high profile presenting roles on TV and ensure that the Science Media Centre has as many women as possible signed up to provide expert opinions to the media.

Secondly, SpotOn  London – which used to be known as Science Online – is coming up in about 10 days time in London. One of the panels I will be involved with is also concerned with women’s visibility, in this case specifically with how to use Social Media to help increase it. Organised by that brave couple Seirian Sumner  and Nathalie Pettorelli  – who also organise the Soapbox Science event on the Embankment I wrote about before  – this session explicitly looks at ‘Improving Visibility of Female Scientists Online‘. Along with Judith Willetts  and Martin Robbins, I will be participating in a panel discussion on this topic, but additionally a wider group of us are writing blogs on the subject through the SpotOn website. My own piece looked at how I use Twitter to disseminate information about #womeninscience activities. I point you in that direction to see how I went from being opposed to the very idea of Twitter to a convert in a very short space of time, and why I find it a useful adjunct to this blog. Others have written on the SpotOn site about how it is good to toss one’s impostor syndrome aside and start blogging, and how social media can reach out around the world when travel is limited. By the time of the actual London meeting it is hoped there will be a broad-ranging set of posts illustrating different aspects of how online media can be a female scientist’s best friend. A set of resources are being pulled together to go with this Womeninscience session. (The other panel I’m involved with looks at how to fit public engagement into your scientific career, and fellow OT blogger Jenny Rohn will also be on the panel, as well as Anne Osterrieder  and Brian Wecht)

So, these two pieces relate to a couple of occasions where the low visibility of women in science is being recognized and discussed. But it is always important to ensure that one looks for constructive ways to move forward, and moaning over what has gone wrong in the past is certainly not particularly constructive. So let me end this post, not with considering the past low profile of women, but looking again at how to celebrate and empower women scientists. For this let me turn to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, which has just put out a call for names to be considered for their so-called Powerlist, with a plan to rank the ‘100 most powerful women in the UK’. We should ensure this list contains a good number of scientists, engineers, computer scientists and so on (in other words STEM professionals) to remind people – young women in particular, or possibly their parents – that science is a suitable, rewarding and important career for women. This is an occasion where the community can do their bit to make sure the women scientists are not invisible, overwhelmed by TV personalities who cook or celebs from the Soaps. There are better – or at least a wider selection of – role models for our daughters to consider than those, but only if we remember to nominate them. So…..go to it!

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17 Responses to From Invisibility to Power

  1. Beckie Port says:

    Well said! Looking forward to the discussion.

  2. If we are to render women in science less invisible, we must first shed light on how hidden they are by the veil of exclusively patriarchal and patrilineal culture.

    Most women in society do not by their own inherited surname celebrate the fact of matrilineal lineage and are therefore very much devoid of known registered ancestors down the mitochondrial passage of time. Matrilineal lineage is as much an actuality as patrilineal lineage and not accepting it is robbing the identity of women and girls, left relegated to solely assume the surrogate egos of the identities of the men they buttress, if consensual.

    If women as a whole chose to have a surname expressing matrilineal lineage, society in the main would not change much in that males would continue to have exactly the same system of inherited surnames. The Spanish system of surnames gets close to the latter in that an individual does inherit a surname from either of its parents, but still both are purely patrilineal in origin, even the mother’s surname. I guess that there being no mainstream culture of celebrating female lineage must be a legacy of the times where women were regarded as mere trophies of war, without any autonomy of thought or will. Society must evolve on from such old fashioned and distorted perceptions, expressions of an aggressive hominoid species, to express itself in a manner that reflects the fact that women can autonomously think for themselves and just as accurately as men at that.

    Remember! If your father was a nice Guy you can pass on his surname to your daughter and grand daughter, hereafter for matrilineal keeps.

  3. In 1971-3, as a very young female researcher, I conducted what was in most ways the first serious study of women academic (non-medical) scientists in Britain. The results are available as my M.Sc. (Salford, 1973) and were also eventually – after much agitation by a strong-minded woman mentor – published in Social Studies of Science, in 1983 (13:1).

    A few things stay in my mind about that whole experience:

    1. I was ‘reported’ when I began the work to my university by a few of the c300 academics (women) I contacted on the grounds that it was an affront to suggest women and men scientists were in any way different!

