Science Grrl!

Last week I asked on Twitter if there would be interest in setting up a Dublin chapter of Science Grrl. I got a fantastic response! I’m just jotting down a quick blog post to serve as a brief introduction and statement of intent to those who’ve expressed interest, or those who are coming on this for the first time. Do feel free to get in touch!

Feminists, scientists, educators, geeks: your attention, please.

The UK-based Science Grrl organisation is about to have its first birthday, and it’s high time we had a chapter here in Dublin. Science Grrl is a volunteer-based organisation that promotes engagement in (and enjoyment of) the sciences to young women. It’s led by Dr Heather Williams and her committee, and has hundreds of members across the UK.

They’ve participated in lots of campaigns and events in the past year, including lectures, festivals, fundraisers, sponsorships, work with educators, and online events like Ada Lovelace Day. Their website has a great blog section where members write about the events in which they’ve been involved, and I’d recommend you poke around the site a bit if you want a good sense of what they do.

Currently, membership costs £5 – it’s not essential that you be a member to take part in a chapter’s activities, but it is a good way to support the organisation. I believe there are plans afoot for a shop too! If you do join and mention that you’d like to be part of the Dublin group, Liz will put you in touch with me via email.

Setting a local chapter up in Dublin would firstly involve a group of us getting together to discuss ways in which we could engage with the Irish scientific community and with young people. I say Dublin in particular because it’s my closest city, and has lots of events that we could play a part in. Obviously, if there’s interest it would be great to have other Irish groups! I’d like to try to arrange a meeting at some point in the next couple of weeks to gauge interest and start getting some ideas moving. I was thinking one evening, in the city (possibly in the Science Gallery? It’d be fitting!), and would love to hear from you if you’re interested. It would also be lovely to get some entries for Ada Lovelace Day stories from Irish people.

Get in touch! I’m on here, or over on Twitter as @pingulette.

“pro-life.” whose life?

In the lead-up to the US Presidential election last week, many US-based feminist friends of mine were passing around information and charts with titles like ‘What would America be like without Roe v Wade?’ and ‘We need Planned Parenthood!’. What would it be like, they wondered, to live in a country with no abortion rights? No comprehensive family planning and reproductive health experts with whom to discuss every option facing someone with an unwanted pregnancy?

I’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s like this.

Here we have Savita Halappanavar. Savita was 34 and in her second trimester of pregnancy. Savita’s foetus died, and it poisoned her from the inside out. Savita’s husband, Praveen, watched his unborn child lose viability for life, and then watched his wife slip away after it.

Savita’s doctors watched the couple struggle to keep it together. They listened to her plead for a termination of the pregnancy, and they said no. They would not remove the unviable, failing foetus from her uterus.

Put it another way: they would not remove the tissue which caused septicaemia to spread through her body.

When you say it like that, it does sound rather barbaric, doesn’t it?

This was not a matter of law. I’ve written a comprehensive post on Irish abortion law before, linked here. That post was from the day some archaic Catholic windbag in the Dáil made some entirely misguided remarks about the sex lives of people other than herself (and therefore, not her business), and then the Dáil went on to vote down a private member’s bill to enforce the Supreme Court’s judgment in the X case.

The X case is twenty years old this year. Ms X was 14 and pregnant as the result of a rape. She wanted to go to England for a termination, because – understandably – the situation was making her suicidally desperate. The Government got wind of the plan and took out an injunction to stop her going. Ms X and her family fought it all the way to the Supreme Court; they were vindicated, eventually, but by then Ms X had miscarried.

The precedent set by that case allows a doctor in Ireland to perform an abortion if there is ‘a real and substantial risk’ to the life of the mother. I am not a doctor, but even I know that septicaemia is a rare but recognised side-effect of some miscarriages. It is definitely real, and it’s about as substantial as risks come. (Grateful here to Dr Muiris Houston in the Irish Times for this article on risk in miscarriage.)

That was decided twenty years ago.

This country remains abysmal for women’s rights. It is downright humiliating to turn around to our European and American neighbours, hat in hand, and say ‘this exists, and we haven’t done anything about it.’ It is an absolute joke that our politicians – especially our women in positions of influence – do not stand up before the country and bang down doors until we get a proper debate, a referendum, a Yes campaign. It is so very harmful that our doctors will not perform a procedure which, if necessary, they could validate under current case law.

But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? This is the status quo. No doctor will be the first to hang out their shop sign and perform terminations, because they need to know they won’t be struck off the medical register. No political party will take up the cause wholeheartedly, because this administration have enough on their hands without fighting another referendum campaign that might fail – and worst of all, yes, it might actually fail. As a rule, young Irish people are mostly in favour of abortion on demand, but young people are not the bankable demographic that you depend upon to win a popular vote. The Catholic moralists just have to tell their side that God says ‘no’, and therefore, ‘no’ will be said. Makes you wonder what Jesus would have thought of that.

There is no redeeming the death of Savita Halappanavar. I am glad the HSE are investigating the matter; I can tell you that if I were in her husband’s position, lawyers would be involved (and probably are). I’m glad her story is getting the publicity it deserves.

Just… let’s remember today, okay? Let’s have the outrage and the hurt we’re feeling to galvanise us, feminists and secularists and progressives of any gender. Let’s keep up a steady hammering on that door, and when it opens, let’s grab the opportunity with both hands. Let’s remember. Let’s work.

Let’s never have this happen again.

The Intern

Here’s a quick rundown of a Twitter drama of sorts, which is still unfolding.

Tom Watson is a UK Labour politician and a popular twitter user, with 65,000+ followers. He uses twitter to talk business and to contact friends and acquaintances, and is by most accounts a thoroughly decent sort. Which is why it was very odd this morning when the following tweet appeared in his timeline:

Let us pause for a moment and imagine, if you were not there at the time, the sudden gust of wind as quite a large portion of twitter all inhaled sharply at the same time and then exhaled a muffled ‘eek’.

