Let’s Celebrate with UNESCO

Today, February 11th 2017, is the first UNESCO’s International Day of Women & Girls in Science. This is a day to remind ourselves not that ‘you’ve come a long way baby’ in the words of a now infamous advertisement campaign for cigarettes, but a day to celebrate those who have lived their dream and made a career for themselves in science; and a day to encourage those younger women and girls who still are dreaming of what they might do and become. Change is coming desperately slowly; in some parts of the world faster than others, but it is coming. We have to believe it will continue and that a day will dawn when every girl who wants to pursue a career in science is as able to do so as the boy next door; when girls who start off on that path are not deterred by comments, either malicious or throw-away in origin, which sap their confidence and their aspirations. We have to believe that having graduated and made that commitment there will come a time when there are no senior men waiting to prey on the young and vulnerable or others who will trash their ideas and creations simply because they come from a woman. We have to believe that in this bright new future each woman will find a cohort of supporters – men and women – who will guide and encourage them through the maze that a career represents, enabling all to fulfil their potential.

Dream on, you may say, but times do change. I can only talk about my own country – and UNESCO represents the full spectrum around the world, with different challenges in each – and here there is no doubt that change is occurring, however frustrated I may be by its glacial pace. Gender issues are now explicitly on many a department’s and university’s senior management team’s agenda. Harassment is discussed at least sometimes, even if rarely addressed as thoroughly as we might like. Conferences are more sensitive to the gender make-up of their slate of invited speakers, however frequently they slip up when push comes to shove. So, with change in the air, let us dream and let the young dream that for their generation the path will be smoother yet.

As the L’Oreal/UNESCO tag says ‘The world needs science and science needs women’ in its annual celebration of the women laureates (see here for the 2017 Laureates). These women are those who have survived the slings and arrows of being called feisty or aggressive or worse, put down or perhaps even actively discouraged, yet gone on to prove to their detractors just what they are made of. In 2009, when I was one of the Laureates, from the blur that was the Awards Ceremony (a splendid occasion in Paris) I remember most clearly fellow Laureate Eugenia Kumacheva who, in her speech, passionately declared there was no women’s science, just science done by women. That is such a neat way of describing one of the irritations we face and is a phrase I have subsequently made good use of myself. Privately, I am sure each of us could have described some extremely negative experiences. But you just have to try to get on with it regardless.

Self-confidence is a hugely important factor in how we present ourselves and go about our everyday lives.  How others interact with us, how negative they may be, will directly feed into this, even if we seem born with vastly different amounts of it too.  People are likely to react much more strongly to negative comments when they fuel the individual’s own self-doubts. If you internally wonder if your manual dexterity is up to the level of the person next to you, a passer-by who casually makes a joke of seeing a soldering iron in your female hand may stop you in your tracks. If you are uncertain about your ability to stand up in front of an audience to deliver a conference paper, the flippant fellow student who laughs at seeing you in a skirt for the first time will not calm your nerves.

For those in a minority, confidence may be shaky because you literally know you aren’t like the others around you. It is all too easy to extrapolate from this difference to ‘worse’; self-confidence may be only skin deep even if outwardly all seems well. Trivial remarks add up, contributing to the death of a dream by a thousand cuts. It is hard to keep going in the face of a lack of encouragement, let alone active discouragement. Senior women, at least those not cast in the Maggie Thatcher mode of leadership, need to do all they can to boost the confidence of young women taking their first faltering steps in their scientific career. (It goes without saying that senior men should be doing this too.)

I say to all such women take heart. Once, when asked why I felt I had succeeded despite being in such a minority, I found myself saying, almost without thinking, ‘by being bloody-minded’. More tactfully I should have said by determination, or even obstinacy. But being bloody-minded when people try to put you down is not such a bad thing to be. Women are brought up all too often – by well-meaning parents and teachers – to be ‘nice’, to ‘do the right thing’, to conform and sit quietly in a corner. If only feisty wasn’t always used in a derogatory ‘not nice’ way, I would be pleased to be thought of like that. But the reality is feisty is rarely meant as compliment. We need to be dogged, we need to show grit, even to be that grit in the oyster that creates the pearl.

Young women, please fight on. The world needs science and science needs women. You are needed with your creativity, your imagination and your talents. Uniformity of thought, homogeneity of approach, will not lead to the discoveries or disruptive technologies of tomorrow. Bring your difference and bring your brains to the party. And remember, those who attack you are probably secretly frightened that perhaps you are actually better than them; at the very least you are that fearful thing: the other. If you can’t find a way through the wall blocking your path, think and move laterally – find the gate to left or right that enables you to get to the other side. I am not saying it is easy, that bruising may not happen. But I hope you will find that inner strength, that self-belief to journey on. And yes, I really do know it is not easy and that for some people the challenge becomes impossibly difficult, too hard to bear. But for others, and let us hope for increasing numbers of these, determination may enable the golden reaches of their dreams to be reached – to the benefit of all.

Here’s to the day we don’t need a UNESCO Day for women and girls in science, because there will no longer be a story attached, but for today let us remember to keep on keeping on.

For a fantastic gallery of leading female scientists from around the world created for today, look at the Royal Society’s Twitter montage. In this list every young girl should be able to find a role model, an inspiration or simply a proof that it isn’t impossible to succeed in their own chosen endeavour.


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