    2. The (very interesting) demographic I established for the c60% of the cohort who did respond still I suspect largely remains as it was.

    3. My eventually published report on this work was accepted with the proviso that I said there was no (proven) difference between men and women – because I had not been able (costs) to study a comparable group of men; but I doubt very much indeed that the demographic profile was in any way similar (e.g. only a third were parents).

    4. My research did not take my career anywhere because virtually no-one was interested and, of course, there was then no internet via which to distribute the findings (something I still intend so much later on to put right). I even gave written (and acknowledged) evidence to a government enquiry, but nothing was ever followed up and by then my domestic and employment responsibilities were too complex for me to pursue things very actively (sounds familiar?)..

    All the issues raised above are of great relevance to the fundamental question of why there has been so little progress, but there is one way in which things do seem to be changing: Just as it’s slowly dawning that Boards of Directors are generally more successful when diverse, so it’s becoming clearer to some commentators – though still not enough – that gender and other balance helps to ensure overall that science outcomes are as beneficial as they can be….. I don’t think I’ve finished yet!

  4. PS Perhaps I should add that, to our very genuine surprise but great pleasure, our daughter gained a PhD in particle physics! So there is a totally serendipitous legacy of a sort to my tale as above.

  5. I forgot to add that I adapted the above piece from something I’d written earlier, even though I’d thought about the subject well before that, having had both my father’s and mother’s surname consecutively prior to the legally bona fide one of my choice (I adore global human ecology) I have now.

    I think I also heard the topic of female lineage being discussed in Parliament a few months ago, on the radio, but was not able to retrieve the audio file to confirm that. For the piece I originally wrote (I structure sentences better now) see on facebook, Devoid Of Known Ancestry Or Decendants,

    • Irina says:

      Athene,I’m glad that someone tgaged me as an optimist! I’m going to print that out and show it to my family every time they say I only see the bad side of everything!I don’t doubt that there’s a long way to go here, but I do think that the political correctness DOES trickle in slowly but surely. On a different issue, I’ve seen the tremendous campaign that schools have done to have youth stop using the derogatory term retard (as a noun), and I have no question that it’s become completely outmoded and vilified. Even if the actual understanding and empathy follows the laws and rules, eventually it seems to catch up.On the lighter side, I just noticed an article in a recent Newsweek magazine about the Higgs boson (titled In Search of the God Particle. ). In a follow up, 3 people were briefly interviewed under the title What’s So Heavenly About the God Particle? The interviewees were:Rev. Dr. Malcolm Brown, director of mission and public affairs at the Church of EnglandRichard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and authorElaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton UniversityYou will of course notice that NEITHER academic received the Dr. title, only the reverend.Coincidence? I’ll let you decide!

  6. Jeremy says:

    HI Athene

    One issue I can see arising from the Woman’s Hour poll is that scientists/engineers in general in the UK, of both genders, don’t hold a great deal of power anyway. That’s a UK cultural phenomenon: power in the political sphere is largely wielded by career politicians, who come out of journalism, PR and the like. Although there are a few exceptions, MPs generally have a non-science background. FTSE CEOs have finance backgrounds for the most part, in contrast to countries like Germany, where an engineering background is more highly esteemed than it is here. The most likely career path for a career scientist to acquire real power and influence is to head up an academic institution, research council or research institute. It was depressing that the panel Woman’s Hour chose to adjudicate on this list contained no one with a SET background who could even recommend women who are prominent in these types of roles. Not a good start if you want to improve women’s visibility in these areas.

    • That there are no scientists/engineers on the panel is only the more reason for the community to submit a strong list so that they will at least be considered.

