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.


say it out loud: feminism and equality

‘I’m not a feminist,’ says Laura Waters, in her Guardian column about women in science. ‘I’m an ‘equalist’.’

In doing so, she resurrects a tedious semantic argument, and one that’s been fought on many shores before now. Waters contends that she is “fully devoted to promoting science to women as a great career choice and [that she] honestly believe[s] we need more women at all levels in science.” She wants to “ensur[e] women actively choose to stay in science and climb the promotional ladder.” She mentions positively the Athena SWAN programme – which gives praise and status to institutions that actively work to promote equal treatment for women in academia.

I’m sorry to break it to her, but that’s a feminist viewpoint. That’s an entirely feminist argument. If she wants it from a better source than me – it’s exactly the feminist argument I heard Jocelyn Bell Burnell give at WITS a couple of weeks ago.

I have no problems with Waters’ viewpoint. It’s one I espouse myself (any reader of this blog will know that). My problem is with her denial of feminism.

I’m a feminist because I believe in equality. Equality is – for the most part – the primary role of practical feminism. Currently society does not view women as being the equals of men. There’s a gap there that needs filling, and feminism works to boost women’s role in society to fill that gap. It’s not inherently anti-men to be pro-women; it’s not anti-equality to say that one group needs more support.

Imagine a bar chart of the gender pay gap. For every euro Irish men earn, Irish women earn 13.9% less (Irish Examiner, Feb 2013). Parity in the hourly wage – the value of an hour’s work – would have men with 100%, and women with 100%. At the minute, men have 100%, and women have just over 86%. Clearly that’s inequal. To make it equal, you have to close that gap – and you do that by helping women, because women are the group that’s worse off in that situation.

Equalism? Sure. Through feminism.

Waters wants academia to be fairer to women. Women need more help than men do to fulfil their academic potential, because currently the power bias in the institutions of academia swings heavily toward men. What do we do? Make things fairer for women. Use Athena SWAN to reward institutions that reward women. Understand that family structures still involve more women than men doing part-time or awkward hours in order to be around for the kids, and accommodate that. Give positive female role models to young women in STEM careers.

I’m almost reciting Waters’ points here, which is actually the key to what I’m saying: this is a feminist argument.

Why disavow feminism? It feels like internalised misogyny to me**. It’s not lesser to be a woman, and it’s not lesser to be a feminist. Throwing your lot in with the boys may get you approval at the time, but in reality you’re cheerily standing over the status quo while inequality happens all around you.

Feminism is the reason you have a job in academia. Feminism is the reason you get to have an opinion and have it out loud. Feminism is the reason programmes like Athena SWAN happen, and feminism is the reason that it’s recognised that the sciences should be more welcoming to women. We are where we are because of feminists, and sniffily casting that aside and pretending you’re more advanced, somehow, is disrespectful to their work and their sacrifices.

No-one is saying that scientific output should be judged separately depending on its author’s gender. No-one is saying that an institution should seek a candidate of a particular gender rather than a candidate who’s best for the job. What feminism asks is that a women who reads the jobs posting should feel as able as a man to apply, or that a woman offered a job should feel comfortable and respected in accepting the place.

I believe in equality. I think a just society would offer the same chance to everyone. Feminism wants that full and fair chance for women.

Be proud to be a feminist! Feminism is the path to equality. We have lots of work to do.

** please note that I say this in reference to mainstream feminism, and women who disavow the label totally. I’m not referring to women who choose to use a different term for ‘believes in women’s rights’, like ‘womanist’, because of minority status or perceived disrespect by mainstream feminism. That’s a matter beyond the scope of this post.

that’s here. that’s home. that’s us.

There is the horizon, and there is a shield of light. It drops away to an inky, cobalt blue, and fades almost regretfully into the deepest black night.

For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light—our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance. – Ulf Merbold

In a tiny silver speck orbiting tirelessly around this spinning planet, Chris Hadfield switches off his camera and turns in for the night.

Hadfield is Mission Commander on board the International Space Station. His day job is conducting experiments and operating the Canadarm2 robotic device that functions as part of the ISS infrastructure. In his downtime, he catches up with ice hockey, gives talks to schools, makes videos on the oddities of ISS life, and takes some of the most compelling photos of our beautiful planet yet in existence.

If you could see the earth illuminated when you were in a place as dark as night, it would look to you more splendid than the moon. – Galileo

These photos are beautiful. They are stark, or verdant; they are recognisable, and alien. Written on the Earth is a record of our past, the battle-scars of a species making its mark on its home.

People leave marks wherever they go. We build, we create, and inevitably we destroy. To look across the globe is to understand our compulsion to etch our fleeting presence on our world, and to understand how very tiny those machinations are to which we cling most tightly. One of my favourite quotes on this is from Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut, who said of spaceflight: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

The crew of the ISS are the furthest humans from our planet. Their lonely viewpoint allows them to see – and allows us to experience, vicariously – our pale blue dot, as it appears in macro.

