Telling Stories

Last week I went to talk at an event designed to encourage young girls to stick with science post-GCSE organised for local schools at Brighton College. I was paired up with the remarkable Stemettes Founder Anne-Marie Imafidon. She was Red Magazine’s ‘Woman to Watch’ in 2014 and has a host of other accolades to her name. Now – having quit her job at Deutsche Bank to work on Stemettes full time – she spends much of her time working with teenage girls to inspire them with her own love of science and coding. Since she is much closer in age to the 15-16 year olds we were talking to I’m sure she came across as a more convincing role model than I ever could. Still, in the spirit of ‘mix and match’ I expect we were a good pairing.

For both of us, though, there was the challenge of how to report the story of one’s life – and what we do and the excitement we get out of science – in a way that seemed both meaningful to a teenager and also accessible. I learned my lesson last summer about referring to my CV as a ‘standard CV’ when I got laughed at by a bunch of ECRs (Early Career Researchers). I meant, ‘here is my CV in a standard format’ not thinking that they would hear it as ‘this is the standard of what yours should look like in 30 years’ time’. Words have to be used with care. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to tell the narrative of one’s life as a Whiggish history of unassailable progression. My life hasn’t been like that and I don’t suppose anyone else’s has either.

I want to tell young women that life is not always plain sailing. Or rather, I don’t ‘want’, it gives me no joy to talk about the kicks I’ve received or the more disastrous interludes in my life that are definitely best forgotten. Nevertheless, I believe strongly these episodes are important to sketch, not just because they will undoubtedly have contributed to the person I am today, but because of the danger of the young seeing the older generation as always having had it easy and that our lives have been painlessly straightforward whereas theirs are mired in uncertainty, fear and difficulty. Being 15, a time when major decisions (e.g. about A level choices, to stay with a narrowly educational example) need to be made but when body and mind are going through the turbulence of adolescence, is not fun. I have not forgotten my own problems and anxieties of the time, although at least I had no doubt about the A level choices I would make.

So, how should one weave a narrative that expresses that success is possible despite setbacks, without making life seem unremittingly difficult and particularly so as a woman in science; or conveying that it is misleadingly easy because, hey look, I’m a professor and so can you be if you just work hard enough? Neither version of a life story is either accurate or helpful. In situations like this I feel that if I am not careful I could end up presenting my life as a series of vignettes that appears to reduce the complexity of living to a Disney storyline with the inevitable punchline of transformation from frog to prince(ss). No one travelling through the convoluted maze that is life creates a path that adds up to a case of invariably wise decisions aided by the appearance of an occasional hole in the hedge to get one from A to B painlessly and without work. Life ain’t like that, but in half an hour it’s hard to avoid giving that impression. The storyline needs to invoke also the irredeemably stupid dead end choices made and the dragon that breathed fire and scorched one’s dreams, choices, ego and/or self-esteem. But the mere mention of dragons might be enough to convince a 15 year old in the audience that science is a dangerous place for a woman and they’ll stick with media studies and English literature, thank you very much.

It is also not easy to convey the excitement of research when most school children barely touch equipment, let alone do an experiment that hasn’t been done by several million of their predecessors previously. Science is too often taught as not open-ended, not for the curious, but as a sequence of facts to be memorised and, if you’re lucky, to be understood. I know for me it was the incessant need to memorise labels, such as the parts of a plant or animal that turned me off biology in my teens. There seemed no requirement to understand how these parts connected or why they worked as they did. I believe (and hope) biology GCSE has moved on from this but school science, in the spirit of passing exams, is still far too often not about discovery and curiosity. So explaining that every time I used to look down a microscope (back in the days when that was what I did) I was excited at the possibility of looking at something that hadn’t been seen or understood before may simply not strike any chord in a teenager’s heart. The excitement of the unknown just waiting to be revealed as I prepared each sample gave me a buzz that modern school laboratory work simply cannot approach, any more than my own current daily grind of committee work (however important). Whiggish progression – pah. That is definitely a backwards step!

So, for every talk I give to the young, be it school children or those already committed to science but finding their way through their studies and early career, I have to ponder the balance between up- and down-beat comments. I never know how it will play out to a particular audience – nor can I ever know what impact, for good or ill, I might have had on any particular listener. Anyhow, how it comes out on the day may vary according to my own mood and energy levels at the time. I wish there was a simple answer for how to inspire the scientists of tomorrow. All each of us can do is to try (Just1ActionFWIS).

