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This one’s for all you gorgeous female scientists out there…

I’ve recently been made aware of an organisation called GetSET, affiliated with the UKRC, which advocates girls and women in science and encourages female participation and leadership in traditionally male-dominated professions.

Check out their website: http://www.theukrc.org/get-involved/networks/getset-women

Isn’t this a nice change from news stories highlighting the still-present deplorable inferiority of females in just about any field of science/engineering known to humankind. I wish I’d known about it earlier!

Apparently, over 3000 women in science and engineering are currently registered on the network. It’s a small number, but with more publicity, I hope we’ll see many more join.

 

And now it’s time for another whine at the frustrating state of women in science!

Scanning the ‘women in science’ news this morning hoping to come across an uplifting story, I instead found this article reporting a study done at the University of California-Davis on women’s participation at scientific conferences.

According to the study, which involved reviewing the conference programmes of a series of annual conferences in physical anthropology and primatology, fewer women spoke or presented than men, even though these sciences are traditionally female-dominated. Also:

  • Women were only half as likely to present in a symposium organised by a man than at one organised by a woman;
  • Participating women dominated the poster sessions while men were far more likely to give oral presentations or symposia.

If this level of inequality exists in a female-dominated field like primatology, goodness knows what’s happening at male-dominated science conferences…but hang on, we already know that!

Sometimes, whatever way you look at it, you lose.

Of course, it’s only more demoralising to hear about our own kind toting the line for ‘traditional’ gender roles, like Carla Bruni did the other day. I’m squirming in my incredulity at one of the highest-paid catwalk models with chauffeurs and cleaning staff telling us we don’t need to be feminist. Sure, Carla, if I were 6 feet tall and had maids to make my breakfast and clean my mansion, I’d sit around at home and give interviews to Vogue magazine too.

But then again, maybe I wouldn’t. Because even if we are provided for, does that legitimise girls growing up to stay at home? To look after the children, cook and clean, and do the ironing? To never feel curiosity to learn, to study, to be challenged? We live in the 21st century – when there is maternity leave at workplaces, more options for childcare, and maybe even a few decent men who don’t mind helping with housework. It’s more than possible – it’s necessary – for women to work, and not to work at some low-paid unrewarding post, but in some academic or industrial sector that fosters their curiosity and pushes them to aim higher.

We need more women in science, more women speaking at science conferences, more women in trade and in industry, doing jobs men are doing now, and doing it better than them.

This post isn’t about the history of PhDs since mediaeval times. I would rather write an 80,000 word thesis than post about that – I’m that sick of them.

There’s a lot of talk these days – as there always has been – on women in science and the ‘fact’ that we are too stupid to ever succeed in it, because we’re women. Well, apart from being female, I am also blessed to be young, and, as we all know, young women are doubly stupid when it comes to science, because, well, we’re young.

I’m fortunate not to have to hear a lot of crap about the ‘inappropriateness’ of my gender for being a science researcher, mainly because my area is psychology rather than the life or physical sciences, which are notoriously male-dominated. In psychology – at least within the bubble of academia – departmental staff are pretty much split even, and among psychology students, there is actually a female majority, often even on modules that might be expected to appeal more to males, like evolutionary or cognitive psychology. I feel comfortably at home as a female psychologist.

And yet, I am still not free of stigmatization: Because of my age.

I began my PhD when I was 20 (“What? Really?” comes the response). The reason for this is that I had finished my degree early, because I had started it early, aged 17, and I had done that because I finished school early, because I started when I was 4. It’s all quite complicated and not worth explaining here, because it doesn’t really matter. As they say, what matters is that we’re here, we’re together, and every day brings us closer to a cure. Or whatever.

Anyway, I was 20 when I started. I had a first class degree and I’d been accepted onto a research programme, so there seemed little point in waiting around, doing a masters degree. Come to think of it, it’s probably for the best that I didn’t, because while researching for my masters dissertation I might have cottoned on to the fact that research is inherently boring, and never have come to grad school, and never have come this close to getting my PhD, and therefore never be able to get a job in academia.

Well. Actually. Maybe I went wrong after all.

Over the last few years I have always worked in an environment in which everyone is always older than me. Even people who have come fresh from degrees have an MSc and are at least 24 when they start. In my case, the youngest fellow PhD student I’ve met was 25 when she started, and she was deregistered in her first year for not being able to meet required standards. As for the rest of my colleagues – they’re well into their 30s, if not their 40s or even 50s, and many of them are married, have children, and even had whole other careers (like a PhD in theoretical physics) before they decided to study psychology.

They mean well, but many of the people I work with – including the many women – have, at some point or other, made insensitive comments about my age, such as about me being ‘too young’ to be doing PhD research, being a ‘little girl’, and telling me they don’t mean to patronise me BUT…[insert patronising comment of choice here].

