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.

talk: Jocelyn Bell Burnell at @WITSIreland

Science, art, feminism, activism, and a cup of tea. I’ve had worse lunchtimes.

Okay, confession: I’m not a scientist myself. I just play one on the internet sometimes.

Nevertheless, this Thursday, I was thrilled to don my hobbyist science-geek hat, and attend an event organised by Women in Technology and Science Ireland (WITS) in honour of Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Bringing us together was the presentation of a painting by artist Margarita Cimadevila, inspired by Professor Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars.

Margarita Cimadevila – Pulsares.

Ms Cimadevila – a chemist by training and a teacher by profession – based a series of paintings on the work of women scientists whose brilliance was underrecognised. Ciencia Ex Aequo includes tributes to, among others, Annie Cannon, Cecilia Payne, Chien-Shiung Wu, Emmy Noether, and Lise Meitner. Quite apart from the richness of the art itself (and the photo above does this piece no justice), there is something fittingly lovely about seeing the lives and work of these women celebrated vividly and beautifully on canvas. They deserve the honour; deserve their names writ large and illuminated. I really do recommend looking at the Ciencia Ex Aequo catalogue linked above – I wish I could have seen all twelve.

Next up, some of the spotlight was handed over to a gentleman for a few minutes (but only a few). Minister of State for Research and Innovation, Seán Sherlock, spoke about the importance of the sciences sector for industry and progress in Ireland. In particular, he pointed out that women in the sciences were carrying a lot of the weight of the work, but were entirely underrepresented in the power structures of academia and training. Promoting the importance of women’s voices and representation should be a priority for anyone looking to shore up Ireland’s scientific stock, particularly as we heard this week that Nature considers Ireland one of the up-and-coming countries to watch in high-level research.

Professor Bell Burnell’s talk came in two parts – a presentation about her work with Tapping All Our Talents: Women in STEM, a project of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and an interview about her life and career, conducted by science journalist Claire O’Connell. Having never seen her speak before, I was expecting an interesting talk, but was still pleasantly surprised at how warm and engaging Professor Bell Burnell is as a speaker.

She noted that Scotland is a close analogue for Ireland when it comes to size, character, and economic status, and therefore the results garnered from the Royal Society report would equally serve as good guidelines for the Irish scientific sector. Foremost among her concerns: the ‘leaky pipeline’ effect – whereby, even though school and undergraduate degrees are seeing many women and girls opt for science subjects, the number of those women remaining in the sciences at each subsequent level (bachelors, postgraduate, researcher, lecturer, professor) falls away steeply. For example, while 70% of candidates for school exams in biology are female, only 15% of professors of biology are women. The situation is worse still in chemistry, physics, and maths, where girls start out as a minority at secondary school level and remain starkly so right up the ranks. This echoes what Minister Sherlock had said about women in power structures – there is no reason why women shouldn’t have the same impact as men trained to an equivalent level, and yet we don’t get our voices heard nearly as much. Fewer women at professorial level means fewer women directing research and fewer role models for the girls making it to university lectures.

This is institutional sexism at play, both on a conscious (well, science is a boys’ club, isn’t it) and an unconscious level. ‘How many of you have had to fill out a form where you declared your gender by ticking a box?’ she asked us. ‘And which one of those boxes came first?’ It’s a simplistic example, but one that resonated with the audience. This unconscious bias comes into play even as far as the language used to describe job postings in the sciences, which can often use language typified as ‘male’ (strong, dynamic, etc – adjectives which, for better or for worse, are filed under the M box for cultural gender).

In an employment culture where 73% of female STEM graduates leave the field once they start employment, incentives must be given to institutions to promote their ‘women-friendliness’. The Tapping All Our Talents group recommended that universities be given research grants condititional on reaching a Silver Athena SWAN level, and that employers pay special attention to the conditions offered to female employees and potential hires (diversity and equality in recruitment, positive part-time hours and benefits for working mothers, cultural change and anti-discrimination policies in the business).