Postscript: Having written this and got it ready to post I have just come across  #realacademicbios on Twitter. Some of the tweets I’ve seen highlight the problems of being too naive and optimistic in summing up one’s life and passing that on as wisdom for how the next generation should behave. The tweets are thought provoking and well worth reading.

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10 Responses to Telling Stories

  1. Simon Davis says:

    I note that you gave your talk at an elite south coast Public School (check their exam rankings). Why not a comprehensive in Middlesbrough?

    I am sure that the event will have been theoretically open to everyone regardless of educational background, but what proportion of your audience actually were from state schools? I’m afraid that the impression given reinforces the stereotype that Public Schools are the natural feeders into Oxbridge, and that living in the North is a disadvantage.

    • I am well aware of the status of Brighton College, and I would not have accepted if the afternoon had not been open to local state schools. The University has divided the country up so that different Colleges have different areas where they put most effort in access work. Sussex happens to fall under Churchill’s remit, as does South Wales where the tutorial team spend about a week each year. I was in Brighton talking at the local (state) 6th form College last Spring. Some other College will be responsible for the Middlesbrough area….(You might also want to bear in mind that recent studies showed that England’s coastal regions had particular issues about attainment, although whether Brighton fitted into that picture I cannot say.)

      So, although I appreciate why you think I should go north, but there are specific reasons for what I do and did that I hope you will now understand.

  2. Richard Powell says:

    I wish you every success in encouraging people from South Wales to apply. Wales as a whole has 4.8% of the UK population, but accounts for only 1.6% of Cambridge applications. That is perhaps half what it was in the late 70s when I was one of five successful candidates from a small industrial town. I do not know what has gone wrong – it’s easy to speculate – but I’m sure simply encouraging people to apply has to be part of putting it right.

  3. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    Off topic, but I note that according to the Guardian newspaper, Tim Hunt pundit Louise Mensch appears to be on the payroll of Rupert Murdoch.

    This further adds to my impression that efforts in the UK to encourage women in non-traditional careers are window dressing. The fact, Athene, that you focus so much attention on K-12 education in order to push kids into mostly low paying scientific careers and unemployment, while completely failing to address systemic discrimination in universities and in the workforce, and also fail to address low pay of scientists and engineers in general, to me indicates that your efforts are disingenuous and misguided.

    Louise Mensch continues to make her false statements about the Tim Hunt affair. Athene, I note that you have not censored Mensch’s continued false statements on this issue, which leads me to believe that you are a poor choice as a speaker and promoter for equality in the science and engineering workplace.

    Given these ever more apparent realities, I would never encourage my daughter to attend a university in the UK, and I would never want to work there.

    Thankfully, I am Canadian, where these issues are gradually being taken more seriously than in the *backward* UK.

    • Wow. That’s an unprovoked attack and a half, and very wide of the mark. If you’ve been reading this blog for any time, Marnie, you would know how much work I have put into diversity at university level. I think the stats don’t bear you out on low paying jobs for those trained in science as opposed to e.g. humanities at high school. I suggest you stop reading my blog if it makes you so angry.

      • Marnie Dunsmore says:

        Athene, as a veteran of the STEM trenches, I will not be diverted from your suggestion that I am “angry”.

        As someone who purportedly suggests that you care about the advancement of women in STEM, I don’t appreciate you fobbing off my very real and deep concerns about the damaging and deceptive actions of Louise Mensch regarding her distortions of Tim Hunt’s comments and actions in Korea. I also don’t appreciate the you have not openly made a statement about the fact that, as a pundit for Tim Hunt, she is on Rupert Murdock’s payroll.

        Mensch’s actions have not gone unnoticed here in the US. I have spoken this morning with the offices of five prominent American Senators. They know who Louise Mensch is, are very concerned that she is attempting to influence American public opinion regarding women in science and engineering, and particularly concerned that she is on the payroll of Rupert Murdoch.

        Formerly on this blog, you suggested that Louse would be encouraged to stop her unjustifiable attack on Connie St. Louis. This has not happened.

        On other issues as well, you seem to be unwilling to examine the facts. For instance, regarding gender segregated K-12 education, while it may be true that in the UK, gender segregation marginally improves education outcomes for girls, that is not the case in Canada. And by the way, Canadian co-ed PISA scores for 15 year olds consistently rank off the charts compared to scores for UK 15 year olds. I am sure that even if you were to take girls’ schools scores for 15 year olds in the UK and run them against public co-ed scores of Canadian 15 year old girls, the co-ed Canadians would still rank better on the PISA.

