Fluffy Friday – This is How Girl Scientists Talk

I love group messages. Me and some of the other female scientists I work with have a longrunning chat going on about general life. It’s mostly talk about Orange is the New Black and Orphan Black because women. But our conversation took a sexist turn earlier this week, and we started discussing the Tim Hunt scandal.

So this is what some women scientists thought. Prepare yourselves for tears.

FluffyScience: Love me some of that dna

BustyLabWench: How do you know, jill? We are too busy in the lab knocking shit over with our boobs…no work is ever done
FluffyScience: Sorry I’m too busy falling in love with my professor
Feminist #3: Does anyone else feel a little bit bad for that guy? Like, he’s 72. It’s like your granddad saying something racist and getting yelled at for it. I know he definitely should have known better, but I feel the backlash has been a bit ott :grinning:
FluffyScience: Nah
FluffyScience: His apology was sorry but I meant it

BustyLabWench: Yeah I agree with jill. If the apology was sincere and he just thought it was a funny comment which he retracted, then fine.
BustyLabWench: But he be like “bitches were falling to their knees when I came into da lab”
Feminist#3: But how can you sincerely apologise if you don’t grasp what you’ve done? You can’t rewire an old man’s brain overnight
BustyLabWench: My grandad is a giant racist, but he would genuinely be sorry if he were to learn that he upset someone.
FluffyScience: Then the answer your give is “I’m sorry I don’t actually understand why this is wrong so I’m going to do some training”
FluffyScience: “Find out why I’ve upset people”
FluffyScience: The guy is a fucking genius. I’m sure he can comprehend some sensitivity training

SugarTits: I feel a bit like he got bashed for more than he meant but at the same time yeah agree with Jill about dealing with it in the right way and making the effort to learn why people thought it was wrong…
Feminist#3: Yeah definitely. But I also don’t believe you should be sorry just because you’ve offended someone. If I say ‘god damn’ I could genuinely offend millions of people, and I might apologise but I won’t be sincere. I’ve basically offended (in my opinion) an imaginary friend.
FluffyScience: The difference is you saying God damn isn’t going to reinforce a section of the population being systematically degraded
FluffyScience: His comments did damage.
FluffyScience: He is a respected leader of his field who promoted the idea women were too emotional to work with
FluffyScience: That’s not just offence it’s damaging

Feminist#3: In his mind he’s massively clever and he’s just been told his way of thinking is completely wrong. In his mind that is probably preposterous. Inconceivable He has to genuinely understand why it’s so wrong before he can sincerely apologise.

FluffyScience: And that is a supremely poor position to be in as a scientist
FluffyScience: You must always be open to being wrong
FluffyScience: I have no sympathy for old white straight men who don’t know how to be challenged

Feminist#3: Most of his life people have been hideously sexist, and then to make it worse everyone has probably kissed his ass for at least 20 years. And as for being wrong, we all know scientists with a small fraction of his fame who are totally opposed to the idea 😄

SugarTits: I just can’t comprehend why he doesn’t get it! Yes relationships can complicate things but this is something that comes with every single workplace, and it’s a drop in the ocean of all the other shit that can make life at work harder than it needs to be!
FluffyScience: But he is an honoured fellow who is supposed to represent his community (UCL) and he clearly doesn’t
FluffyScience: He is in no way doing his job
FluffyScience: They sent him there to support female scientists
FluffyScience: He did not fulfill that contract

Feminist#3: I totally agree that what he said was full on crazy train. I just didn’t find it surprising or very upsetting. I just accept that old men are often sexist and racist. Yeah he’s intelligent and should know better. He should never have been sent to talk to people. It’s more worrying if people knew what he was going to say and found it fine.

FluffyScience: I don’t accept that science ambassadors are too inflexible to even comprehend when they’re wrong

Feminist#3: Dawkins comes out with this shit all the time. On one hand says Muslims are shit and on the other says western women have no right to moan compared to what ‘Muslim women’ have to put up with. Man that guy’s a prick! It’s the typical old white, Oxbridge educated idiot view. They all think that because they’re so clever they can’t be wrong.

