Sunday 22 May 2016

Starting a new chapter for gender representation in children's books

I am getting to that stage in life where my friends are having kids, and that means I am buying gifts, toys and books. This task has become increasingly more arduous after I started blogging about gender roles.

When perusing the shelves, I try to think about the bigger picture. If I am buying for a friend's little girl, I think about the amount of pink, fluffy and typically 'girly' things they will be receiving this birthday, and wondering if I can combat the effects of this with the gift of building blocks. Or if I am buying books for my friend's little boy, I look through at the characters and assess the integrity of the female characters in the book. In short, it takes me a very long time to buy presents.

Recent visits to the kid's section of the book shop have caused me to leave with my head in my hands. Although there is so much work going on to raise awareness for the importance of representation in books for children, this section of the book shop is saturated with gender stereotypes and it saddens me.

Books are a way of opening up boundaries and exploring new realities for children. Books create new worlds and adventures for the reader, helping to make their most unachievable dreams into an almost tangible reality. But it seems that books aimed at boys open up different worlds than the books aimed at girls.

Science and space books perpetuate the idea that these realms are for boys, by rarely featuring girls or women as protagonists or even background characters. Just a short look through this section leaves me tutting in despair.

My latest search for birthday presents for my friend's children left me exasperated. It feels like despite the amount of research about the importance of considering gender roles when creating toys and books for children, representation is an afterthought.

I encourage you to look at what you are buying your children and look at who is featured in the books they are reading. Because the world those books may be opening up to them on the pages, may be reinforcing the fact that that world might not include them.

And when I say look at what you are buying, I mean really look. Even though shops are starting to stop separating their toy departments in to boys and girls sections, it can still be really obvious who the toys are designed for.

I was stopped in my tracks during one of my shopping trips by this toy display. Even though these toys don't exactly say 'boys first lab' or 'girl's first lab', you can instantly tell who these toys are aimed at.

Not only are they differentiating their science toys for different genders, but the types of science they are aiming at boys and girls is very different. The pink packaging immediately is associated with girls, and the science kits they are marketing to them involve beauty and cosmetics; because that is the kind of science girls would want to do [insert sarcasm here].

But what can we do about it? When you see example of this make sure you shout about it. Tweet it, share it and make yourself heard. Tag the publisher or campaigners like Let Toys be Toys to make it known that you are not happy about it.

Dr Seuess said: The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.”

But with the gendered books content we are giving future generations, only half of the population will be going to more place -  and the other half will be left behind.

Monday 9 May 2016

Mind-ful is going Beyond Space

Image source: Here

Since I started Mind-ful, this blog has brought me new and exciting opportunities, and the latest one is taking me to the European Space Agency in Paris.

(I won't be going into space, but I will be doing something incredibly exciting.)

In July I will be giving a talk at the Parisian headquarters to take part in their lunchtime lecture series, Beyond Space. The lectures aim to open up the world of the staff at the ESA to ideas further than their everyday world, and my talk will be focused on looking at the barriers which hold women back in STEM.

It is fantastic that an organisation like the European Space Agency wants to engage its staff with the issues that face women in STEM, as there are around 2,200 staff at the European Space Agency who work in areas of science, engineering and information technology. All of these industries have an issue with underrepresentation of women, and therefore it is vital that these issues are talked about.

Let’s look at the statistics:
  • Women make up just 12.8% of the STEM workforce, and their representation has only increased by 0.2% in the last four years.
  • Women make up just 13% of physics faculty members and earn up to 20% of physics bachelor’s degrees.
  • Women make up 9% of the engineering workforce and only 6% of registered engineers and technicians are women.
  • Women make up just 15% of the astronomers worldwide.

These figures need to be processed in several different ways. We first need to value that these statistics reflect social issues in society that are holding back women and preventing them from entering these industries. But we also need to appreciate what impact these figures have on science itself.

If we ignore the social aspects of inequality (for just a moment) and simply look at the effects that inequality has on the economics and quality of science, it becomes apparent that holding back women in the industry, holds back the industry itself.

Women are significantly more likely to be employed below their skill set, and therefore we have an untapped resource of talent. It is thought that if we actually started harnessing women to their full potential, the UK could generate £23 billion. This phenomena also applies to science, imagine if all the women who were employed below their skill set in STEM were allowed to reach their full potential?

Inequality also greatly impacts on scientific research itself. Research has shown that if you simply increase the diversity of your workforce, you will create better scientific research as you are bringing more perspectives to solve the same problem.

Therefore is it fantastic that the European Space Agency is including a talk about women in STEM in their Beyond Space lecture series. Not only does addressing these issues raise awareness for them, but it could have a wider effect on the way we value how social structures interact with the quality of scientific research and how they impact on the economic future of science.

Monday 7 March 2016

#IWD2016: Three things I would tell my younger self

It is International Women’s Day, the day in which we celebrate how far we have come, and look at how far we have yet to go. In the theme of this, I have decided to look at how far I have come since my days as a young women.

