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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Neoliberalism: the invisible monster

I had intended for this blog post to be about some books that I read recently and greatly appreciated, but instead, something rather big happened here in the UK which derailed me. (Apologies to writers Angela Topping, Kate Garrett, Sarah James and Jessica Starr – reviews of your books will be along later.)

 

I refer, of course, to the UK’s referendum on whether to stay in the EU or not, and the outcome in which a 52% majority decided to leave the EU. I was shocked and saddened by the news, and the subsequent car crash that is UK politics. I was (and still am) disturbed by people’s reactions to the news, as witnessed on the internet (particularly social media), as well as ‘meatspace’ i.e. the real world. It is enough to send anyone reeling, but as an HSP, I feel that it has quite genuinely wormed its way into my head and parked itself with a huge amount of anxiety, rumination and a feeling of powerlessness and pointlessness: that there is no way out. That there is no way for cooperation to win. That always, always, the powerless are trampled on. That quiet, reflective people have no ability to effect change. That we don’t have a voice. Liars win. Aggression wins. Everything I do is pointless, and without worth.

 

And yet, and yet, hope wishes to prevail. Optimism would like to resurface. But it is still too early. I am experiencing a form of grief. Because any kind of separation brings about grief.

 

I have been (and still am) reading dozens of news articles and trying to process the why of the matter. Some individuals are very ready with generalisations and absolutes. People voted leave because of X. This happened because of Y. It is human nature to try to simplify things in order to find a certain sense to those things. But this is an incredibly complex issue, with layers and layers of political manoeuvring and lies to uncover, economics to make sense of, and people’s very genuine disillusionment with the state of the UK (and UK politics) to pick apart. Throw in a good dollop of racism and xenophobia, nasty political campaigning and the media aiming to outrage (not forgetting the actual reason for the referendum – the advantages & disadvantages of the EU [which I still think was a distraction]) as well all the negative affects of austerity, the issue of class and wealth, and hey presto! A perfect recipe for disaster.

 

I feel as though I am living in a state of limbo right now. Everyday life goes on, of course, (although I am noticing my anxiety seeping into my interactions with my family far too much) but my mind keeps returning to the why. And what now?

 

This article, by John Harris, is probably the most useful and insightful one about the why of what happened last Thursday. In it, Harris writes:

 

If we fear not just what this decision means for our country but how much it says about Britain’s underlying social condition, we will have to fight. But first, we will have to think, probably more deeply than ever.

 

And thinking is what I am doing right now. The whys are going around my head and the possible answers to those whys. And yet I know that I am missing something. I feel as though there is a something just out of sight, or possibly there, but not visible to the human eye. So it was a happy coincidence that I began to read How Did We Get Into This Mess? by George Monbiot last Saturday, because straightaway in the introduction, Monbiot very quickly made visible the invisible.

 

Take, for example, the ideology that now governs out lives. Not only is it seldom challenged it is seldom even identified. As a result, no one seems to know what to call it. Neoliberalism? Market fundamentalism? Laissez-faire economics? Though it is a clear and consistent belief system, though it is the ideology to which most governments and major opposition parties subscribe, and though it determines everything from the distribution of wealth to the treatment of the living planet, it has no standard or widely recognized name.

 

What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?

 

 

And, I would add, to operate invisibly.

 

We need to go back to the 60s, 70s and 80s and once again acquaint ourselves with what Thatcher did to the U.K. We need to immerse ourselves in history and learn about the rise of neoliberalism, the rise of individualism, and the dreaded curse of competitiveness, which has led us to this moment.

 

We are, as Monbiot suggests living in an Age of Loneliness. And so, in my eyes, the UK annexing itself from the EU – a supposed act of “taking back control” – was actually an act of enabling further loneliness.

 

So what now?

 

We need to name the nameless. To clothe the invisible monster that is neoliberalism and give it a form. For when we can see our foe, we can begin to fight it, rather than each other and ourselves.

 

We writers, artists, mothers, fathers, lovers, friends, sensitive folk, and above all, the wild men and women – for there is nothing that neoliberalism hates more than wildness, the wildness of the human spirit and the natural wild – we must, in our everyday lives name the nameless and fight in our own gentle ways.

 

Disconnection must be countered by connection. Competitiveness countered by cooperation. And at the most fundamental level, hate needs to be countered by love.

 

The good thing about wildness, and the natural wild, is that it has an intrinsic desire for life and growth. It wants to grow. It wants to live and thrive. And with very little – empathy, a few kind words and deeds – it can and will thrive. Let us be like gardeners and tend to the wildness within ourselves and each other. But let us also be mindful of the nameless thing that wants to trample on us. Let us name it and fight it.

 

Neoliberalism image

Neoliberalism, the invisible monster

 

If you would like to learn more about the invisible monster, this is a useful book: A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey.

Or check out Wikipedia’s definition (the first paragraph is a good summation, and the paragraph about neoliberalism and feminism is also enlightening).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoliberalism

 

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