Talking about women in science

I was on Radio NZ Nights a couple of weeks ago, talking about women in science.

Radio NZ Nights: Feminist Pundit on women in science

The topic came to mind because I had just seen an article about the statistical likelihood of having an all-male panel at maths conferences (in a totally surprising finding, it’s statistically very unlikely) and by a tweet conversation with the wonderful Siouxsie Wiles about imposter syndrome, and by the Gendered Conference Campaign run by the Feminist Philosophers’ Blog. (I do know that Philosophy is not a science, but of all the humanities disciplines, Philosophy might be the one that most resembles the sciences in its academic practices.) A day or two after I had suggested the topic, in a very fortunate coincidence of timing, Nicola Gaston’s new book, Why Science is Sexist, came out.

The conversation with Bryan Crump was great fun, as usual. For more on Bryan’s general excellence as a broadcaster, skip to the bottom of this post.

We covered the leaky pipeline: lots of women taking science at school and at undergraduate levels, and even at higher levels, but very very few at the top levels of science. Nicola Gaston has a great story about this.

Dr Nicola Gaston tells a story about an encounter at an international conference dinner one night in 2012.

Sitting with a group of five, four of whom she knew well, a senior member of the quantum chemistry academy running the conference stopped by to talk to someone opposite her. The conversation was about one of the talks that morning.

The visitor said to Dr Gaston: “I’m sorry, we must be boring you.”

She assured him that wasn’t the case.

“Oh, but you aren’t one of us, are you?” he continued. “What I mean is, you aren’t a scientist, are you?”

The table now in silence, she replied: “Actually, yes I am.”

The man’s forehead wrinkled, he smiled, and asked: “Oh, what kind of science? What I mean is, you aren’t our kind of scientist, are you?”

She said something to the man, headed straight for the bar, and it was there that she noticed her environment. At the tables behind her, filled mostly with students and postdoctoral researchers, the gender split was 50/50, while the tables surrounding hers, hosting working scientists, were largely full of men. At the front, where VIPs and members of the academy were seated, the ratio was again half and half – but only because the men had brought their wives.

But why would there be such a drop off of women in science?

It could be due to stereotype threat:

When there’s a stereotype in the air and people are worried they might confirm the stereotype by performing poorly, their fears can inadvertently make the stereotype become self-fulfilling.

Steele and his colleagues found that when women were reminded — even subtly — of the stereotype that men were better than women at math, the performance of women in math tests measurably declined. Since the reduction in performance came about because women were threatened by the stereotype, the psychologists called the phenomenon “stereotype threat.”

There’s a classic xkcd comic that’s very much to the point here.

Then there’s women in science constantly being disparaged: witness Tim Hunt making cracks about “girls” in labs, and that shirt that Matt Taylor wore when he was talking to the world’s media about landing a spacecraft on a comet (to his credit, Taylor got the point straight away, apologised for his goof-up and moved on, unlike Hunt), and Larry Summers talking about how women just don’t have the innate ability for science.

NB: for those of you who are still attached to the view that Tim Hunt was very hard done by, check out this very thorough review of what actually happened: Saving Tim Hunt.

This is the sort of climate that women face in science: men who won’t take women seriously, and treat them as mere accessories and distractions. Is it any wonder that women don’t stay in science?

So what are the solutions? Consciousness raising: acknowledging that the problem actually exists. Mentoring women scientists. Recognising that this is a problem for everyone to solve, rather than expecting individual women to solve a systemic problem. This is particularly important because the negativity around women in science, and women in any non-traditional gender roles, is something that we all do. Women are part of our society just as much as men, and we absorb the same attitudes. So women need to recognise and work to solve this problem too. And it will be all to the good if we can solve the problem. At present, a good proportion of people who would be excellent scientists are being turned away from doing science, and that means that we are squandering their work and talents.

I recommend Nicola Gaston’s book: it’s well worth reading. She was on Q&A a couple of weeks ago talking about the issues for women in science: Q&A: Sexism and science.