    • Efe says:

      I guess we are all tainted by crnoapisoms to what we are used to seeing. I obviously can’t fairly comment on the UK, not having ever lived there, but in comparison to the gender issues in Israel that I have been sporadically reporting in this venue, the US is far better. At the same time, the comment about maternity leave is clearly a bad mark on the state of things here. Weird as it may sound, although it certainly leads to inequality (compare Canada or Scandinavian countries that have leave for EITHER parent for a year or a combination of both), I’m not sure that the powers that be intend for this to be a means of securing inequality. In other words (and please don’t mistake me, as I DO NOT agree in any way with this policy), I’ve seen women at NIH give birth and return to work in 2 weeks, thereby proving their ability to overcome their life situation and carry on at work as usual.As for women professors in prominent positions, I can’t and won’t argue about awards given. Statistics will obviously override any of my own more limited experience. But my own experience does indicate that in my environs, a good percentage (close to 50%) of women hold the departmental chair positions, and other high ranking positions on campus. Meritoriously. I would suggest that the disparities are probably a lot greater in the lower socioeconomic groups, and as the level of education is lower.

    • Erbolat says:

      I’m glad it’s not just me. I thought I was being over setsvniie when I get irked by work emails adrressed Dear Mrs Warwick, when my title is on my webpage and email sig- I’m happy with Dr or Prof, but there is no Mrs Warwick (other than my mother) because I don’t use my husband’s name either. I think this probabaly is due to unconsious assumptions about how vauable women are and, as in this case, it is just as common from other women. I realised this very acutely when a young visiting scholar from overseas came to a meeting with me in my office (door clearly marked with my name and title). We had not met before and had arranged to meet over email. I opened the door, to find a young women looking at me in horrified surprise: she then blurted out Are you Claire?’. It was all too clear that as far as she was concerned someone of my age and gender was clearly not the right stuff when it came to being a professor and HoD. She was from a culture that is less liberal in terms of gender realtions- but I do wonder whether as a result her reaction was simply a more obvious form of what others think but are too polite to say.

  7. Laurence Cox says:

    Athene, had you seen this interesting piece of analysis from CERN?

  8. Thank you for this interesting piece.

    As a female science writer (and one-time researcher), may I put in a word for extending the analysis beyond actually doing science? Many of the added-value pieces in top journals have been written by women (e.g. Virginia Gewin, Alison Abbott) but that doesn’t seem to translate into recognition. Yet ask anyone to name top science writers and they’ll almost certainly be male. My guess would be that the imbalance among comment writers in top journals is low compared with science books and TV. It’s as if women can do and talk about science as long as they don’t do it too publicly …

  9. This piece resonated with the ScienceGrrl team ( Our calendar of (mostly) female (and mostly living!) scientists aims to help with exactly this problem. We are developing as an organisation, but one of the ways we hope to increase visibility is by building on our growing networks: a mentoring thread running through the education and career process. We believe that roles models have great power to inspire and encourage – but only if you can see who they are.

    Also – many thanks for filling in our consultation survey ( & I’m looking forward to the session at SpotOn London tomorrow!

    • Jodi says:

      in my last post I am not convinced the US rlaely is any better than the UK, though it may be different. People may not say explicitly that they expected a man, but is that PCness more than skin deep? I am not sure I know the geographical origin of everyone who has agreed with the sense of the post but, as the published last year showed, all the issues are not yet eradicated (I wrote about that report ).It is clear the world is ageist, heightest (as Nutty Knitter demonstrates) as well as biased against ethnic minorities (as Ernesto’s comment shows). It isn’t just gender and the depressing thing is we probably all have our own blindness about some aspect or another in which we make inappropriate assumptions. Talking about it is probably the best we can do. But it is well summed up by a tweet I just received. When I first qualified, farmers used to look behind me for the vet’. Once I had proved myself, they asked for the vetess’!It is so wearing constantly having to prove onself, in ways the dominant majority whatever that might be depending on the situation do not. And yet it can seem petty to complain sometimes (I didn’t write to the Cambridge News to complain, for instance) and there are only so many hours in the day! As Eva says, you can’t win but we can surely keep pressing for change.

  10. An aside (ish), but perhaps interesting: am I right to think that the gender ratios of history of scitech writers / scholars – as also Kathleen’s comment above – is much more even than the ratio of scitech practitioners?

  11. I am new to reading Athene’s blog and came to it via Twitter. It ‘hits the nail on the head’ so I am now going to add my voice and nominate Athene for the Radio 4 Powerful Women list.

  12. Pingback: Women in Science and the Media « SciConnect

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