A quick aside: a question from the floor raised the question of visible female role models for young scientists. In her reply the Professor mentioned the popularity of Chris Hadfield’s reports from aboard the ISS – currently, one of the ISS astronauts is a woman named Karen Nyberg, who tweets updates and photos as @AstroKarenN. If lady role models aren’t as visible as the men, there’s only one thing we can do about that – make them so.

The tone got lighter after the formal section of the talk was over, and the interview began. I think most of us could relate to the young not-yet-Professor, arguing with her schoolteachers to be accorded equality with the boys in her choice of subjects! You have to be tough to get ahead, it seems, even in school uniform. More seriously,  it was reassuring to hear her talk about experiencing impostor syndrome while a postgrad student – it sometimes feels like people who are successful were created that way, and have never doubted themselves. She discussed the lead-up to identifying the pulsar and its strange pattern of data: how she was convinced, as was her supervisor, that the signal had to be an error or interference on the radio receiver, and how they performed a differential diagnosis until they were left with no choice but to accept the data and find an explanation for them. It’s understandable! A pulsar is such a strange object that if there wasn’t such strong evidence for its existence, it really would seem like a product of a creative imagination.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon overall, but if I’m to sum up the good humour and amusement present throughout the event, I’ll do so like this. Several times in the opening speeches, allusion was made to Professor Bell Burnell’s PhD supervisor being awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars – even though it had been her data and her insistence, despite his scepticism, that led to the discovery being made. I wondered if that wasn’t something that would sit uncomfortably, given that much of her career has been clouded under this one big oversight. Do you ever really get past being the person who didn’t get the Nobel?

Ms O’Connell brought it up in her interview, asking how it felt to see the supervisor get given the nod.

“I was pleased to see it go to an astronomer, seeing as there is no Nobel Prize for astronomy – it has been given to quite a few, since, but pulsars were the first to be honoured in that way.’

Yes, but how did she feel about it?

“I think I’ve done pretty well out of it,” replied the Professor, laughing. “If you don’t get the Nobel Prize, they give you every other prize that’s going!”

Whoever said that you shouldn’t meet your heroes clearly required better taste in role models.

questions on a grand scale

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.

— Carl Sagan

There is certainly something to be said for perspective.

I am not a scientist. I read and watch a lot of popular science because it fascinates me. I want to learn and understand everything I can about the world in which I live and the laws by which it functions. I am aware that this knowledge only just about allows me know how very little I will ever know, but science is a heady drug. And I’ve definitely gained a lot of perspective.

Being reminded every so often that you are the result of millions of years of evolution – a mid-stage example of your species, by all accounts – and that you reside on a rock hurtling around one of an unfathomably large number of stars in an ever-expanding universe will do that to you.

Oh, did you mean perspective in the ‘expect the mundane’ sense? Sorry. I heard it in the Douglas Adams sense.

Coming to hobbyist science reading as an adult is a strange experience. I studied general science up until Junior Cert level (that’s GCSE equivalent). Then I looked at my overall aptitudes and decided that, although I’m sure I would’ve made an adequate scientist, I would rather be an excellent humanities student. I ditched science, hopped into the modern languages driving seat, and left behind me only dust.

Of course, it didn’t help that up until then, I had never encountered any science education that had grabbed me. Biology was a collection of sets of diagrams to label and memorise. Physics, as explained through pictures with little arrows showing vectors but no real-life examples, looked stultifying dull. Chemistry was an unending series of covalent bonds – although, no, I’m being unfair to chemistry here. It provided the only specific memory I have of that class: one day our teacher wanted to show us the reactive qualities of sodium in water. Unfortunately, she used slightly too much of the sodium, and it displayed its reactive qualities very nicely. No-one ever painted over the scorch marks, though.

There’s nothing more dulling to a child’s enthusiasm and capability for awe than a textbook that gives you the basics but leaves out the bigger picture. It’s very important to know the fundamentals, certainly – I would argue that a knowledge of basic human biology is a necessity for everyone, considering you own and live in a body, and Newtonian physics gives you the physical laws within which you work (until you take up lightspeed travel as a hobby). It is fairly soporific, though, if you don’t understand why you’re learning all of this.