There is a fascination to that solitude. Space flight is something that has never lost its wonder, from the time we first sent brave pioneers into orbit and had them return to a hero’s welcome. Space travel is so far beyond the reach of the everyman, even now, that we retain a childlike awe at the  very thought. We are limitless, we story-telling apes, in our imagination. We want that experience. We want to be lifted above our lives, to be able to look down at everyone alive in the world, and to say yes, that is ours. That is our home.

Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available… a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose. -Fred Hoyle

This, then, is one facet of the appeal of Hadfield’s photography: it marries an alien perspective with a familiar subject. There is a thrill to finding a photo of your city and reading the streetlights to find your way around. In photographs from space, we experience a double consciousness. We are the painter, and the sitter. We experience art; we make art; we are art.

For all our faults, we are still so beautiful.

Dublin’s fair city.

Those of us who enjoy astronomy revel in viewing the photographs the Curiosity Rover sends back from Mars. Interpreting the geography of an alien planet is fascinating; we are explorers, readers, inwardly running our hands over rocks we will never touch in reality, piecing together the history of its mountains and plains. It’s easy to forget that we live on just such a planet ourselves – constitutionally different, of course, but equally as amazing, equally as strange. We live in a microcosm, all of us. We spend so much of our time on so little an area of land that the disconnect involved in contemplating the whole is startling. There are beauties you will never see, entire continents you may never visit.

And this is thrilling!

There are seven billion of us down here, and that is what we share – the love and stewardship of this planet of ours. Alone, each of us is so insignificant in the wider scheme of things. Collectively, we can send people into space to reflect our lives back at us through beautiful photographs.

Carl Sagan was right to observe that exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. I hope within our lifetimes we have the chance to experience that wonder for ourselves. For now, it’s a privilege to experience the visual story of our existence from the perspective of our most adventurous wanderers.

In Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, the philosopher Albert sends Sophie a letter asking her if she has ever thought about meeting a little man from Mars while she is out walking. “What would you think?” he asks. “Never mind, it’s not important. But have you ever given any thought to the fact that you are a Martian yourself? It is obviously unlikely that you will ever stumble upon a creature from another planet. We do not even know that there is life on other planets. But you might stumble upon yourself one day. You might suddenly stop short and see yourself in a completely new light. On just such a walk in the woods. I am an extraordinary being, you think. I am a mysterious creature.”

(Thank you, Commander Hadfield, and safe home.)

Ada Lovelace Day heroine: Carolyn Porco

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, the celebration of women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) – from the eponymous first lady of computing, right down through to the present day. The Finding Ada project was started by Suw Charman-Anderson in 2009, with a pledge from almost two thousand people to write a blogpost about a female scientist they find inspiring.

My pick for ALD this year is planetary scientist and science communicator Dr. Carolyn Porco.

If you don’t know Dr. Porco by name, you almost certainly know some of her ‘colleagues’: Voyager, New Horizons, and especially Cassini, the Saturn orbiter which sends back the kind of awe-inspiring photos that make you want to sell the farm and hop on the next rocket off this planet. Dr. Porco is the imaging director of the Cassini mission, which means that she’s not only responsible for those wonderful pictures, she’s also one of the world’s leading experts on Saturn, its rings, and its moons.

Dr. Porco became fascinated with astronomy at a young age, and worked her way up to the Voyager imaging team as a doctoral student. The 1970s were not an easy time to be a female astronomer – the field was overwhelmingly male and full of men she once described as “schoolyard toughs*”. Not a lot comes easy for women in traditionally male fields like physics, and anyone who makes it to the top will have had to employ an iron will as well as a sharp intellect. It’s unsurprising, then, that she has been more than capable of the two decades of hard work the Cassini leadership has required.

To return to earth for a minute: astronomy has always seemed to me to be one of the most enthralling branches of the sciences. As a kid I pored over charts about the solar system; as an adult I still find looking through a telescope or photographing the moon to be a thrilling experience. I’m not a scientist by training or even by talent, but I’m fascinated by the thought of other worlds and the prospect of yet-unknown discoveries. It’s a siren call to anyone with an inquisitive mind – as Carl Sagan said, “Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.”

This brings me to my second reason for choosing Carolyn Porco to write about for ALD: she is an unparalleled science communicator. Her talks and interviews overflow with enthusiasm for her work, and she presents her findings clearly and comprehensibly to experts and laypeople alike. Her TED talks (2007 and 2009, both on Cassini’s discoveries about the Saturnian system) are especially worth watching for anyone interested in space exploration and its possibilities for the future.

