Pretty or Pretty Brilliant? Encouraging Girls towards Science

Inspire her mind :Verizon Commercial 2014 As a little girl I was repeatedly told by my mother that ‘maths were beyond we Doyles’. A ‘fact’ I believed for many years until I decided to knock my fear of maths on it’s head by choosing to use quantitative analysis for my PhD rather than qualitative. And surpise, suprise, I made it.  But clearly I wasn’t alone in receiving a few unhelpful messages from an early age.  A powerful new advert by Verizon, suggests we are putting off girls from pursuing sciences from a young age with subliminal social cues – cues that most women can recognise from their short video with Makers, an online publisher of women’s video stories.

The advert, narrated by Girls Who Code founder, Reshma Saujani, follows a girl’s development from toddler to teenager. Through out the video the parents make comments like ‘Don’t get your dress dirty’, whilst the girl explores nature, playing with sea creatures and plants; and ‘be careful with that, why don’t you hand that to your bother?’, when a young girl and her older brother build a rocket together. What’s unsettling is how recognisable these seemingly well-intentioned pieces of advice are.

The young heroine shows an interest in STEM subjects from a young age. She demonstrates curiosity about nature to the completion of an expansive solar system hanging from her bedroom ceiling to which her mother chides: ‘…this project has gotten out of control’. The stark reality is that somewhere along the line our girls move away from STEM subjects. 66% of 9-10 year old girls say they like science and maths but later, women make up only 18% of college engineering majors- the disappointing truth highlighted in an story we did on What M&S knows about women engineers that the Evening Standard could learn.

Sadly, the advert ends with the teenage girl standing in front of a glass display case, a poster advertising a science fair directly in front of her. Unfortunately her attention isn’t on the poster but the application of her pink lipstick. Powerful imagery. By this point, she has given up on worms, woodlice and wonder. There is nothing wrong with telling daughters they are pretty if you focus the majority of comments on how ‘pretty brilliant’ they are as well!

What M&S knows about women engineers that the Evening Standard could learn

34ROMA3103M&S ‘Leading Ladies’ campaign celebrates women of substance- the latest collection is aimed at the diverse women of modern Britain. While many faces are familiar, we like the introduction of Roma Agrawal. a structural engineer. Her impressive portfolio includes The Shard, London’s 87 storey skyscraper, Western Europe’s tallest building. Employed by WSP Group, she is currently involved in the remodelling of London Bridge. We are immediately impressed and intrigued by M&S’s choice to include a female engineer and curious about her background.

Agrawal grew up in India, with a father who was an electrical engineer, mother a computer designer, and sister an architect. She explained: “There’s less of a divide between girls’ and boys’ subjects in India than here. It’s normal there for girls to study science. I didn’t realise that a gender divide existed until I came to university at Oxford. I looked around the lecture theatre and there were about 10 girls in a class of 150. That’s when I thought this was kind of weird. We are designing things for society and if the people designing them only represent a small proportion of society we probably can’t deliver well.”

So why did Agrawal get involved with M&S? She wanted to highlight women engineers in the UK, currently standing at just 8%. She explained: “I loved that they had models and music stars alongside Doreen Lawrence and an engineer. It’s fantastic that M&S is reaching out to a whole new audience who might not have considered engineering before. It’s good for girls, and boys, to see engineers of all shapes, sizes and types doing amazing things, because anyone can do it. Even if you don’t like maths and physics.”

“As an engineer working to get more people, especially women, interested in maths, science and technical careers” Agrawal believes in the power of the media to attract strong talent and inspire the new generation of women to train in engineering.’” Unfortunately the media can also undermine great talent through it’s blatant sexism. An article written about Agrawal stated:

“This softly spoken 30-year-old in a yellow dress is the woman who made sure the biggest erection in Western Europe didn’t fall down”.

We doubt a reference to her clothing and male genitalia would have featured if the subject was a male engineer. Agrawal, BA MSc CEng MIStructE MIET is an Associate Structural Engineer at WSP, responded, “I would like to thank the Evening Standard for giving me such a wonderful opportunity to raise the profile of engineering and women in leadership, but next time, let’s do it without the penis jokes”. We at Female Breadwinners like her style.

Publisher Calls Biology Blogger an ‘Urban Whore’ for Asking for Payment


danielle-lee2No matter how frequently we report on sexism in the workplace, we are still often surprised by the audacity of those who discriminate even in the most mundane situations. In one such shocking incident, biologist and science blogger Dr. Danielle N. Lee was called ‘an urban whore’ when she inquired about compensation from the journal Biology Online. What BO didn’t count on was the social media arsenal someone like Dr. Lee has at her disposal.

