Women in Science

As we’re currently in British Science Week (10 – 19th March), I thought it the perfect opportunity to write about something close to my heart: women in science.

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Now, I used to be a woman in science, but then I left for all sorts of reasons, which I outlined in an earlier post. To clarify, it was not the science that was the issue, rather, a male-dominated environment (and the competitiveness, extrovertism and ‘blokey’ jokes that was a huge part of that environment). It was also a time when work email somehow allowed people (okay, let’s admit it – they were men!) to send pornographic images. At one university I worked at I walked past the odd computer screen seeing some things I’d much rather not have seen. This experience didn’t make me (one of about 5 women in a group with 20 men or so) feel so great about myself.

In addition, looking up the hierarchy, I could see that the female lecturers and researchers were clearly juggling so much – their careers and motherhood and trying to run a household, and, and… and still the male lecturers would make comments about the women ‘not pulling their weight’.

In conclusion: I did not love scientific research enough to continue in that career. And that is okay. I am glad I realized this sooner rather than later.

However, I am immensely thankful for the women who do love research and overcome all kinds of obstacles to pursue their research and excel in their specialism. But why is it that at the age of 40 (and even as an ex-scientist) I still find it difficult to name the contributions women have made to science? Once again, and as in so many fields of endeavour, women’s achievements in science have been overlooked, sidelined, ignored. Or been appropriated by men. In general, women scientists have been put on ‘mute’.

So when I came across this image on Facebook on International Women’s Day – from the excellent Compound Interest page – I was delighted to discover more women scientists. (Chemists, like me!)

 

And when I went to my local library the other day they had a wonderful display full of cards with inventions and discoveries by scientific women on them. Such as:

Stem cell research – Ann Tsukamoto

Kevlar – invented by Stephanie Kwolek

Semi-conductor theory/telecommunications research – Shirley Ann Jackson

The life raft – Maria Beasley

Computing – Grace Hopper

Solar-energy technology – Maria Telkes

This display was for International Women’s Day (or to call it by its other name – ‘Why Isn’t There An International Men’s Day’?). Sad but true, every year outraged men take to Twitter to wonder aloud Why oh why isn’t there a special day for men? Richard Herring, bless his heart, answers many, many of them to let them know that yes, there is an International Men’s Day. It’s on 19th November. He also encourages his followers/those interested in his cause to educate the incredulous to donate money to the charity Refuge).

And another good resource for women scientists I came across recently is Sheroes of History.

Having been a teacher (and now a parent) for a fair while now, I’m pretty sure that girls and young women have got the message that science is something that both sexes can excel at. But it cannot be overlooked that academia is very much an environment for the privileged white middle-class male. That’s not to say that boys and young men shouldn’t be encouraged to study science – they should be, it’s brilliant! It’s just that schools, universities and scientific companies need to look at their environment through the feminist (as well as racist) lens. How can we make academia more accessible to women? How can we keep mother scientists still involved in research if they don’t want to spend virtually all their waking hours away from their children? How can we get away from the competitiveness that so obviously suits highly-driven testosterone-fuelled men? Indeed, can scientific research be a cooperative endeavour? And why oh why must everything be measured by publication in the ‘big’ journals, Science, Nature et al.? Is this really where all the ‘good’ science is? Just as with poetry, there are the ‘big’ journals/magazines. That does not mean that the smaller literary magazines aren’t publishing just-as-good (if not better) poetry. They are!

Sadly, again, so much of the problems of academia come down to that monster, neoliberalism. Universities are more companies nowadays, the students the ‘customers’ – the power taken from academics and given to the bureaucrats and the private companies they fling money at. The people at the top enjoy six-figure salaries for formulating things like: strategic mission and the academic vision, innovative streamlining, the student-centred approach etc. while the academics (who are irreplaceable, because, let’s face it, how many of us have a good working knowledge of quantum mechanics, or crystallography or neuroplasticity or… or… ?) grind on, trapped between teaching, research and the huge amount of administrative tasks they have to complete. They do not enjoy six-figure salaries. And especially not if they’re women.

However, all that said, there are, of course, exceptions to the rule. There are high-earning women at the top, just as there are high-earning men at the top. Check out this link if you want to know just what the heads of some unis pay themselves. I will add two words here that are appropriate: fat and cat. But as always, there are good stewards at the head of universities, who are perhaps worthy of their salary. And there are bad stewards at the top of many universities too, who are most certainly not worth of their salary. Also, there are women who thrive in a competitive environment. And those who do not. But the lower down the hierarchy you go the more likely you are to find women not negotiating for extra pay, not negotiating for better working conditions for themselves and their families, and not speaking out about inappropriate conduct or unprofessionalism of male colleagues.