FluffyScience: And I think he should be publicly denounced too
Feminist#3: It’s weird, some sexist shit makes me want to really hurt whoever’s saying it, but I genuinely laughed when I read what this guy said. It felt too preposterous to get angry about.

FluffyScience: I think that’s what makes me so angry
FluffyScience: The complete normalcy of it
FluffyScience: I’m not angry at him. I’m angry at the system
FluffyScience: I consider him a people eater. Just minding his own business while I drive a war rig through his perceptions of the world

BustyLabWench: …this is deeper than our usual chat

FluffyScience: TITS!!!
FluffyScience: I actually want to transcribe this and put it in a blog

Feminist#3: Haha, you can as far as I’m concerned. I can be ‘Feminist number 3’ :innocent:
Feminist#3: Saying that, I can totally get behind mocking him. #Distractinglysexy might be my new favourite hashtag (yes I have favourites) http://mashable.com/2015/06/11/female-scientists-responses-tim-hunt-distractinglysexy/?utm_cid=mash-com-fb-main-link

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Your Weekly Sexist Scientist

(Edit: See below for my response to Tim Hunt’s resignation)

Okay, it’s partly because I’m in marking hell right now and don’t have the time to write a big post, but it’s partly because this shit keeps happening.

Nobel prize winner, Tim Hunt, addresses a collection of female scientists and says:

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

Alleges the Guardian this morning.

And then of course, after reading this, you get the joy of reading below the line Guardian comments, including such gems as …

  • there is clearly something in what he says

  • In a world of open omnivorous sexuality, it’s all meant to shut down as you walk through the lab door. Hmm.

  • You must have a very low opinion of young women to believe that [this makes science less inclusive]

I don’t know about anyone else but I think I feel the tears happening already. It wasn’t like last week I was saying that each woman needs to decide for herself what she will or will not tolerate. It wasn’t that a few weeks before I was explaining why representation matters in all we do. It wasn’t that a few months ago we had reviewers saying a man should look over a manuscript, just assuming that the foolish women hadn’t already done so, even if it were a legitimate complaint. It’s not that even with the best of intentions, we can’t help but portray women in science as dangerous Eves, meddling just too far for mankind.

While it’s tempting to make a joke here, to leave off with a light hearted ‘see, I’m the fun kind of a feminist’ statement, something like “Who wants to come smuggle some scientists out of Hunt’s lab on a War Rig and paint their forehead black with me?” – I can’t.

I am tired of making the same argument over and over. I am tired of being told by older white men that I should be grateful for inclusion into a field I am damned good at. I am tired of having younger white men start to nod their heads. My beloved science needs to get over its representation problem.

And I bloody well hope that in forty three years time, when I’m advocating for separate human-AI labs, someone tells me to sit down and shut up. Because it won’t be my future I’m jeopardising then.

Tim Hunt has today resigned from his honourary professorship at UCL. Predictably, the radio this morning was full of old men bleating “political correctness gone mad!”.

A few misconceptions to clear up: the man’s contribution to science is not ‘lost’, nor is anyone throwing out what he’s achieved with his Nobel Prize winning innovations. This was an honourary position and so is supposed to reflect what the organisation wants to be. UCL prides themselves on being inclusive, and I think they’re absolutely right to say this resignation fits with their policies. Whether he jumped or was pushed is immaterial. Academic environments need and demand trust and faith in other scientists, you need to be able to evaluate one another on individual merits, not the makeup of your chromosomes.

And finally – no, I actually wish he hadn’t resigned. I wish he’d said “I have caused offense and I don’t understand why, so my employers are supporting me by sending me to equality and diversity training. I want to be open about this process, and we will review the situation after I have attended the requisite courses. I hope you can appreciate my openness and willingness to investigate opposing points of view”.

That, to me, would have illustrated a truly intelligent and incisive mind. And if, after, he maintained that he didn’t understand how he could have caused offence, then the UCL would be at liberty to open the door or push him out. Now he ends his career as a wounded beast, instead of one who is objectively more than clever enough to listen to what others have to say and feel.

