Dream to be yourself: women and science

Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. As someone who is much more comfortable in the world of arts and literature it may seem an odd theme to reflect upon in my weekly blog. But throughout my life I have come across some amazingly gifted women and girls who have contributed through their careers and writing to the advancement of our scientific knowledge. Yet in virtually each of their stories and careers they have done so despite the barriers and challenges placed in front of them both in terms of attitudes and behaviours, and more explicitly in terms of bias and discrimination. Theirs has without exception been a journey of struggle against the prevalent societal, academic and industry prejudices.

In some senses I belong to a generation where there was an unhealthy presumption when I was at school that science was for the boys and that the arts and other subjects were for the girls.  And I am not that old! This myth of male scientific primacy could not have been more visibly negated than in my own classroom where the girls romped ahead of any male in their environment and to my knowledge at least three of whom went on to do science-based PhDs and have excellent scientific careers. Yet I can still remember a female teacher standing in front of the class and stating without fear of contradiction or embarrassment that “science brains were always ‘male brains because of the way in which we were made”. The pseudo-science of presumption.

Wind on the years and I am sitting in a care home with an older lady who by that stage was in her nineties and bar from some real physical challenges as the result of hip replacement surgery which had not worked as it should have, she was intellectually active and her mind was dynamic and creative. She recounted to me her own experience of frustration with her schooling because despite being the undoubted brightest in a family of three brothers, she never got her chance at pursuing education until she had left school and working all hours and with the support of her young husband, she put herself through university education. She went on to become one of the foremost specialists in her field of immunology. We got to know one another really well but in almost every conversation we had there was both an anger at the barriers she had faced not just at school but in her clinical career simply because she was a woman, and this was combined with a determination that girls and women in the future should not have to endure similar experiences.

Undeniably we have come a long way and there are more women in positions of scientific prominence and as leaders in science and technological industry, but we have considerable distance still to go. The UNESCO and UN-Women led day we celebrate today illustrates the distance to ending such discrimination. It states:

  • Women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues and, while they represent 33.3% of all researchers, only 12% of members of national science academies are women.
  • In cutting edge fields such as artificial intelligence, only one in five professionals (22%) is a woman.
  • Despite a shortage of skills in most of the technological fields driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women still account for only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of graduates in computer science and informatics.
  • Female researchers tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers. Their work is underrepresented in high-profile journals, and they are often passed over for promotion.

In order to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, we must recognise the challenges we see all around us.

I have written and spoken a lot about technology and how it impacts the world of social care – I hasten to add from an amateur and non-scientific expert stance! As a result, I attend many science and technology conferences and events and what often strikes me is that without exception so much of the most dynamic, original and humanistic inventions and initiatives originate from the work of female developers and scientists – yet so much leadership, presentation and articulation of these is led by men. What is going on there if not healthcare and social care’s own glass ceiling operating against the creativity and imagination of women? As the UN states women remain a minority in ‘digital information technology, computing, physics, mathematics and engineering. These are the fields that are driving the digital revolution and so, many of the jobs of tomorrow.’

Of all the Nobel laureates awarded in physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine 587 (97%) have been given to men and only 20 to women. That strikes me as the arithmetic of bias rather than the science of sense. It is time for those of us in our own spheres of influence such as social care and health care to ensure we continually address the ongoing discrimination against women and girls in technology and science. If we do so we not only work to right an error but to benefit the whole of society by giving space and voice to creativity, innovation, discovery and insight from those who have so much to give. As my old friend in the care home said to me, she had spent her life “dreaming and working to be herself.”

And what better way to end this blog but with the challenge and creative brilliance of Neil Gaiman and his poem ‘The Mushroom Hunters.’:

“The Mushroom Hunters,”

Science, as you know, my little one, is the study

of the nature and behaviour of the universe.

It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement,

and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.

In the old times, they say, the men came already fitted with brains

designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run,

to hurdle blindly into the unknown,

and then to find their way back home when lost

with a slain antelope to carry between them.

Or, on bad hunting days, nothing.

The women, who did not need to run down prey,

had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them

left at the thorn bush and across the scree

and look down in the bole of the half-fallen tree,

because sometimes there are mushrooms.

Before the flint club, or flint butcher’s tools,

The first tool of all was a sling for the baby

to keep our hands free

and something to put the berries and the mushrooms in,

the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers.

Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break.

And sometimes men chased the beasts

into the deep woods,

and never came back.

Some mushrooms will kill you,

while some will show you gods

and some will feed the hunger in our bellies. Identify.

Others will kill us if we eat them raw,

and kill us again if we cook them once,

but if we boil them up in spring water, and pour the water away,

and then boil them once more, and pour the water away,

only then can we eat them safely. Observe.

Observe childbirth, measure the swell of bellies and the shape of breasts,

and through experience discover how to bring babies safely into the world.

Observe everything.

And the mushroom hunters walk the ways they walk

and watch the world, and see what they observe.

And some of them would thrive and lick their lips,

While others clutched their stomachs and expired.

So laws are made and handed down on what is safe. Formulate.

The tools we make to build our lives:

our clothes, our food, our path home…

all these things we base on observation,

on experiment, on measurement, on truth.

And science, you remember, is the study

of the nature and behaviour of the universe,

based on observation, experiment, and measurement,

and the formulation of laws to describe these facts.

The race continues. An early scientist

drew beasts upon the walls of caves

to show her children, now all fat on mushrooms

and on berries, what would be safe to hunt.

The men go running on after beasts.

The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill

and down to the water’s edge and past the place where the red clay runs.

They are carrying their babies in the slings they made,

freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.

From https://allyourprettywords.tumblr.com/post/160240301193/the-mushroom-hunters-neil-gaiman

Donald Macaskill