“Saturn is such an alluring photographic target. It’s a joy, really, to be able to take our images and composite them in an artful way, which is one of my cardinal working goals. It’s about poetry and beauty and science all mixed together.”**

The world needs more women like Carolyn Porco. Thank you for sharing your worlds with us.

I am participating in Ada Lovelace Day because:

I believe that science is an investment in the future of humanity and an instrument of enlightment for the present. I believe that science should be accessible and comprehensible to everybody at their own level. I believe that all women and girls should be given the inspiration and opportunity to engage with science. I believe that science is for everybody.

Join in?




wiki page and twitter

feminine is not anti-feminist

The above image is one that I have come to like very much. The woman pictured is dressed in a style called Sweet Lolita (nothing to do with the book – Lolita is a Japanese street fashion derived from Victorian style and encompassing styles from the hyper-pink Sweet to the darkly Gothic). She is about as far from the stereotype of A Feminist as you can get – and I think feminism in general is better off for having her as part of the movement.

You’d have to have been living under a rock today not to have guessed why I’m writing about this in particular. Everybody on the internet seems to have watched the EU’s Science: It’s A Girl Thing teaser video, and the overwhelming majority of watchers are seriously unimpressed. And yes, it’s with good cause – the video looks more like an ad for a cosmetics company or a Bratz doll than something meant to evoke a desire to enter a scientific career. Adult women find it patronising, and there’s research to suggest that younger girls find the pinkification of science more off a turn-off than a draw.

I agree with that much. The teaser video is seriously ridiculous – however, the other videos on the ScienceGirlThing Youtube channel seem to be a lot better (not particularly difficult, but I’m trying to find any bit of encouragement I can muster, here). It’s not that criticism I have a problem with: it’s the somewhat worrying train of thought which says that if you enjoy things that are stereotypically ‘feminine’ – makeup, clothes, flowers, cats, whatever – you are submitting to The Patriarchy and letting the side down.

I don’t like writing in academic vernacular here, as I tend to find that a lot of internet discussion adopts an overly academic tone that alienates the casual reader. Just bear with me for a few sentences, okay?

Most feminist thinkers agree that the gender roles assigned by a patriarchal society – one that privileges men and maleness ahead of women and femaleness – are oppressive and designed to keep the genders separate and bound within agreed-upon walls, thus making it easier to keep women ‘in our places’. Think the moronic ‘get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich’ jokes, or the assumption that in a heterosexual couple, the man will be the earner and the woman will raise the children. Makes sense, right?

However, many women enjoy ‘feminine’ things. Many of us pay attention to our appearance because we enjoy it; most mothers are mothers because they want to be, and many of them happily make the choice to be the main caregiver to their children in the home. This doesn’t make them any less feminists. What feminism has fought for, is still fighting for, is to give women the choice to act however they wish. If we discount the choices of some women just because they are more approved-of societally, we act contrary to that goal.

How women perform their gender – how they dress, how they act, how they speak and write and interact with the world – is the choice of every individual woman. Society still considers it okay for a girl to be a tomboy, but thinks it weird for a boy to want a dress. Society applauds women engaging in physical labour, but nudges its neighbour and mutters about the sexuality of a male beautician. Society tells people to ‘man up!’ but if they fail to do so, regards them as a big girl’s blouse. What does that tell us about society’s attitude to femaleness – and by extension, to women?

It says that it’s lesser, that’s what. That things designated ‘female’ are not as worthy as those considered ‘male’. That maleness is considered a status to be achieved, to receive congratulations on, while femaleness is weak and in need of correction. That misogyny is written into a lot of how we see ourselves and each other, and that if we really believe in women’s equality, we need to believe that equality is there for all women, not just those whose choices appeal to us.

So back to our rose-tinted lab goggles. I’ve spent a lot of this evening reading reactions to the campaign, and I find myself torn. On one hand, the teaser video is indeed patronising drivel. It says, in summary, that women won’t be interested in science unless it’s presented to us under a coat of pink shiny things – rubbish, of course: as Sean Carroll puts it, “If you want to make science seem exciting to girls, it helps to start from a perspective that science is interesting to all human beings, and that girls are human beings.” But the reaction which takes the form of ‘ugh, who cares about shoes and makeup?’ is also damaging, in a different way. If the object of the exercise is to make science a more welcoming field to women, it needs to be for ALL women. Laughing at women who practice traditional femininity just becomes one more barrier to cross, one more rejection to get through, in a field that we’re still being told is dominated by men.

If you want a good example of how to promote science to girls, you could do worse than showing them This Is What A Scientist Looks Like, a crowd-sourced collection of photos from scientists of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Realistic, welcoming, and comprehensive, it’s a far better way to show girls that science will welcome you no matter what you look like or how you present.

Oh, and that scientists are pretty goddamn awesome. Which they are. All of them.

(first image found via tumblr, no source given but happy to correct if it’s yours; second image via Who Needs Feminism?)