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, although I think it’s clear that separating business from academia is key. Commercialism is making science less science-y. And in these post-truth times, scientific rigour, objectivity and the pursuit of truth (no matter if that truth pains us) is absolutely vital. I also think that talking and writing about all the many women scientists of the past and today is also key in helping girls and women to know that science is something that they can really get involved in. And excel at. Lastly, we need to give young women the tools to assert for themselves so that they can make the changes to academia that are so badly needed to free it of capitalism’s grip so that it can become a true place of learning and creative investigation, irrespective of the student or teacher’s sex, skin colour, class or financial background.

 

My daughter's base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits

My daughter’s base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits (with thanks to Red Ted Art for the YouTube video on how to construct the volcano).

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The Power of Humour

So… these are dark times. Or so my Facebook and Twitter feed say. Since the inauguration of Donald Trump last Friday things have gotten a little crazy. There are many that I know who are fearful and scared. I am worried too. But before I succumb to fear I am going to be a ‘good’ scientist and watch and observe and think. When plunged into darkness it is best to remain calm and let your eyes acclimatize to the darkness. Shapes and forms and patterns will emerge. Even a little light.

There have been many positive things happening: the many Womens’ Marches and rallies, and organizations like ‘Hope Not Hate’ offering us ways to reach out and help one another. One of the simplest ones being: do a kind deed for someone today.

We all have our own ways to cope in turbulent times; I know that I tend to hunker down and look to my family and local community and see how I can help out. I also write and create art, which helps me, and (hopefully) others. Then there is the ultimate (healthy and 100% natural!) feel-good mood enhancer: humour.

I’m a serious person, and I probably don’t laugh enough. But laughing is rather wonderful, isn’t it? And of course it’s great for the body and soul.

There is a great chapter about the power of humour in difficult times in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ excellent book Women Who Run With The Wolves. If you haven’t got a copy of this book, please do yourself a favour and get it. It is simply an incredible and life-changing book.

 In laughter, a woman breathes fully, and when she does she begins to feel unsanctioned feelings. And what could those feelings be? Well, they turn out to not be feelings so much as relief and remedies for feelings, often causing the release of stopped-up tears or the reclamation of forgotten memories or the bursting of chains on the sensual personality.

This seems like such an apt quote for this moment in time.

And remember, too, the boggart in Harry Potter? It could only be vanquished by humour. Riddikulus!

So today I’m going to share some of my current favourite funnies.

 

Number One: We Go to the Gallery by Miriam Elia

We Go To The Gallery, by Miriam Elia

 

In this book, Miriam has done a brilliant job of explaining exactly what it’s like to visit a contemporary art gallery. Which was very thoughtful of her as contemporary art confuses and bewilders many. Me included.

 

From 'We Go To The Gallery' by Miriam Elia

From ‘We Go To The Gallery’ by Miriam Elia.

 

Number Two: I-Spy books by Sam Jordison

Stocking gifts, photo by Marija Smits.

Stocking gifts, photo by Marija Smits.

Last year, Father Christmas was kind enough to fill my stocking with wine, art materials and funny books. Over breakfast (cereal and tea and chocolate currency), with overexcited children running about in their pants, I began to read Sam Jordison’s I Spy book, At the School Gate: My Mum’s Better Than Your Mum.

Now, I love a good game, and the idea behind the I-Spy books is that you have to spy as many of the people in the book as possible to win points. No problem, I thought. I’m a mum who goes to the school gates! Surely I’ll quickly rack up some points for simply seeing myself in the book.

From I-Spy At The School Gates, by Sam Jordison

From I-Spy At The School Gates’, by Sam Jordison

Sadly, I immediately found myself in minus numbers as I had to subtract 40 points for being ‘The Family That Is Always Late’. Damn you Sam! And even when I discovered that I could award myself 20 points for being a ‘Guardianista’ mum (yep I’m the one at the school gates boring everyone silly with how right I am about the current sorry state of education, and Brexit, and austerity… etc. etc.) that still meant I was only at – 20. Damn you Sam!