I’ve been Radio NZ Night’s feminist pundit for three years now, and it has been great fun. They’re keen to have me back again next year, but there are reviews going on. A couple of straws of gossip in the wind that I’ve picked up on, and this comment on Dim-Post:

depressing news from RNZ source – ‘proposal’ to gut ‘nights’ of local content/interviews and have Brian Crump (only wears his heart in his pocket) as continuity between BBC/overseas content – Hirschfeld (head of content) must find monies for savior of public radio JC’s drivetime multi media (someone that good must be on as many platforms as is financially possible) – aucklanders don’t listen to nighttime radio – too many good restaurants – goodbye public RADIO

That would be a great loss. Obviously I would miss being able to talk feminism on air, but it’s more than that. Bryan Crump is an excellent broadcaster and interviewer. He’s very gentle, and he manages to have conversations with people that generate real insights and real connection. He has a tremendous ability to elicit emotion without being mawkish, or even sentimental. I often turn his show on when I’m driving in the evening, and I’ve been known to get home and stay sitting in the car to keep on listening to an interview, because I don’t want to miss it. I should be very sorry indeed if his local interviews and local content was taken off the air.

Handy research for talking to the pregnancy police

Like every other woman I know, when I was pregnant I was subject to all sorts of instructions, from all sorts of people, about what I should and shouldn’t do. Top of the list was not drinking alcohol. Then there was not drinking coffee, and making sure that I put on enough weight, but of course not too much weight. On it and on went. I was infantalised, and control was taken away from me.

I especially resented the advice about alcohol. The pregnancy police took “We don’t what level of alcohol is safe during pregnancy” and turned it into, “Therefore, pregnant women must never ever touch the demon drink” despite clear evidence that one or two alcoholic drinks a week don’t harm the fetus. Here’s a classic of the genre:

However, a spokesman for the Department of Health said that its advice would remain unchanged.

“We are continually taking account of evidence and welcome this further report.

“However, the research does not lead to any change in the current UK wide advice that pregnant women and those trying to conceive should, as a precautionary measure, avoid alcohol.”

Additional advice from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence urges women to avoid alcohol, particularly in the first three months of pregnancy. (Source)

But here’s an article from economist Emily Oster, who spent quite a bit of time digging through research papers when she was pregnant.

Take back your pregnancy: Modern pregnancy comes with a long list of strict rules, but does it have to? An economist examines the data and finds room for choice amid the familiar limits.

Her findings?

  • An occasional glass of wine is fine.
  • Most soft cheeses are fine.
  • Most deli meat is fine.
  • Having a low birthweight baby is worrying, so you do need to gain a fair amount of weight during pregnancy, but gaining “too much” weight is not really an issue.
  • Drinking coffee is fine.
  • Her concluding paragraph nails it:

    Pregnant women are clamoring for better information about everything from exercise to hair dye to bed rest and delivery. They don’t want categorical limits based on fuzzy science and half-baked research. They want to assess risks for themselves and make their own best decisions.

    Just so. Stop with the infantalising and policing and controlling women, and trust us to make our own decisions.

    Other posts on pregnancy policing:
    Because it’s always better to police women
    Another opportunity for body policing lost

    The earth moved for me, again

    Well, that was scary. We were asleep when last night’s big earthquake started, but we were awake within seconds, and racing upstairs to get the kids out of bed and into doorways. I felt a heavy rocking motion, and our house seemed to keep on quivering for quite some time, possibly up to a minute. The earthquake itself only lasted for about 15 seconds, but our wooden house did exactly what it was supposed to do, and moved with it, and kept on shivering.

    It was the biggest earthquake I have felt for many years. And it has reminded me that I really must sort my earthquake kit out – water, canned food, candles, matches, batteries, radio. Also coffee.

    Last time the earth moved for me, back in February, it seemed to take about 10 or 15 minutes for the NZ Quakes app on my iPad to report it. This time around, I have a app, GeoNetQuake, which is still in beta mode. The app gives almost immediate reports on quakes. After the shaking stopped, we brought the girls down to our bedroom for a few minutes, to talk and to reassure them, and to find out what we could about it. Within just four minutes, we knew that the epicentre was about 60km south of Opunake on Taranaki’s south coast, so it was about 150km from us, it was about 230km deep, and it was about 6.5 on the Richter scale. The information was nearly instant. By this morning it had been updated: about 7 on the Richter scale.

    It was probably an overreaction, getting the girls out of bed, but it was one of those instant decisions. Better to be safe and all that. And a good drill for when a really big earthquake hits.

    What Transit?

    This is what the Transit of Venus looked like from my backyard in Greenhills.

    Transit of Venus

    (Description: grey cloudy sky behind tree)

    I didn’t see it at all, and given that my next chance to see it is in 2117, my guess is that I won’t be seeing it at all ever.