Reaction tweets quickly appeared. Feminists (and general fans of decency) made it clear that we don’t enjoy the word ‘rape’ being tossed around lightly; people speculated on whether or not it was in fact Mr. Watson who had sent the tweet; many people just seemed up for a bit of a show.

The (still anonymous) intern realised her mistake and tweeted the following:

While (obviously) I did not and do not approve of her behaviour up to here, one can only imagine the rapid descent through the circles of Hell that her day was turning into at this point.

In due course Mr. Watson returned from his meeting, sized up the situation, and tweeted this:

Drama over, right?

Maybe, anywhere else but Twitter. Within minutes the hashtag #SavetheIntern had sprung up, and was trending globally. People who had never heard of Mr. Watson were happily joining in the speculation as to whether he would fire an employee whose only identifying detail was that she was female. But! As ever, that was enough. It’s amazing that, although we constitute half the world’s population, the idea that a woman is involved in something is enough to bring a ton of prejudices crawling out of the woodwork. There is a remarkable tidal shift to be noticed in the tweets before and after Mr. Watson’s apology: until then, if spectators were gendering the intern at all, they were tending toward male. Afterward, they change straight away to using ‘she’ and a distinctly patronising tone sparks up (as seen here – ‘nice girl‘. Thanks, son.)

Before I talk about the Twitter reaction, I want to take a minute to talk about why I find the tweet itself offensive, and why, if I were Mr. Watson, I would be politely asking my intern to leave my office with a certain amount of haste. Obviously, the first thing to say is that it is never, never appropriate to use your boss’ social media account, especially to play a prank on them in front of sixty-five thousand people. Maybe we should start printing that on the ceilings of infant nurseries in hospital, so that all babies of this generation come out with the knowledge imprinted on their minds.

Secondly, and more controversially, this issue of ‘Twitter rape’ or the more common ‘Facebook rape’/’frape’. Look, if you’re reading this, you’re more than likely an adult, and more than likely a decent, open-minded person. So, keeping those attributes in mind, would it kill you to stop using the word ‘rape’ to mean ‘minorly infringe upon’? Yes, it is so utterly, utterly hilarious when your sister logs in to your Facebook and writes ‘haha I’m gay’ on your profile. My aching sides, believe me. But that’s not rape. Nor is changing your profile picture to you doing drunken karaoke in a bad wig. Nor is – going for the big one here – changing your password and locking you out of your account. Still not rape.

You may wonder – and people (by which I do mean ‘mostly men’) often do – why women, and indeed all feminists, get so very wound up about the word ‘rape’. It is for this reason: it disproportionately happens to us; it very rarely gets punished to the extent it should be; it’s a terrible crime and people consider it a joke. Victims become afraid to speak up because they’ve heard their friends joking about people getting raped in prison, people threatening to rape opposing football teammates, people describing a videogame loss as rape. Rape is not motivated by sex, in the most part, but it carries a sexual element, and for that, the humorously challenged among us find that it raises a puerile laugh in a conversational context. It’s the only crime that’s in this unique position of being so very devastating, happening mainly to a social minority, and not being taken as seriously as it should be.

So please excuse me while I scroll on past those particular japes, you know?

Moving on! Twitter has, while I’ve been writing, calmed down somewhat (as in, there are only 218 new updates in the #SavetheIntern hashtag since the last time I checked), so I think it’s safe to try to analyse the main reactions.

Firstly, the #SavetheIntern hashtag has spawned an offshoot, #PaytheIntern. Twitter is annoyed that politicians are using interns as free labour in their offices, and has apparently used the appearance of the word ‘intern’ in its timelines to vent that grievance. It’s somewhat legitimate, I think; perhaps this is because of my (low) position in the career ladder, currently, but I think internships are not worth the paid time they take from young career-builders. Whether or not Mr. Watson is a good mentor to his interns is unknown – with luck, interning for him would do what it is meant to, and give a graduate an opportunity to network, gather experience, and take the next step. What is clear is that now UK politicians – especially those who use twitter – are now under the spotlight as to how they treat their staff.

The next biggest reaction is from people who believe that either the intern did nothing wrong, or that Mr. Watson should forgive and forget. For me, this is an overly simplistic viewpoint. Mr. Watson enjoys a public platform, and that platform – and the people it addresses – should be treated with respect. A public profile takes a social media game and elevates it beyond the sight of a small group of friends: a social media profile can help or hinder the image of its owner to a huge extent, especially in politics. Whichever way you look at it, the intern’s conduct was decidedly unprofessional (and I will note that I use that word in the sense of ‘inappropriate’ rather than anything to do with being paid or otherwise).

It is almost too tiresome to deal with the men wondering if the intern, now we know she is a woman, is ‘fit’ – because obviously, that is all that’s important here. Save the good-looking women from unemployment and CV ruin! Let the rest of us languish.

What does it matter? What on earth does it matter what this lady looks like? Why wonder that, as opposed to her name or her field of study or any of the things that make up her character, as opposed to whether or not she will fulfil your visual aesthetic needs?

Honestly, men. I really do believe you’re better than this. You are better than the ‘is she hot?’ comments, and you are better than the ‘stupid woman‘ comments* *, and you are better than jumping on every little excuse to whip out the sexist humour… and I’m going to keep saying as much until you start believing it.

[* * those are just the first two I picked off the Top Tweets feed]

My original subtitle for this blog was ‘What A Tangled Web We Tweet’. Aside from being a terrible pun, I deleted it because I thought it overdramatic. As the last hour has gone by and the story has unfolded, I’m beginning to wonder if it was dramatic enough.