I’ve come to accept that having assumptions made about me is unavoidable in everyday life outside of academia. For example, I once walked into an O2 shop to buy credit for my mobile phone. While taking the cash and printing out the vouchers, the assistants tend to make small talk with you to distract from the fact that you’re being kept waiting. This happened to be in June, when most schools and universities have exam weeks.

“So, studying for exams then?” Asked the guy behind the counter.

“Yes…kind of,” I said, trying to avoid the tediousness of explaining that annual monitoring reviews are technically a type of exam for PhD students.

“A levels?” Asked the guy.

“What?”

“A level exams…you know, when you’re 16?”

I was too startled to be angry. “No, I’m actually-”

“-GCSEs?” he butted in.

“What?”

“GCSEs…are you in sixth form?”

“I’m actually at university,” I said, starting to feel irritated.

“Oh, sorry,” he apologised, starting to look sheepish. “You must be revising hard.”

“I’m doing a PhD…you know, like research?”

At this point the guy went beetroot red – and must have been relieved to finally tear off the printed vouchers before he made any more embarrassing assumptions. Actually, he was probably glad to see me on my way before I might tell him I’m actually a child-genius-turned-professor-of-rocket-science-from-Yale, or some such thing.

I was just glad to have my vouchers.

This sort of thing I can bear in life – but the fact that others in the same boat as me, in academia, doing research, do the same thing, does make me mad. You may be a forty-something mother of two teenagers with a defunct career in architecture out there in the real world, but when we’re working in this lab together we are colleagues, peers, and equals, and the fact that I am 22 years old bears no relation to that. I am competent in my research and that it what is required of me. As long as I meet this requirement, my age is irrelevant.

Just as there ought not to be such a thing as ‘too old to do a PhD’, nor should there be such a thing as ‘too young’. I am not a ‘little girl’. I don’t appreciate being patronised by people who are my equals in academia just because they were born 25 years before I was.

It’s time to cut the crap on women and younger researchers having no place in academia, being too stupid to understand science, and showing no potential to succeed.

We need to focus on the brains, not the boobs, and definitely not the years.

It is a small victory for the sisterhood that it is the words of a female poet – Emma Lazarus – that grace the pedestals of the Statue of Liberty in New York’s great harbour.

What a shame that those words have come to represent an ideal that, in practice, America may never reach. Because the fact is, however much we idealise  equality among all people, regardless of their backgrounds, and however much we believe that we must protect those at the very bottom of society, we are still shamefully unequal. And for all the rhetoric of “difficult times” and “making do” used by politicians, our inequality is unjustifiable, indefensible, immoral.

Not long ago, Jon Ronson from GQ Magazine drove across America to interview some of the richest and poorest people in the country. In this striking story, the comfortable, protected life of a Forbes billionaire is put in contrast with a migrant from Haiti who lives in a slum and washes dishes for a meager wage. Inequality in America is, actually, still as bad as, if not worse than, it was in 1774. And that’s got to be bad, considering slavery was still in operation back then.

Today, we still live in a world where inequality prevails, where the rich hold power, and where the poorest masses are silent in the face of injustice.

In a world where those who dare to show us the truth – like Assange or Manning – are held captive by authorities that have long exceeded the powers granted them by constitutional law.

In a world where the tired, the poor, the huddled masses find no ‘world-wide welcome’ in the countries that hold equality ideal.

In a world where they find themselves, instead, destitute, and this destitution is more appalling in America and in Western cradles of democracy than it is in countries poorer, because it is here in the West that so many others bask in needless wealth, and in the greed that justifies holding on to it.

And here in London, in Stratford where I live and work, at what was the heart of the pomp and the glory of the 2012 Olympics, the homeless men and women still sit silent on the benches in the mall, wrapped tight in tattered clothes, smelling of garbage, a few bags of belongings tucked under their legs. In a country where £11 billion was spent on the games, how can it be fair that these unwanted castaways are no closer to decency and dignity than they were before?

If the West is really a ‘Mother of Exiles’, why did it not build shelters, open kitchens, create jobs and education programmes for its homeless?

And in its blind celebration of needless expenditure why, why can it not see the homeless, the tempest-tost on whom it treads?

 

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame.
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)

There’s a GREAT article in NY Mag this week on women in political leadership. Check it out here.

I feel relieved – and pleased – that women really are more liberal, more action-oriented leaders than men, and the potential benefits of more women leaders for societies governed by administrations notoriously low in female representation sound promising.

In the history of modern politics, we have never lived in a world governed primarily by women. Some day, I hope, we will – and I believe we have a lot to look forward to.

For now, though, I’m supporting Wanda Sykes for US President in 2016. She’s the ultimate representative of the revolutionary left – she’s a woman, she’s Black, she’s gay…what more could America want?

Friend of WikiLeaks

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!