If, on my first day of secondary school, someone had Total Perspective Vortex-ed me (“Hello! You are the universe understanding itself! You’re made of stuff from the hearts of stars! You’re an astonishingly complicated evolved mechanism! Now you’d better get to work on figuring out HOW!”), I’m guessing I would’ve dug in with a bit more relish.

This is the balancing act that popular science must perform, then: educate, entertain, and arouse curiosity. Good popsci should leave you, at the end of the book/programme, standing at a crossroads: do you want to leave this topic where you are and just enjoy what you have experienced, or do you want to learn more in-depth? That accessibility is the key, in my opinion. You let down your audience both by overloading them with the nitty-gritty, and by failing to render the reader able to own the topic and relate it to herself.

I started this post with Carl Sagan; there is a reason he’s known as the foremost ambassador of popular science. Reading Sagan is like being spoken to by a warm, knowledgeable friend. He understood that education is important, but that inspiration to learn only comes from the ability to retain a sense of wonder. He, and your Feynmans, Attenboroughs, Moores, and the rest, became or have become in their lifetimes the doyens of gentle guidance into science education. It’s a fine line to walk between show and tell.  Both facets should leave a little to the imagination.

Certainly no-one should think that every day in the life of a working scientist is a spot of proton collision in the morning, driving Curiosity around in the afternoon, and dinner at Stephen Hawking’s place. Every job has its day-to-day requirements and its frankly boring sides.

I just don’t know any doctors who chose their profession because of all the paperwork.

If science writing doesn’t make you feel you are in touch with something greater than yourself, it’s bad science writing.

Oh, I don’t mean God, or a god or gods. I’ve had more than enough of gods and religion to do me a lifetime. I’m talking about matter and about history. I’m talking about that which drives us to wonder about the world, which makes us the most inquisitive and self-aware of creatures. That which lies beyond our tiny, transient lives. It is a fundamental ingredient in the human condition that we feel this wonder and seek to understand it. Some people find their answers in religion. Some people find their answers in science. These are not mutally exclusive – I have friends who are empirical, logical thinkers when it comes to questions of the tangible world, but who retain their faith in God.

If you think that scientists are trying to keep people in unseeing ignorance by trying to make a religion out of science, you are either misguided or wilfully misunderstanding. This is one of the most beautiful things about communicated science: the writer isn’t a minister, isn’t imbued with special supernatural powers, isn’t infallible. They are a person with an aptitude for science who has chosen to share their work. You or I could have the same knowledge with a bit of luck and a lot of hard graft.

Think of sitting in a university lecture and fuming that the professor is trying to make him/herself seem like the possessor of esoteric knowledge by detailing the import in the world of the subject as a whole. Ludicrous.

Two childhood scenes:

1) I am about 8 and still very, fearfully Catholic. My grandmother has given me a book about guardian angels. The book assures me that my guardian angel sits at the end of my bed at night and watches over me. There is no further explanation offered. I read to the end of the book and am still without an explanation of this stranger who turns up invisibly and hangs around in my room all night. I don’t ask questions, though. If I do, God might think I’m being cheeky. I put away the book.

2) I am still about 8. I get an encyclopaedia for my birthday and start reading about the solar system. It is incredible; I am incredulous. How do they know all of this? Why can’t I see the planets and moons when I look in the sky? I turn the page. I learn about Voyager and Hubble and Mir. I think this is brilliant. I have questions and I get answers. No-one tells me I’m wrong for asking questions.

A seed is sown.

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. — Richard Feynman

Dear Science: it’s not you, it’s me.

I just thought I should write and apologise. It’s not you, it’s me. Apparently. I’m interested, and I always have been, but that’s not enough any more. I’m from the wrong side of the tracks – the arts and humanities side. I thought it was okay, you know? But now I’ve been told that I’m part of a detrimental Movement, and I’m just not up for that. I’m sorry, Science. If that’s how you feel, I’ll stay away.

Alright, I’m taking the piss. Sort of.

