Women of the World, women of science

// 10 March 2012

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pulsar.jpg

We’re all stardust. Yes, you’ve heard this before. But Jocelyn Bell Burnell explained in more depth today at the Women of the World 2012 festival at the Southbank Centre in London.

During the talk, ‘This time it is rocket science’, she said: “The stuff in your body has probably been through two [occurrences] of star building and star explosion. Every atom in your body, apart from a few hydrogen atoms, comes from exploding stars.”

During the talk, Jocelyn took the audience through – in very basic terms that even a journalist and English graduate like me could understand – some of the work she has done. But she also weaved in the story of her own career. She is famous for not receiving the Nobel Prize for her role in the discovery of pulsars when she was an undergraduate. (Although she puts this down to the fact she was a student, not particularly that she was a woman, the stars she spotted went on to net her male supervisors the illustrious prize.)

After graduating, Jocelyn married a man who worked in local government – to advance his career, it was necessary to move every five to 10 years. So move they did – leaving Jocelyn to start again at a new institute each time. She illustrated the effect of this to us by showing us a map of the electromagnetic spectrum. While most astrophysicists would pick a spot on the spectrum, and specialise, Jocelyn noted wryly, “I’ve been just about all over the spectrum.”

It was also a struggle to work part time and raise a child, she explained, at a time when the expectation was that mothers should stay at home and give up all ambitions for a career. Despite all this, Jocelyn has built up a brilliant career.

wowpic.jpgMaggie Aderin-Pocock, is another space scientist of a younger generation, with another high flying career – you might know her from Dr Who Confidential. She came up on stage carrying her baby daughter in a sling. She also showed us a photograph of a pregnant scientist, standing next to her equipment, which she was using to explore the birth of the universe. The times, you might conclude, have moved on.

But this isn’t exactly the case – Maggie explained that she’s moved away from her research career, to work as a science communicator, which better fits around the schedule and demands of parenthood. And women continue to be pushed out of a scientific career altogether in this country when they have children.

That said, there is more going on here than just the expectation that women will do most of the childcare – that is holding back brilliant scientists. Jocelyn added, “It’s not just about family. Women without partners and children also fail to progress as fast as their male counterparts.”

And that’s starting from a small pool of women who go into a scientific career in the first place. Maggie showed us a clip from a film she made in a secondary school. In the classroom, the walls were arrayed with the images of famous scientists – not one of them was a woman. The girls looking at these images absorbed the message that women simply haven’t made great discoveries. This is simply wrong, and Maggie has been trying to revive the stories of early women astronomers, and communicate them to girls, in a bid to provide role models.

But it was impossible to consider these stories without bringing to mind some of the things that Helena Kennedy QC had talked about earlier in the day, as she reminisced about her experiences fighting in the courts for women’s rights back in the 1970s. What is needed, she said, is “treatment as equals – not equal treatment”. And maybe this logic applies in the laboratory as well as the courtroom. Equal treatment might involve changing the profession so that having a child doesn’t shut women out of a career in research in the first place.

“What we learnt is there is no such thing as neutrality. Neutrality was a complete fiction and in fact it misled and distracted us from the real things,” Helena went on to say.

It’s a lesson that some scientists might find hard to hear, but the structure of how scientific institutions are run is no more ‘neutral’ than, say, the criteria that the TLS uses to determine which books it wants to review.

Maggie and Jocelyn had some fascinating statistics to show us about the proportion of women represented in the sciences. Women make up 37% of astronomers in Argentina, but only 12% in the UK. This doesn’t mean there is a surprising cluster of talent and interest in Argentina. It shows that the under-representation of women in science is cultural, and can be changed.

The structural changes we’re talking about aren’t to benefit the careers of individual scientists – although it sure couldn’t hurt. Both women were emphatic that a more diverse team will lead to better results. “It’s already been well demonstrated in industry that the most diverse [organisations] are the most flexible, strong and successful,” Jocelyn noted. This isn’t ‘just’ about more women, though: diversity of background leads to diversity of perspectives, which leads to breaking out of the standard patterns of thought. “Anything to dilute the white male Brit will make an organisation stronger,” as she put it.

Maggie was just as straight down the line on the importance of diversity. “If you have a more diverse team.. you are more likely to make great discoveries,” she said.

Photo of collapsed star by NASA, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license, other photos by me

Comments From You

Post-Normal Scientist // Posted 10 March 2012 at 11:58 pm

Lovely blog post. I left science research to become a science communicator. For the past few years the field has seen a huge influx of female ex-researchers who, like me, want to stay connected to science but for one reason or another feel out of place in academia.

I’ve spent 6 years in the field, had two children and have just started a part time MSc to try and get back to my original discipline, marine science. I miss the bite and the depth of research but am not sure I will ever be able to get back into it. It feels like the academic doors closed when I couldn’t write up my PhD.

I’d like to see a change in the structure of academia, the methods by which a scientist is rated which is mutually exclusive with a career break. And overall better support by supervisors for PhD students (though I think most are better than mine was!). I’d really like to see a significant increase in options for returning to academic science too.

Sue // Posted 11 March 2012 at 10:16 am

A brilliant post, highlighting an absolutely crucial point. Women MUST be free to work in the sciences. Our future to a large extent depends on scientific understanding of the world around us, how it affects us and how we are influencing it. There is a huge wastage of the talented women who start off as scientists, simply because the system of advancement is so inflexible.

Curt Rice // Posted 11 March 2012 at 10:10 pm

Great post full of important points. You mention a couple of cases in which women actually had children and had to make complicated career decisions in light of that. But it’s worse than that. Even the perception of having a child — with absolutely no actual empirical basis — is enough for discrimination to be triggered. I wrote about this in “The motherhood penalty: it’s not children that slow women down” at http://bit.ly/motherhoodpenalty .

But, alas, it gets worse. For men, the very perception of being a father does the opposite, ie. it speeds up careers, cf “The fatherhood bonus: have a child and advance your career” at http://bit.ly/xEiTox . Crazy stuff, but it’s all important to get on the table.

Just as you’re doing here!

Cycleboy // Posted 12 March 2012 at 3:18 pm

What is slightly dispiriting is that both Jocelyn and Maggie, even though from different generations, were the ones to adapt their lifestyles and careers around their children.

Obviously, although I cannot comment about their own personal reasons for the choices they made, I think I can draw some conclusions from the simple fact that we hear many, many examples of how women adjust their lives around their children. I cannot think of a single example of a man doing the same. They do exist. I know of one of my neighbours who gave up his job to look after his children and another man who moved to follow his wife’s career move. However, my guess is that they are still a tiny minority and you rarely hear their stories in the media.

Is this imbalance the fault of men not taking their share of responsibility or women perhaps not even considering that option? I can’t say. However, until both Mums and Dads start to think of their children as truly shared responsibilities, the stories of imbalance in all sorts of careers will continue to be with us.

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