Bad Science Careers Advice

Oh, WayBack machine. You were supposed to help us find old Geocities webpages, lost in the midst of time, and now you help us see terrible articles written in Science Careers magazine. How we love you.

Picture this. You’re a postdoc, you’ve just started a new job, and your supervisor keeps staring down your top. You write to Science Careers for help, and the reply is . . .

Well read some of it yourself.

As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can. Just make sure that he is listening to you and your ideas, taking in the results you are presenting, and taking your science seriously. His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.

Jezebel responded by saying it sets the ‘Sexist Incidences in Science’ calendar back to zero. Science Careers quickly pulled the article. I’m not sure what editorial team let it go by to be honest. But then, I think we’ve established that I’m not really au fait with editors in the science world.

We can sit and snipe about this, making funny comments, but here’s the thing – the letter writer is still sitting in this office with someone peering at her tits. So I’m going to answer her as I would answer one of my students:

Dear Alice Fluffy,

Q: I’ve just joined a new lab for my second postdoc. It’s a good lab. I’m happy with my project. I think it could really lead to some good results. My adviser is a good scientist, and he seems like a nice guy. Here’s the problem: Whenever we meet in his office, I catch him trying to look down my shirt. Not that this matters, but he’s married.

What should I do?

—Bothered

Dear Bothered,

Let’s start with the obvious here, this behaviour is bothering you.  You have a choice. Either you adjust your expectations and expect to feel uncomfortable in your place of work, with someone you are supposed to be working collaboratively with. Alternatively, you can raise the issue and hope that both you and your advisor, who is apparently nice, can both behave in such a way that you will both feel comfortable together.

It’s really not for me to tell you which path to choose. I think every woman has to pick her battles. In my career I’ve faced sexual harassment a few times, and I haven’t always taken action against. The truth is that harassment is subjective, and it’s not always a clear cut case of “this is wrong”.

The problem, however, is when someone like you or I wants to speak up, but doesn’t because they’re afraid of the consequences to their career.

As a society, we need to learn how to hear the words “this makes me uncomfortable” and not immediately take huge umbrage. Some people will tell you to put up with this, to live in a work environment that makes you feel uncomfortable. And here’s the thing – if you would rather do that than risk the censure of openly wanting an equal work environment, no one has the right to judge you. You only take on the battles you want to in this life.

But let’s say you do want this fight (because it could well be a fight), here’s how to start.

Do you know what the first aider’s golden rule is?

1) Protect yourself.

Never put yourself in a situation where you feel vulnerable. Start documenting now. Even just a word file with times and dates of meetings, what happened, when, how did it make you feel. Nine times out of ten, no one will ever see this but you.

2) Contact your equality and diversity officer.

All universities should have an equality and diversity officer. They will be in charge of facilitating your institute’s duty of care towards you (and yes, your institute does have one toward you – why didn’t I tell you this earlier? Because it’s their responsibility, not yours. You need to make the decision to do this yourself). They will be able to point you in the direction of further advice, and they may be able to instigate some staff-wide training.

3) Be prepared to say ‘bygones’

So far, your supervisor has irritated you, but they haven’t behaved obscenely. When they learn that their behaviour has made you upset, they’re going to feel bad about it. People respond to this in different ways. People who are genuinely nice will apologise. Slightly less nice people will try to just push through it and change their behaviour. People who are more like me will probably go bitch to their friends and be cool towards you for a while (this is okay, we’re none of us the villain in our own tale). True dicks will try to make things worse for you, that’s when you bring out the documentation and start the whole process again.

The point is, once you have addressed the behaviour, you have to take it as a learning event. Some people learn their lesson, some people don’t. You have to re-evaluate the situation after you have given your input to it, which is, essentially: I am bothered.

Be bothered. You’re allowed to be bothered by this. You’re a scientist, and you should be valued for what that brings to the table.

Good luck, Bothered.

Implicit Bias – Representation Matters

Our tea breaks (and a certain someone’s 30th birthday) last week was abuzz about a seminar we got from @fatwhitebloke who was talking about implicit bias.