        Repeated tests in Canada indicate that girls and boys school educated teenagers do not rank significantly higher than co-ed educated teenagers. I myself attended a public high school in Vancouver, British Columbia where we scored as well or better than local private girls and boys schools.

        And I am not even against girls and boys schools. Some parents prefer this type of education. However, fixating on this issue, rather than focusing on the real cause for the absence of women in science and engineering, which is largely due to harassment and discrimination at all levels of the education system and in business, is subliminally quite destructive to the advancement of women in STEM.

        Athene, I don’t intend to stop reading your blog. I do expect the horrendous bashing of Connie St. Louis by Louise Mensch to stop.

        • In my eariler post I said: “People seem determined to point fingers and to go on doing so – something I, for one, early on entreated we stopped doing. It is as if some people enjoy throwing mud more than moving the world forward. If everyone is so concerned about sexism in science, could we not just concentrate on that challenge and do something useful instead of expending energy attacking others who ultimately share the same goals?”

          In comments there I have also ssid ‘But it is surely time to put this behind the entire community and get on with tackling ongoing problems. Here’s to a more productive 2016!’, I have urged all – including Louise Mensch – to stop the attacks. More I cannot do. But I also have no intention of letting finger pointing emerge again here or reopen the debate about whose behaviour is most reprehensible.

          To your points about single sex schooling, it isn’t something that I was attempting to address in this post because its complexity is immense. The evidence is very contradictory to my knowledge (regarding the UK) because it depends what specific question you ask: about which subjects, or overall, considering boys or considering girls….. Nor was the talk I gave and was referring to at an all girls school, simply an all girls event.

          • Marnie Dunsmore says:


            One only needs to look at the Twitter account of Louise Mensch compared to those of Sue Nelson, Connie St. Louis and Deborah Blum, to see that it is Louise and her followers, and not others, who have continued to make the incendiary and often untrue comments regarding the Tim Hunt affair. Other people have long since moved on in order to discuss larger issues such as sexual harassment, and discrimination in science (and engineering).

            I should mention that I believe it is relevant, and quite damning for Louise, that she is on the payroll of Rupert Murdoch, hacking scandal perpetrator and Fox News owner. As well, Rupert Murdoch has heavily funded the political campaigns of various American politicians who have supported policies that undermine the salaries and job stability of highly trained American and Canadian scientists and engineers. These policies have been particularly destructive to the careers of women and American minority scientists and engineers, particularly in the physical sciences and electrical engineering. (For reference, please consult the work of Robert N. Charette, George J. Borjas, and Ron Hira).

            So the problems with Louise and her association with Murdoch are far reaching. She is no advocate in any way, for scientists and engineers.

            Regarding single sex schooling vs. co-ed, this discussion paper is a balanced and good discussion of the matter from a Canadian perspective:


            Again, I’m not an advocate one way or another, but my observation is that regardless of the form of high school education, in Silicon Valley, discrimination and harassment act to push women out. Informal surveys reflect the extent of the problem:


            You could argue that this is one small corner of STEM. However, most STEM grads today do not go on to careers in academia. Silicon Valley has huge influence on the overall climate for women in STEM. Many of our STEM business leaders and decision makers are fostered here in Silicon Valley. So it really does matter that women are being pushed out here. And it also very much matters that people such as Rupert Murdoch, who personally knows Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Susan Wojcicki of Google, and Tim Rice of Apple, has acted to personally profit while heavily promoting policies that harm American scientists and engineers. These companies all have terrible records regarding gender, race and age diversity.

            It’s quite a damning situation that does speak well for those associated with Rupert Murdoch.

  4. Marnie Dunsmore says:


    It’s quite a damning situation that does *NOT* speak well for those associated with Rupert Murdoch.

  5. Richard Powell says:

    I’m grateful to Marnie Dunsmore for going off-topic because otherwise I wouldn’t have read Louise Mensch’s account of the Tim Hunt affair at Ms Mensch may well have taken the Murdoch shilling but this is fine journalism. Terrifying as well, as it describes a world where you can lose your job and become a pariah because of a few ill-chosen words at a lunch. What on earth did these highly intelligent (for the most part) people imagine they were doing? It’s hard to believe that widening women’s participation in science was at the forefront of their minds. And the fact that some people – despite your exhortations – are still unable to move on only serves to underline the irrationality of it all.

    And that’s all I have to say on the matter.

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