Shoot low, girls, shoot low

Last week I went along to a debate at the ICA to celebrate the launch of Suffrage Science – a booklet featuring inspiring tales from and about women in science, which I helped to write. There’s some great coverage from the evening over at The Scientist.

Suffrage Science debate at the ICA

The Loose Women of Science. L-R: Professor Mary Collins, Professor Carol Robinson, Professor Uta Frith, chair Vivienne Parry, artist Liliane Lijn, Professor Dame Sally Davies

Hosted by the fabulous broadcaster and writer Vivienne Parry, who described the evening as “Loose Women for science”, an eminent all-female panel debated issues around the challenges of being a woman in science, from how to deal with the guilt of having a nanny for your kids to whether you should flirt with your head of department to get your own way, and pretty much everything in between.

Something that really struck me – and that I’ve been pondering over for the past week – is one of the comments raised by someone in the audience. A physicist (I think) by trade, she recounted how her young daughter had shown an interest in building houses at school. “Well dear,” the teacher had said, “Maybe one day you could become an interior designer!”  Despairingly, physics-mum lamented the fact that the teacher hadn’t suggested something more technically minded, such as engineer or architect.

Before I get colour-coordinated death threats from any interior designers reading this, in no way at all do I want to suggest that any one career is more or less worthy than any other.  But it struck me that perhaps there is a subtle force at work, pushing girls away from careers in technical areas and towards the less nerdy side of life, when they might actually have aptitude and appetite for the former.

I remember a similar episode from my own life. I have always been interested in science – medical science and biology in particular, with a passing interest in chemistry (oh the sad, sad day when I ran out of copper sulphate in my home chemistry set!). At  school, I started to look into the sort of careers I could do in that area, and I remember being offerred lots of leaflets about careers in nursing, and not much else – despite my protestations that I wanted to be a “mad professor” and do experiments.

Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong at all with a career in nursing (and being a nurse isn’t the sole domain of women…), but the challenging life of a ward sister isn’t really what I had in mind. For a start, I’m not really the caring sort. And, more importantly, I wanted to Do Science and Find Stuff Out.

Granted this was the mid-1980s, and I suspect that a nation firmly under the handbag of Margaret Thatcher wasn’t too keen on encouraging girls to do anything much, lest they accidentally spawn another Maggie.  Let us not forget that the Iron Lady herself started out as a chemist.

At the drinks reception after the debate, I found myself chatting to Professor Dame Sally Davies, one of the panellists and newly-appointed Chief Medical Officer for England – the first woman to hold the post. She’s had a string of impressive appointments, including Director or Research and Development for the NHS.

She told me a story about her daughter, who was asked by her teacher what her mummy did. “My mummy’s in charge of research for the whole of the NHS,” the daugter replied. The teacher declared that no, her mummy couldn’t possibly be doing that and the girl must be lying.  I wonder whether the teacher would have questioned it if the child had claimed her daddy was director of R&D? I have to say that Sally was more restrained than I would have been under the circumstances.  She told her distraught daughter to be content with knowing the truth – I’d have sent in her next sick note on DoH headed notepaper…

Based on this purely anecdotal evidence (n=3), it seems that maybe things haven’t changed that much.  There’s still a notion that there are “girls’ jobs” – teaching, nursing, interior design – and “boys’ jobs” – architecture, research, high-ranking officialdom-  despite the growing (but still minority) visibility of women across the board in science, technology and business.

Are girls still being steered towards more  vocational professions, like  teaching or nursing, when they should be encouraged to strike for the heights of the Ivory Tower? What do you think?

11 responses to “Shoot low, girls, shoot low

  1. I don’t know about teaching, but I know that capitalism is still finding profit opportunities in gender segregation. At a Ryman’s a few weeks ago, they were selling separate globes for boys – camouflage-coloured – and girls: yes, pink. Argh.