But I’m not going to get hateful about it. Since the kids have returned to school I’m into positive numbers, what with spotting many ‘Exercise Bunnies’ and the odd ‘Chelsea Tractor’. Yay! Go me! But Sam definitely doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to ‘Hot Dad’. This is one parent I have NEVER EVER seen at the school gates. No sirree. Nope. Absolutely not. Definitely not. Never.

Hmm…

Goodness me! Is that the time? I’d really better get a move on…

Right! On to the next I-Spy book, Pets: When Human Friendship Is Not Enough. Sadly, we are cat-less at the moment but that didn’t stop me enjoying this book. I’m not sure I’ll ever spy a ‘Dog on a Trailer’ but hell! I can have fun trying.

From 'I-Spy: Pets' by Sam Jordison

From ‘I-Spy: Pets’ by Sam Jordison

My husband also received a couple of I-Spy books from Santa: The UK: While It Lasts and Signs and Instructions You Must Obey. All most certainly very amusing and worth buying and reading. But if you’ve got children be prepared to have to explain some of the surreal humour and answer philosophical questions like: “Why are there signs that say, PLEASE DO NOT THROW ROCKS AT THIS SIGN…?” and “Mummy, would you throw rocks at the sign? Because you may have to do a lot of soul-searching when trying to answer those questions.

 

Number Three: Would I Lie to You? Presents the 100 Most Popular Lies of All Time.

Would I Lie To You?

Would I Lie To You?

I ended up borrowing this book from the library for weeks on end. Yes the lies are predictable and some of the humour too, but the book very often had me laughing so much I ended up in tears. Lie #3 – Lies to watch out for from plumbers: I need to get a part created a wonderful picture of overcharging white van-driving absentee plumbers all gathering in some crowded cul-de-sac to eat Pringles, link arms and sing their plumber’s song: We’ve gone to get a part. We’ve gone to get a part. We won’t be back for over an hour, we’ve gone to get a part!’

Ah, good times.

 

Number Four: Peter Pan Goes Wrong

But if you need some visual humour right now (and suitable for all the family) do watch Peter Pan Goes Wrong on BBC IPlayer (there’s still a few days left to view it). It is simply fantastic and really does bear repeat viewing. (My daughter is somewhat obsessed by this at the moment… and I can’t help mimicking the pirate’s odd way of talking and telling my kids to “Just give me the suewooooooord…..” at random moments. Bliss.)

 

Number Five: Classic YouTube Videos

If you’re looking for an instant (and fast) hit of humour, there’s always Cats vs Cucumbers. (Worth watching just for the dog cameo. Just be aware that there is some over-the-top creepy cackling from one of the cat owners which constantly makes me wonder: Whaaaat…?)

 

And if that doesn’t do it for you I give you babies and kids falling over and being well… kids. (The kids being caught doing “naughty” stuff and mid-lies is particularly wonderful.)

 

Number Six: As seen on Facebook/Twitter/GodKnowsWhere…

Lastly, if you like a good bit of satirical humour there is always this:

Just another one of those awful magazines. Yet subverted.

Just another one of those awful magazines. Yet subverted.

 

And lastly, I give you cabbages:

Cabbages. Just that.

Cabbages. Just that.

 

I hope that one of the above tickles your funny bone, and if not, please do recommend me some of your own favourite funnies.

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The Poetess, The Outraged, and The Wild Woman

The other day I was genuinely discombobulated (and a bit upset) that a fairly well-known literary author (or should that be authoress?!) decided to, completely out of the blue, tweet me at my Marija Smits Twitter account to say this:

 

@MarijaSmits PoetESS? Really? I’ve find that title very belittling. Poet is genderless. Like writer. And chemist.

 

Now, as some of you know, I am a deeply reflective person. I don’t do quick, clever retorts or off-the-cuff tweets (as I have to assume this was, given the typo). I don’t do ‘soundbites’, so I’m sure as hell not going to start a discussion about this on Twitter.

But… I thought and thought about it, and carefully considered what to do about this tweet. The HSP in me said: ‘Say nothing, don’t speak out, be silent, because then you won’t get hurt and overwhelmed by it all.’ But the Wild Woman in me – she who is very good at helping me to speak out when I know an issue is dear to me – said: ‘Be brave. Write. Explain yourself. Speak out for all the Wild Women who are silenced in small and big ways every day.’