STEM has a problem with women, and the UK in general has a problem with immigrants, so the talk was very relevant to us. Dr Jones was talking to us about implicit bias, and how our subconscious mind makes decisions that our conscious minds would not. Jones was very explicit about his own implicit biases, which I appreciated. Having a bias does not make you a bad person, but allowing that bias to control your decisions, and being unwilling to change that, does.

They have a little youtube vid about it here:

But one of the things Jones said really stuck out to me, because I spend a lot of time on places like Tumblr and seeing ‘representation matters‘. I ‘know’ this on an instinctive level, I know that Gadget and Captain Janeway are part of the reason I’m here today. When I was little, I identified with the women, and I know that I’m very happy with my life and where I’ve ended. Representation matters to me.

But I’d never thought of it as Dr Jones explained it – and he did this off the cuff, noting to us that this one audience where he didn’t need to explain ‘mylenation of the neurons’.

It certainly sparked some of mine.

You know that electricity is messy. You may have seen electricity jump before (though perhaps not so spectacularly), and you know that electrical wires must be insulated with plastic. Our brains are collections of neurons, a kind of cell that can transmit electrical energy – just like a wire. When babies are young, unable to walk, or to coordinate their movements, all these neurons are ‘firing’ and the electricity is going everywhere. The important neurons coordinating where hands go need to be insulated to keep that signal going along the right path, so with us, those neurons become insulated with a fatty sheath that does not conduct electricity. We call this myelination.

Important pathways in the brain (like the parts that help you to touch your finger to your nose) get well insulated.

Jones asked us to imagine we were walking into an office and we saw the receptionist – who is the receptionist? What are they wearing? How do they compose themselves? Don’t cheat – like most of us you probably saw an attractive (white?) woman, well (sexily?) dressed. It’s how we see secretaries in the media, it’s not necessarily what we know of secretaries from our own personal experience. And our conscious mind doesn’t believe it, but our conscious mind often passes off those decisions to the part of our mind that made all of those connections.

And when you reinforced those connections, what happened? The more we see that, the more those connections get insulated. They become easier to reach next time, and the time after that, and the time after that. And then as we get older, they become our go-to position.

Now there might be one more argument here – that  hey, perhaps a lot of secretaries ARE sexily dressed white women so what’s the problem?

Here we have two choices. This person is a secretary. This person is a secretary who is a sexy woman. Most people will choose the second option with more detail, because humans are terrible at probability. We see that extra information and say “yes, that fits with what I think about secretaries”, forgetting that the subpopulation of sexy female secretaries will ALWAYS be smaller than the larger population just described by ‘secretary’. (See the io9 post on the fallacy here).

Our implicit biases make assumptions and decisions for us. Representation matters because it can stop the insulation of the connections – it makes us less likely to jump to that conclusion. Which leads me to the amazing Guillermo del Toro quote:

I think that every choice is political. When you decide that a woman can be a character of her own and not have to fall in love with the f***ing guy, that’s a political choice. When you choose that they can speak in their own language and be subtitled, that’s a political choice. I think it’s very important for us to understand that we are all — the whole world — in the same robot. It’s this f***ing planet. No matter who you are, what you like to do, whatever your race or whatever your religion, we’re all human. And I think it’s really great to make a movie that celebrates that diversity.

So yes, representation matters. And science agrees.

The STEM Pipe

Our wonderful and talented communications officer, Sarah, has been working hard to promote the image of women in the STEM fields. We’ve been going round schools and encouraging people to ask us about our Women In Science posters at all of our events, and at our Barony College open day she really outdid herself with our ‘Women in STEM’ fields stall. We had a ‘dress the scientist’ event, which was a huge amount of fun, two jars of couscous (well, one jar, one bucket) representing the difference in the numbers of female and male professors in the UK, and a ‘vote’ on what words accurately described scientists.

What does a scientist wear anyway?
What does a scientist wear anyway?

 

The irony is, I’d recently applied for a communication job myself (working with the STEM fields but out of research), and I’d been tempted by another industry R & D job. While this economic climate makes applying for jobs an exercise in cover letter writing days, it’s not entirely outside the realms of possibility that I might leak from the STEM pipeline.

