I really thought I had been lucky enough to grow up in a world where sexism had died, I never felt I had to prove myself at school or college, and I was always encouraged by my parents and my teachers to pursue science.
I know that supposedly in the past (or as a great post by southernfriedscience describes it, “pre-internet”) sexism was pretty much a given, but I seemed to get by without bumping into it.
Post-internet, this catalyst called ‘social media’ appeared. A way of connecting stories, a platform of virtual solidarity, and a voice to stand up and defend ourselves.
Now, probably the most headline grabbing social-media frenzy example, was Tim Hunt’s “the problem with girls” speech. A Nobel prize winner made the dazzling mistake of portraying women scientists as weepy, incapable of taking criticism and distracting to men who “fall in love with them”, to a room brimming with female scientists. The fall-out was massive. Barely surviving the (often-brutal) personal attacks across the globe, he resigned, offered a vague apology and suddenly trended on twitter with the (hilarious) ‘distractinglysexy’ hashtag. Side-note, this has been one of the highlights of my twitter-life, and completely shutdown the “feminist’s are humourless” reaction from camp-Hunt. See some of the best here.
But this highlighted a fierce solidarity, and when half the science students are female, hope and inspiration. In research we earn less on average, in jobs we cover just 14.4% of the STEM workforce and just one in 5 professors are women. As someone who has got through to PhD interviews many times and still no success, I’m not any less determined to try and make it to one of those professorships (this article by The Guardian is pretty interesting though). Three days after handing in my masters thesis, my first job was with a huge international company specialising in satellite imagery, and I was the only woman in a huge team of men. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end, I barely covered 1% of the workforce, let alone 14.4%, and yet this gave me the opportunity to prove myself.
I have had, I guess, a small glimpse of this association with tears and presumed feminine weakness. I took one day completely off in 4 months of my master’s thesis and as such I was reduced to tears in my supervisors’ office. “My priorities were wrong”, “I was not working as much as I should” and “I was unfocused”. In fact, I was mentally and physically broken. Exhausted from working from 8am till 6pm in a dark lab (dungeon) with none of my experiments wielding usable results, scoffing some beans on toast, and continuing to read papers alone in my bedroom past midnight whilst my housemates huddled round Great British Bakeoff together. My grandmother had passed away during the exams the month before to cancer, and somehow I still managed to claw myself to the top mark of my course. I was struggling, like any human would. So yes, I cried, alot in that office. And to this day, I am not ashamed. I am not a cold, detached scientist, I was a 22 year old that wanted to do so well and prove herself, and was fighting to show that I could be a scientist* and I was passionate.
Which brings me to Dr Emily Grossman. I’ve followed her on twitter for a while, and remember clearly the abuse she received for that interview and the day it spread like wildfire on twitter. Watching it, my face mirrored Emily’s during the interview, her expression says it all. During the torrent of insults from Milo, for me, she hit the nail on the head. It’s all down to confidence. Too many young women are put off by this “less competent” guise, this imposter-syndrome effect. Yes, even the beautiful talented pioneering Emma Watson has fallen foul to this. You only have to read my teacher reports from primary school to college in which every single one repeats “should have more confidence in herself”. Two first class degrees later and I still regularly tear myself down about “whether I can really do this” and the “did they pick me by accident” thoughts that haunt me.
Quick jump to Emily’s recent and brilliant Ted Talk and a quote that really stood out to me:
“How can we expect to solve the worlds problems if we are potentially putting off half of the talent”
She then highlights, that during the wave of the awful Paris attacks, a male presenter cried on air. Then apologised, perhaps as if conforming to stigmatism that crying is “weak”. It was in fact, as Emily perfectly puts it, an expression of care. So, like when I cried with frustration in that office in June, it was because I cared so much about my project and felt like I was being judged unfairly when I was putting so much time and effort in.
I do not think it is a hindrance, to have scientists that care so much about making progress and protecting the planet we live on. I am not going to reword her talk, I urge you to listen to it yourself, but she emphasises with many great examples that emotional openness is vital for making major scientific discoveries. Which brings me back to the beginning of this post, I believe we need to encourage collaboration, encourage nurturing environments, encourage emotional openness and not cause a male-female divide within science, alliance is key. We want to attract more scientists, not reprimand them for caring about their work or stigmatise tears to be a sign of fragility.
*I came out with a distinction in my MSc, and I am bloody damn proud.