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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Trump, and the post I didn’t want to write

The meaning of 'Trump'

 

This was the blog post that I didn’t want to write – but also the one that I thought that, eventually, I would have to. A few days ago, Maddy wrote very eloquently about her fears and anxiety about the US presidential election. Like so many (my husband included) Maddy was holding on to the hope that Hillary Clinton, an intelligent, liberal, hardworking individual of integrity, would become president. She would be the first female president of the United States. It was about time a woman entered the White House, not just as ‘the wife’ but the president. But after Brexit… well, I felt that it would be better not to hope. So when I rose this morning and my husband told me the news that Trump had got in, the faint glimmer of hope that my soul was secretly holding onto, died.

Intellectually, I can understand why this has happened. There is a majority of humans (a slight one, but still…) that either consciously or subconsciously believe that competition, not cooperation, is the name of the game. That the desires of the individual reign supreme and that the needs of others are irrelevant. For many in this slight majority, all that matters is that the individual succeeds, no matter the cost to other humans or the planet.

Cooperation seems subtly, morally tricksy, you see. Because what if you help someone out and they don’t help you in return? What if they’re cheating the system, and you’re working your butt off and they’re not but they’re still getting the benefits of your hard work…? It’s not fair, is it? No, it’s not fair, but a large, well-run and caring society can buffer the effects of the odd person who doesn’t pull their weight. I care more that the vulnerable are provided for than I care about the fact that some are possibly cheating the system and getting benefits that they don’t really need (although with all the benefit cuts happening in the UK at the moment it seems impossible that anyone could actually be ‘cheating’ the system).

So… those who strongly adhere to the idea that it is better that a few (read: many) vulnerable people suffer so that all the cheats are caught and stripped of their benefits buy into the principles of conservatism, of republicanism, of tradition (these political philosophies also happen to further the agenda of the monster, neoliberalism). And one of the oft-used tricks of these political philosophies is to blame others for the individual’s dissatisfaction or not-as-successful-as-they’d-like standing in society.

“The poor and the vulnerable – especially those who do not share the same language or customs or religion – have always been a politically convenient scapegoat for a society’s various ills. It’s the oldest trick in the book.”

Giles Fraser wrote in 2014.

And as someone who lives and breathes books, I also thought that what Alessandro Gallenzi, founder of Alma Books (an indie press) had to say about the election result particularly pertinent:

“What you sow is what you reap. Decades of lack of investment in education and the arts, decades of dumbing-down and anti-intellectualism can only lead to mental apathy and political passivity.”

He blamed the result on an “intellectual sheepishness”.

 

The Future

So what of Trump and the future?

Well, in this thought-provoking article, the author, Kate Aronoff writes:

“The upshot is already clear: in short order, the United States could slide from hawkish neoliberalism into authoritarianism.”

Authoritarianism and Trump appear to be very happy bedfellows. Yet, of course, authoritarianism, with its close ties to totalitarianism is something to be afraid of. (Although I’m willing to concede that a benevolent dictatorship is something that could maybe work well for a country.) Authoritarianism is up there with neoliberalism in terms of its potential for monstrousness. Though, interestingly, if you look back on history, totalitarianism can still arise under a variety of political regimes (and -isms): communism, capitalism, nationalism, fascism. (Feel free to play “guess the dictator” at this point if you want.)

But intellectual analysis aside, emotionally, I once again feel like the world has turned upside down. Overnight a backward step, in terms of the rights of the vulnerable, women’s rights, the obliteration of racism, and the halting of climate change, has been taken. And I am soul-sick and weary.

So what can we do? Well, first, we must feel. We must allow ourselves the time to come to terms with our emotions. We must think, and continue to think about what we can do. Very many of us, who are just about coping with our day-to-day lives, and all the challenges that life brings, will have to concede that there is very little we can do. But for the many, many of us who believe in cooperation and not competition, and who want there to be a caring society and a planet that hasn’t been fried to a crisp in the future, we have to fight, and do what we can with the skills and time we have available to us. We also have to remember that the every day small kindnesses that we perform towards each other and the planet matter. But taking a step back, away from history, taking the omniscient position, I have to remind myself that over the centuries, our societies are becoming more liberal and more caring. It is just that there will most likely always be these semi-regular blips, spikes of selfishness and aggression if you will, that will cause us to despair.

Finally, I am reminded that simply continuing – and holding the principles of empathy, love and cooperation close to our hearts – is a way of ‘winning’. Simply enduring. And surviving. For now, it’ll have to do.

 

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