So while I had lots of little girls announcing they wanted to put a labcoat in the dressing up box alongside their princess outfits (I particularly loved the girls who picked up my high heels and paired that with the labcoat to be a ‘fashion scientist‘) I was also answering the questions from the mums and dads: why do women leave STEM?

I can’t speak for all women, but I can tell you what tempts me to apply for these other jobs:

  1. Money. I have a good wage right now, and postdocs are paid well in general, but industry pays us really well. Now I did apply for a communications job a few years ago where they said I was asking for too much money, but that was more of an indication to me about the way they treated their employees. STEM graduates are worth paying for, even in this economic climate, and what’s more, that money often comes with a permanent contract . . .
  2. Permanency. I’ve no real right to complain about this as I have been very lucky. My bosses have kept me around and that wasn’t easy. But I think this one is particularly hard for the women who have never left academia. We’ve thought our entire lives in 2, 3, 4 year blocks of time, and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon.
  3. Skills. I think I’m really good at science communication. I love doing it. A science communication job would be really enjoyable. I’ve developed a lot of skills in STEM, and some of them I want to make more use of.
  4. Opportunity. This might be more specific to the animal welfare field, but there is so little funding and so many research ideas that it feels like I’d have more luck trying to get funding from a raffle prize sometimes. It would be nice not to have to fight every single day.
  5. Values. In the last few years I have realised my core values can be satisfied without world domination – I mean I would still like to dominate the world, but in the every day, there are other things I enjoy doing. Perhaps, whisper it, my career isn’t the most important thing in my life any more.
  6. Satisfaction. What, recently, has given me the most satisfaction in my work? Is it the constant criticism and destruction of the scientific process?

Of course there is also a multitude of reasons for loving my work in the STEM fields, and I don’t expect I’ll be leaving any time soon, but it’s important to recognise that women don’t leave STEM to have babies. Academia is, in many ways, a friendly environment for that. We leave for a whole host of reasons.

What did the kids and parents think about scientists? Well, we were most often described with the words smart and silly, with interesting following along behind. Great news I think – science is fun, and I really hope girls and boys can recognise that.

Smart and silly? Better than boring!
Smart and silly? Better than boring!

Fluffy Friday – Frankenstein MD

Did you know that the first science fiction story was written by a woman? I wrote my advanced higher English thesis on ‘monsters’ and The Modern Prometheus was one of the texts I chose.

So imagine my excitement when the team behind the excellent Lizzie Bennett diaries (a YouTube adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that I adored) announced that, in partnership with PBS Digital Studios, they were making Frankenstein MD.

The cool twist is that Victor is now Victoria, which I think is awesome, particularly as women in STEM fields are a problem for us.

Unfortunately the first three episodes have fallen a bit flat for me. They’ve broken away from the Lizzie Bennet ‘video diary’ style and there are multiple camera angles. If you’re going to do that, why have the video diary format at all?

And it may be premature to judge, but I’m terribly worried about how they’ll handle Victoria ‘reaching too far’. Men may have hubris in science fiction, but women always seem to be reaching for knowledge they (or ‘man’kind) shouldn’t. This is an important theme in Frankenstein, but as Frankenstein will ultimately either have ‘reached too far’ or fail to take responsibility for the ‘life’ he has created, I find these troublesome tropes to be laying at the door of a female scientist. Too familiar.

Now I loved the Lizzie Bennett diaries, and I maintain some hope that they will deal with this sensitively (after all, ‘Its Okay To Be Smart’  is the science advisor), but already she’s being dismissive and cruel to her Igor who in this iteration is a man (why not another woman?) and who already appears to fancy Victoria and she seems to know it. Leading to some awkward moment when he kills himself in episode one.

Maybe this will all even out in time. I did think that the Lizzie Bennett diaries would never work. But, that being said, I never got into Emma Approved either.

 

Before I go – I shall say that FluffySciences is on hiatus for the next three weeks as I will be away visiting old friends and family, as well as attending PAX! I’m very excited and can’t wait to be there, so enjoy your summer break all, and see you on the other side.