Being Unexpectedly Provocative

I have recently returned from a trip to Santa Barbara, to the conference to honour my late mentor Professor Ed Kramer, and San Francisco, where I met up with various alumni and alumnae of my College and the University. In Santa Barbara the conference was obviously about science, with talks from many of Kramer’s former postdocs and students, his extended family if you like. All of us had happy memories to share as well as details of our science (past and present). Each of us chose to present our stories in our own idiosyncratic and personal way that enabled us to pay our tribute to a great man. But I did something I have never done before at a scientific conference – at the request of the organisers. Not only did I tell a skeletal story of my science over the decades since I worked with Ed at Cornell but, reflecting the final conversation I ever had with him at a conference in 2010, I also wove in a little about my work around gender issues. The result surprised me.

Although I had agreed to incorporate some gender stuff months ago, had given as my title ‘Crazes, Proteins and Gender’, as the time approached I felt very uncertain how to bring equality issues into an international science conference. It hardly seemed appropriate to talk through something like Athena Swan specifics at a conference where there were only 2 academics working in the UK (one of whom was me), but I couldn’t do chapter and verse about any other country. It didn’t seem the moment to get very specific about the work we’ve been doing in Cambridge either, when both legal and structural frameworks will again not necessarily be comparable between nations. So, 24 hours in advance of my presentation my talk contained only two slides on the subject matter, both very general.

However, over an extremely early morning breakfast (body clock awry on California time) I was accosted by a Czech professor based in the US who told me how much he was looking forward to hearing what I had to say about gender. Umm, I said, I haven’t got much on it included – at which he looked disappointed and encouraged me to think again. So, in the gap between that early breakfast and the shuttle leaving for UCSB I did indeed think again. I found some more slides to illustrate the problem, quickly inserting a further three – two striking images and this list of what I call the ‘daily grind’ facing many women:

  • Being ignored/talked over at committee meetings
  • Being expected to do tasks others won’t, and which probably won’t be ‘good’ for career progression
  • Being ‘forgotten’ to be invited to after work drinks
  • Having to listen to casually sexist remarks
  • Seeming to be invisible
  • Being accused of being emotional or ‘not able to take a joke’, particularly when registering a complaint about someone else’s behaviour.
  • And, if part time, not being taken seriously.

(The Punch Miss Triggs cartoon was one of the images, relating to that first bullet point. The other was the Manchester Malmaison billboard of a ‘lady engineer’ with all the wrong overtones, indicative of ubiquitous stereotyping). This short list of bullet points is far from complete of the petty instances that are so wearing, but it is appropriately non-nation-specific to give a fair illustration of what so many women face.

As I say, the result surprised me. Over the next few hours I was accosted by men and women with their thoughts. I was thanked for initiating this dialogue, for opening people’s eyes, for reminding men of the challenges and for being provocative. As far as I can judge talk at several tables over lunch was driven by what I had said. I guess I am used to talking to audiences that are, as it were, primed. Who know that what they are attending is an ‘Athena Swan’ talk, or arranged by an organisation’s equality committee. This bunch of attendees was taken more unawares but were almost certainly well-intentioned folk who might not have had occasion to think too much about the issues before (there were few women present at the conference, largely for historical reasons.) It made me think maybe this is something that could usefully be done in regular seminars – just 5 minutes-worth of slides snuck in at the end perhaps – or other presentations. Perhaps some of my readers might like to think about doing something similar themselves. It doesn’t take much preparation and it might just help to spread the word in a different way from those talks clearly labelled as ‘this is about women in science issues’ which may not grab everyone’s interest or, worse, deter them from attending as bor-ing.

After leaving a rather muddy Santa Barbara – the California drought chose the few days I was there to end, with a spectacular 4 inches of rain during the first couple of days falling on hard ground which rapidly turned to mush underfoot – I went on to San Francisco. There I gave a couple of talks, one of which (to University alumni) was about Scientific Leadership, utilising the resources of the College’s Archives. With useful quotes from Churchill himself and Rosalind Franklin reflecting on visits to the Sunshine State, I also wove in a little more about issues facing women in science and how off-putting the working environment can be for those starting out. Once again that was the part of the talk that got most attention and both in the formal Q+A and also in the subsequent private conversations the question I was asked most urgently was ‘how do I encourage my teenage daughter to stick with science in the face of….’. The issues seemed to relate both to the subject being uncool for young girls and that teachers didn’t always act supportively. I wish I had had a better answer to give than that parents have a major role to play in helping to overcome the stereotypes and to counter other people’s negative messages.

Now I’m back in England these two experiences give me food for thought. It makes me realise that many good folk are still remarkably unaware of the issues but, given half a chance, they respond positively and welcome the opportunity for discussion. I will factor these realisations into talks in the future.






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4 Responses to Being Unexpectedly Provocative

  1. Catherine Noakes says:

    A couple of years ago I got together with some other senior women in my field around the world and organised a session on women’s careers at our biggest international scientific conference. We were a little unsure about how well this would sit alongside all the normal science workshops, and I don’t know that the male dominated organising committee knew what to make either – but they gave us programme space. It turned out to be a really great session. The focus was not so much on gender issues – it was more just a group of senior women from around the world telling the story of their careers and what makes them tick. We had men and women at all career stages attend the session and loads of great comments afterwards, especially from PhD students and postdocs who loved seeing female role models and realising the challenges they had faced – some gender, but most just the difficulties of academic life. Got me thinking that maybe we could all do more of this. We all travel around the world to talk about our science. It is so easy to tag on a few career development and mentoring sessions that add something extra, especially for all those just starting out.

  2. Delighted to see that Culham’s Joanne Flanagan is already following my advice at the AAAS meeting next month (see here), as stated over Twitter.

  3. saskia says:


    Nice to see Joanne doing just that !!! Fusion and plasma is one of the worst fields for women in the US. 7.5% membership and within the sub field Joanne is talking about, I think we are happy if we get to 5% !!! If I was to tag something like that into a presentation, I know the reactions I would get (because I have been told these things):

    – It is the women their own fault, not ours
    – You are a sexist

    Sadly, I don’t see much change coming our way and in some sense I am not surprised that people talked so much about it after your talk. When I am use purely statistics to talk about issues women face and stay away as much as possible from anecdotal stories (because I get told each time, it is a special case, not relevant, etc …) at least the younger population acts surprised and they become curious. The older population isn’t as forgiving.

  4. Steve says:

    Do you have a copy of your ‘Athena SWAN’ slides? Would be useful to see what you presented and how it could be used/adapted for scientific audiences.

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