    • Stuff like that drives me crazy. I remember some company was selling children’s telescopes – black ones for boys, pink ones for girls. The thing that made me so mad was that the pink ones were lower magnification. Grrrr

  2. I am not sure if you will consider IT (Information Technology) as science in the current context, but my experience so far is that very few girls will choose IT as a career

    Experience so far has shown me that only a very limited number will choose a career in IT (10% max). When i was discussing the issue with some female friends / colleagues, they came up with a very interesting answer

    IT (and science) is a field where you constantly need to be to on the bleeding edge – educating yourself on all new advancements and coping with the huge volume of data coming in from myriad sources. My female colleagues are not really up to it, since they prefer at some point to “relax” a bit and focus on matters that they seem more important to them (family, having and raising kids, etc). Therefore, although they might have started their careers in the IT world, they chose to move to professions where they don’t need to be on the bleeding edge every single moment

    When it comes to the part of “steering girls from an early age to a non-science career”, i can’t really answer…

    • Thanks for your thoughts – it’s certainly something I’ve heard before. Interestingly, Carol Robinson, one of the panellists and a professor of chemistry, took several years out to have a family. I really wanted to ask her how she managed to keep up with her field (or, indeed, if she even tried). Even though all the panellists had children, keeping on the ‘cutting edge’ while having a family wasn’t really discussed.

      When I interviewed Sohaila Rastan for the Suffrage Science booklet, she mentioned that she took a year out (not for a family, but to become a nun) – she kept up to speed by reading the journal Cell in her monastery cell!

      • It’s nice to hear that in civilized countries (UK) as a woman you have the ability to do that

        I come from Greece, where your maternity leave is tops 6 months, and if you “skip” some years in your CV your chances of getting a decent job when you come back are close to zero

        In short, if you are a woman in Greece, you have to choose either career or family. On the other hand, since Greece is not really producing any amazing research results, it’s easy to maintain a position (e.g. university professor) even if you are “away” for some time…

  3. I don’t know, I think these days in IT in particular women can keep as up-to-date as they care to, even on maternity leave. My sister is a tech writer for an internet software company in the US and is constantly working on the computer with kids in her lap. And I think men in IT spend plenty of time arsing about on irrelevant stuff on the Web; sorry, ‘multitasking’. It’s not all being on the ‘bleeding edge’.
    There’s a dangerous assumption that women are not as good as men at science/IT/business because they will at some point ‘choose’ to prioritise their families, and this unfortunately still leads to hiring and pay discrimination, when really men and women should be able to switch off their computers and focus on their kids – or other parts of their lives – already.
    Capitalism is sexist, what can I say? We need more role models of men who succeed in IT while spending time with their kids and doing stuff around the house, as well as of women who choose careers that are traditionally male-dominated.

  4. A brief insight into our Scandinavian way of thinking:

    It can be done, for both sexes…

  5. I think that there is still a very insiduous leaning towards girls having “girl jobs”. The interesting thing in my experience (n=1) is that my daughter really copies everything I do, and her “imaginary play” is to do things that we do in our daily lives. I can easily see how the concept of “girl jobs” can get passed down from generation to generation because if that is what the role model is, then that is what girls see from a very young age. The best thing that women in science (and every other serious profession) can do is to be obvious and unashamed rolemodels – both to their own children and to others in the community. Having more female “mad scientists” on TV wouldn’t harm either.

    • Thanks for your comments everyone (Hi Lucy!) – looks like we’ve all got our work cut out being role models! Perhaps I should buy Chloe more scientific toys next time…

  6. Hi All.

    First off, I did a Bachelors Degree in IT, and in one of my programming lectures we had about 300 guys, and 4 girls. This was way back in about 1993.

    I remember that those ladies got all the help they could handle anytime their computer crashed and wiped out their assignments etc, and they were always greeted with a sea of smiling faces anytime they were in class.

    Secondly, I was lucky enough to catch myself a geeky wife who went on to become a very talented doctor. During her training, whenever someone asked where she worked, and she would say at such-and-such emergency department, they always followed that up with “Oh, so you’re a nurse then?”.

    Nurses are great. They have a very tough job. But everyone needs to learn that just because a woman is working in a hospital, doesn’t mean that she must be a nurse.


    Oh, and Geeky Science Ladies rule!

  7. Pingback: Bragging Rights Central: new archive post | VWXYNot?

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