Dr. Lee wrote for the Scientific American blog network for over two years under the name DNLee, focusing on “urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences.” She was approached by Biology Online to write a series of monthly articles under her blog name – the Urban Scientist. When she inquired about compensation, Biology Online, explained that their guest bloggers were expected to write “for exposure”. When Dr. Lee politely declined this request, Biology Online insulted her by replying, “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”

Dr. Lee posted screencaps of the exchange to her blog on the Scientific American site along with a video aimed at Biology Online on Youtube. What is even more surprising is that Scientific American removed her blog post about the incident claiming it was too personal and nothing to do with science. Since Scientific American allows numerous other authors to post personal stories on their website, their silencing of a African American woman seems to reflect a troubling contradiction towards diversity in the sciences.

The Daily Dot re-reported Dr Lee’s original post-, after it had been removed. They quoted her as saying, “It wasn’t just that he called me a whore – he juxtaposed it against my professional being: Are you urban scientist or an urban whore? Completely dismissing me as a scientist, a science communicator (whom he sought for my particular expertise), and someone who could offer something meaningful to his brand. What? Now, I’m so immoral and wrong to inquire about compensation?”

At Female Breadwinners, we wholeheartedly support Dr. Lee’s stance. We can’t help but suspect that would not have been the responses from Biology Online or Scientific American had the blogger been someone from a ‘more traditional background’.

Overcoming Gender Bias In Science – Still A Way To Go

The lack of female role models and the presence of gender bias have made it difficult to convince young women to dedicate their careers to fields where they will be marginalized and undercompensated - in particular science academia reports The Glass Hammer. How sad that a woman who is a celebrated microbiologist should say about gender discrimination “Amazing, it took me 20 years to know it was even true of me, not just other women. That I believe is called denial. The realization of this strange truth was very, very demoralizing. Sometimes I wanted to quit science… I came to feel like my life had been a failure.” Nancy Hopkins is the Amgen professor of Biology at Massachusetts Institute of technology, and as a graduate student in the 1960’s there were no women science faculty members. During the 1970’s this grew to a lowly 8% but then growth was stagnant for the next 20 years. Professor Hopkins eventually collaborated with two other female colleagues to start a movement informing the dean of science about the “largely invisible and almost certainly unconscious bias against women faculty”. This resulted in the hiring of more top women and the story being picked up by The Boson Globe and New York Times. Despite this success Professor Hopkins advocates further changes in policies to eliminate the unconscious bias against women. She says “It’s the unfounded, unconscious bias itself that needs to change. Men’s and women’s undervaluation of women and women’s undervaluation of themselves is perhaps the very last barrier to overcome.”As a woman in science have you experience gender bias? How did you overcome it? For more on women in science click here.

Are Science Careers Designed to Work Against Women?

Recent research by Cornell University reported in The Guardian, suggests that the small numbers of women in senior science posts is more to do with the lack of flexibility in career structures than, as previously thought, discrimination in the job application process. It’s not that women are being discriminated against, it’s more that they are making the choice that this lifestyle won’t suit them. As long term science posts are scarce, in order to keep the job you may need to put in long hours or work abroad, and because of this women are opting out. Effort should be directed at policy changes that reflect the challenges of women interested in a long term career in science. Offering part-time scientific posts for example, would help women keep their career going whilst bringing up a family. Athene Donald, a professor at Cambridge University – who I interviewed for my book Beyond The Boys’ Club – wrote in her own blog about the cultural issues women face in progressing a science career. She says men seem to be more aware of “women in science initiatives” in their department than the women they were designed to help! And unlike women, men are more likely to be appraised as a matter of course and have knowledge of promotion procedures, putting women at a disadvantage. As we working women know our many interests and commitments outside our working life make it impossible for us to sustain a career that offers no time away from our work. Find more on women in science here.

From Domestic Violence Refuges to Equality Programmes – Government Cuts Budgets for Women’s Organisations

The news that the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology would lose all its government funding (the majority of it’s income) comes as a blow to women relying on it’s support. The centre has the important role of helping to increase the number of women (currently only 12.5%) in the science, engineering and technology workforce. My own beloved Cambridge Awise has been in receipt of UKRC funds and I am distraught that such an inspirational organisation may cease to exist. As Annette Williams, founding director of the centre says “It was a devastating blow, one interpretation is that equality organisations are seen as a boom-time nice-to-have. In times of reduced funding, it is equality activities that suffer.” There has also been huge concern at the prospect that local charities supporting victims of domestic abuse will have to close. In Devon, for example, the county council announced plans to reduce funding for domestic support services by 100%. Up to half of the small charities working to end domestic violence against women have no idea whether they will continue to receive any funding after April. Because of the distressing nature of the issues these charities deal with – sexual abuse and domestic violence – they receive little publicity. Whilst there has been some positive news from the Ministry of Justice announcing £10.5m over the next three years for Rape Crisis Centres, research in 2009 showed that 9 out 10 local authorities did not have a centre offering support for rape victims. The UKRC has been given another year to find new fund raising initiatives. However, as most small groups know the public has historically been more ready to donate to donkey sanctuaries than to women’s organisations!

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