    On the other hand, my brother saw it in full glory in Brisbane. He had a set of welding glasses – the proper sort – and he spent a good part of his day on the roof of his workplace, looking. More than just looking. He dragged many of his colleagues up there to take a look, explaining to them what it was all about, and why it is so important in the history of New Zealand and Australia. Some of them really didn’t care at all, but others were intrigued, and keen to learn more, and still talking about it hours later. My brother was buzzing about it, when he rang me to brag tell me about his day.

    Oh, go away, I said. Laughing. I’m so pleased that he had that experience, and that he was able to share it with his colleagues.

    I enjoyed all the stories on the news last night, about people watching the Transit in various places around New Zealand. The best story came from Tolaga Bay, where people were on the beach and gathered at the local school, and everyone was excited about it. What a great way to get kids enthusiastic about science, and history, and our world. Fantastic stuff.

    My parents gave me that sense of joyful curiosity about the world when I was a child, and I am busy passing it on to my daughters (see for example, one of the earliest blog posts I ever wrote, about a total eclipse of the moon). It’s great to see children and adults all around the country being excited about science.

    The earth moved for me

    The earth moved for me. It moved for Mr Bee too. And for lots of other people in the lower North Island of New Zealand at 7am this morning. The earthquake was a long way from where we live, and about 200km deep, so even though it measured 5.7 on the Richter scale, we experienced as a small jolt and a jiggle, a mere frisson of excitement.

    What I have found interesting about this earthquake is watching it being reported on GeoNet. A few minutes after the quake, I opened up the NZ Quakes app on my iPad, and got the details of scale and depth and distance. I refreshed the screen 15 minutes or so later, and as well as the earthquake being marked with an orange pin, there were orange dots appearing around it, representing reports being sent it. GeoNet asks people to fill out a report recording their experience of the quake: how they felt it, did it cause any damage, and so on. Just before 8am, the NZ Quakes app looked like this:

    Earthquake reports

    Description: Map of New Zealand, orange pin in the sea in the South Taranaki Bight about halfway between New Plymouth and Nelson, orange dots all along the coastline and inland from New Plymouth down to Wellington in the North Island, and across the top of the South Island from Blenheim to Takaka.

    One of those orange dots is the report I sent in via the GeoNet site: New Zealand Earthquake Report – Feb 3 2012 at 7:00 am (NZDT). It’s a great exercise in crowd sourcing information, and involving ordinary people in the collection of data for science. But as well as serving a scientific purpose, I think it also meets a social need, of sharing our experiences with each other, and of feeling that we are part of a community.

    You can find the GeoNet site here:, and the section devoted to earthquakes here:

    Hurrah! SciTechDaily is BACK!

    In the days after the Christchurch earthquake, one of my favourite websites stopped. SciTechDaily was seemingly paused for ever on 22 February. After a few days, a note appeared on the site: Vicki Hyde, the editor, was well, and uninjured, but there was no electricity in her area. And then nothing, except what we heard through the news.

    Until Vicki’s partner Peter wrote a magnificent piece about Shower City, and Rescue City, and Refugee City. Through that piece, I learned just how difficult things were for Vicki and her neighbours.

    And today, joy of joys, at last, Vicki has been able to re-start SciTechDaily. Here’s her story of what’s been happening: After the earthquake: living in an information vacuum.

    If you don’t already read SciTechDaily, then I recommend it to you wholeheartedly. It’s a portal site, where Vicki posts links to fascinating science stories. I’ve been reading it ever since it started, checking in three or four times a week to read some science, just for fun. I am curious about the world and the universe I live in, and Vicki’s work enables me to pursue that interest. Through SciTechDaily, I’ve learned about bugs and stars and ancient civilisations and genetics and chemistry and…. everything and nothing. Everything because Vicki’s interests are so wide-ranging: nothing because there is so much still to be learned.

    Vicki, I’m glad you’re back in action.

    The rest of you – take a look at SciTechDaily.

    Can you identify this?

    You will be rewarded by the esteem of your peers, if you can identify what this sound is.

    Audio description – a scritchy scratching continous grinding burr. I’m sorry about the slight jerkiness of the shot: there’s only so much I can accomplish with my camera.

    And my grateful thanks to anyone who can tell me why such a sound is made, because it seems very dangerous to me.