I actually am a bit more nettled than I thought by this geek-related kerfuffle. I’ve been waffling on whether I should bother writing about it, but then again – I am the Jo Soap being talked about here. I’m an atheist. I read pop sci books. I’m the audience for the Infinite Monkey Cage. I’m a geek, certainly, and I mean that both in the teenage perjorative sense, and the adult descriptor sense. And I’m not a scientist. I just find it interesting. So I’m either the best or worst person to do so. Let’s go.

This concept of ‘the Geek movement‘* is, to be frank, complete bunk. A movement is a coherent group of people, most likely with a leader, and with some idea of what their common aim is. You could call skepticism a sort of movement, I guess, but you’d be stretching a bit even there. Geekdom is less a movement than it is a meander.

To me, the word ‘geek’ describes someone who loves learning, whose curiosity is constantly piqued by new ideas, and who delights in the intricacies of their particular interest. I know people I’d describe as ‘geeky’ who are scientists, certainly, but also lawyers, sociologists, techies, writers, historians, philosophers – and so on. Some of them are atheists, some aren’t. Women and men and some who identify as neither. Some of them have an interest in politics, some couldn’t care less. Almost all are intelligent, questioning minds, and great conversationalists.

So it’s a bit jarring to be characterised as a socially awkward, belligerent, superiority-complexed man.

I mean, at least one of those attributes is totally untrue.

Yes, there are people who fit somewhere on the Venn diagram of {geek}, {skeptic}, {atheist}, {argumentative}, who are absolute fuckwits**. Sometimes they’re very loud fuckwits. But they’re not the majority, and they’re not somehow in charge of this very nebulous crowd of people. That’s a complete misrepresentation with no goal except scoring rhetoric points.

It’s also odd that this post was spawned by a bit of a fracas over this New Statesman editorial by (two of) the Infinite Monkeys themselves, which basically says ‘science does good things for society, don’t forget that, and we should probably depend more on scientific evidence than unverified opinions in areas of science-related policy.’ To which I can only add: and so say all of us. I have absolutely no idea where people got a desire for technocracy, or scientism, or a superiority complex, or a self-nomination as the adjudicators of Where Science Should Go, out of the article. You have one scientist and one writer/presenter/comedian, writing in a mostly political magazine for a mostly non-scientist audience, and their task is to make their point without alienating people who may not read a science-based book from one end of the year to another. Is that really the arena for a searching inventory of the people populating the scientific professions?

Here’s the thing: science is important. Scientists are important. Public engagement with science is also important. Getting people to vaccinate their kids or reduce their energy consumption or write to their representatives to encourage them to pursue science-based policy is important, and the only way to do that is for those in the know to instruct the rest of us in best practice.

I’m a little gobsmacked at this reaction in particular because I think The Infinite Monkey Cage is a great show, whose strength lies in its collaboration between a scientist and a non-science professional. Robin is the audience avatar: he’s a well-read enthusiast, not a working scientist. Brian provides the scientific background. They’re both fluent storytellers and generally funny writers, and they bring the best out of their guests. However, they do understand that speaking to the general public as opposed to a scientist-only audience means drawing a careful balance between the need for nuanced scientific discussion, and the need to engage and retain the interest of their listeners.

And so it is, I think, with the editorial – and not a lot of people have pointed that out. It’s interesting to me that the backlash seems to have come mostly from communications fields – I haven’t seen many scientists who’ve spoken against it. Perhaps most scientists understand that the detailed nature of their work is not immediately transmissable to the public, and know that sometimes you have to blunt the edge a bit.

I’d be sad if this row turned lay-people off enjoying science for fear of being characterised as a brash, shouty, atheism-pushing know-all. I’d be sad if science writers were less likely to appeal to the public because they might suffer an evisceration from sci-comms colleagues. Sometimes the arena of internet arguments is a dodgy place to tread.

Keep the geek flag flying high, friends. Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you, either.

* please see here for an excellent piece-by-piece skewering of that post by MJ Robbins.

** a very technical term, do excuse me.