So here are my thoughts. I would also like to add that as most of you know, yes, I am careful with my words, so I did not choose the title ‘poetess’ lightly, and I want to explain my reasoning behind this. To help me do this, let’s begin to analyze that tweet…

 

Definition of 'poetess'

Definition of ‘poetess’

The Poetess

Why is the female gendered form of ‘poet’ belittling? Is ‘poet’ truly genderless? I sometimes see women calling themselves ‘female poets’ but I don’t read about ‘male poets’. So is ‘poetess’ “belittling” because the author who tweeted me assumes that the male form is the usual default, and that the female form is obviously subordinate and therefore lesser?

This is the same impulse in genderless environments/occupations like ‘scientist’ or ‘chemist’. In fact, these cultures (academic and commercial) are competitive, aggressive and confrontational, and, in fact, stereotypically masculine. Women are equal in this “genderless” world as long as they behave like men. But not paid the same, of course. And, it’s worth noting, some women are better than other women at behaving like stereotypically masculine men. (The arena of politics is another apt example.)

Removal of the female gendered form in artistic contexts is denying the different lived experience and different aesthetic/sensibility that women have. It belittles them by suggesting they can only be equal to men by being the same and having the same identity.

As a deeply reflective person, I thought about the pros and cons of using the word ‘poetess’ for a fair while before I decided to give myself that title on my blog… I meant to call myself ‘poetess’ because my poetry reflects (and is generally about) my life as a woman and the impact that my feminine identity has on my artistic expression. Why should we women NOT be allowed to draw attention to our gender in the names we choose for ourselves? Why must the female form be suppressed? How does this suppression “enlarge us” and make us less “little”? And finally, why must I, a woman, face attack from another woman who wants to censor the names I use for myself? This, in itself, is a belitting, and sad disempowerment – which is fundamentally against everything that I have strived for in my breastfeeding counselling voluntary work, my writing and my publishing work.

Continuing to look at the bigger picture, I also see from the breastfeeding support world that sometimes people get upset about the use of the word ‘mother’ and ‘father’ and that it should be simply ‘parent’. Now, I think we’re getting into difficult territory here, because mothers and fathers have differing, though unique roles. And believe me, I’ve seen enough people arguing about this until I’m fit to burst with melancholy. I’ve been drawn into it myself, while arguing for safe spaces for women, and I’ve been called names to my face and seen some pretty ugly name-calling online. And then I’ve also read the arguments about how we should all just call each other and ourselves humans so that we cut out any gendered stuff like ‘man’ or ‘woman’. And perhaps, while we’re at it, we should get rid of female and male names (or perhaps adopt the male names only – they can be the standard, right?!). Again, this is tricky territory we’re getting into, and one that needs far more critical (and nuanced) thinking about than our social media–savvy society seems to be able to cope with.

 

The Outraged

But, coming back to the tweet… I cannot see that my use of the word ‘poetess’ is worth the outrage. Or perhaps it is? Maybe, by labelling myself thus, I unknowingly hit upon a nerve. But I know too that we are living in the age of outrage and people seem quick to look for reasons to be offended. Indeed, some of them go out of their way to be offended. (Something I cannot for the life of me understand.)

I also thought it particularly apt that just the other day I read this excellent blog post by Kristen Lamb about whether or not Facebook is dying, and how it really isn’t about fun (and harmless) socializing anymore. Kristen said that she’d done something she’d never expected to do – unfollow other writers – because they were simply too busy being outraged (my words here) and it wasn’t much fun.

These writers—The Unfollowed—have mutated from friends into geysers of hysteria, hate, ranting, or general pissed-offedness. And I think that’s sad. The same writer who’s spending time on social media might one day announce a book that I would have seen and maybe even bought…had they not pushed me to the point of unfollowing anything they posted.

There are even some well known authors I used to read and buy their books…but now I no longer like them. Deep down I resent how they’ve selfishly beaten me over the head with their opinions. Frankly, there are too many nice and considerate authors to buy from instead.

The thing is… when this author-tweeter started following me on Twitter the other day, I felt genuinely excited because she is an acclaimed writer. Though now… I feel deflated and I have a desire to stay off social media. But hey, that’s the world we live in at the moment and it’s probably a good reminder to me that no matter what I say online someone somewhere will be offended by what I, a woman, choose to call myself.

 

The Wild Woman

I now feel in a place in my life where I don’t just want to stick to Aren’t cats cute? online. Maintaining a front of 100% bland and inoffensiveness is exhausting and depleting to the soul. So I will continue to be me, to be genuine and truthful to my own Wild Woman. For she is the one who reminds me in countless ways every day that I am a woman, and a mother, and a poetess, and that I should take pride in my identity.

 

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