As a redheaded science enthusiast, school wasn't the easiest experience for me. But if I could give 11 year old me some advice, it would be this:

1.     Put your hand up

I know you hate it, you hate drawing attention to yourself and you are scared to be wrong, but don’t be. Put your hand up in class and tell the class what you think, regardless of whether it is embarrassingly wrong or not.

Boys are significantly more likely to put their hands up in a classroom or shout out their answer than girls, which can silence the female voices in the classroom.

So, throw caution to the wind, put your hand up and demand to be heard.

2.     What ever you think, don’t worry - you can do it

The idea that we aren’t good at something so we should just give up is something that many people struggle with. This idea is also pretty prevalent in those from disadvantaged groups and backgrounds, leading these groups to under perform in subjects like physics, chemistry and maths.

Even though I enjoyed these subjects, I had this voice in the back of my head telling me that I was rubbish at them. Every time I got a question wrong, I would amount that to the fact that I was just not made for these subjects.

This isn’t true.

Your intellect and your abilities in a subject are not static. If you continue to practice and try different methods of learning, you will succeed in them. Don’t listen to that voice in the back of your head, don’t worry - you can do it.

3.   Live a little

Young Alice, you take yourself way too seriously, have a bit more fun!

I don’t mean that you should start throwing paper aeroplanes and start racking up detentions, I mean that you should not worry so much about the future and just focus on being young.

There is so much pressure on young people to perform in schools, that 11 year old start to worry about what university they will get into, and how that will effect their job prospects and whether they will be able to afford the rent when they are older.

I know that I was victim of this trap, from a young age stressing that if I didn’t pass this pop quiz in French class that I would never amount to anything.

Calm down young Alice! Put the books down for a minute, do the things you enjoy a little more and don’t worry about the future so much.

What would you tell your younger self?

Thursday 11 February 2016

It is the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science!

Image source: Here

Today we celebrate gender diversity in Science, as the 11th of February is celebrated as the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science, an international day of recognition for the adversity women face in the industry which aims to empower women and girls in science.

Women in science are incredibly underrepresented, making up rough 12% of the STEM work force. In some parts of STEM, women make up a negligible portion of employees, for example only 3% of Engineers are female.

UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science aims to celebrate the work of women who are working in an incredibly male dominated industry, which, by its nature, can throw up huge barriers for the women working in them. Research has proven that if women are made aware of the barriers they face, not just in science but in society in general, they are less likely to be effected by them and are more likely to overcome these issues.

Days like today are vital in addressing the gender imbalance in science, as it will help to generate discussion and raise awareness for gender issues in STEM industries. However, I cross my fingers that the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science does not face the backlash that International Women’s Day gets.

Next month, we will be celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8th, a day which aims to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. Despite its positive message, every year the international awareness day receives a great deal of backlash, with the conversation of the day often interrupted with ‘but why isn’t there an International Men’s Day?!’.

(For reference, anyone asking that question, please look up November 19th)

International Women’s Day exists to address the balance and raise awareness for gender inequality in society which prevents women from being equal culturally, economically and politically. The gender issues that are deeply ingrained in society mean that women are more likely to receive a lower wage than a man, more likely to have to give up their careers after starting a family and a more likely to suffer sexual abuse and domestic violence in their lifetime.

The main reason that International Women’s Day get the reaction it does is because people assume that when you talk about the issues that face women, you are ignoring the issues that face men in society, for example, men are more likely to commit suicide than women.

But by raising awareness for women’s issues, we aren't ignoring societal problems that face men. What we are doing is talking about one side of the same coin, as the gender roles that our society is built on, effect both men and women. However, women particularly loose out in this social model.

By talking about women’s issues, it doesn’t mean that we are not talking about men. When we address the issues that bring women in society down, we aren't proposing to ‘demote’ men, we are asking to promote women. 

Moreover, when we address the issues that face women, such as domestic violence, we aren’t saying that they don't happen to men.

When we attempt to address the issues that face women in society, we are looking at why women are more likely to experience these issues, we are not saying that they don’t happen to men.

Many of the issues that hold women back politically, economically and culturally are the same issues that hold women back in science, and the validity of these international awareness days are an integral part of addressing gender issues to better the lives of women should be recognised.

I really hope that  the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science doesn’t experience the same amount of ‘what about a day for men?’ that International Women’s Day receives.

Because, to put it simply, when men make up almost all members of an industry, when men are more likely to receive research funding and when men are more likely to receive recognition for their work, every day is International Day of Men in Science.

Wednesday 6 January 2016

Sexism in STEM, the 2015 edition

In October last year I was mentioned on the BBC’s #100Women project, which was a list of inspirational women from 2015. It doesn’t need to be said that I was incredibly pleased to be mentioned on the list, not only to be recognised for my work, but because I was surrounded by 99 amazing women. Ten scientists featured in the BBC’s #100Women list, and this made me want to reflect back on the last year and how women in science faired in 2015.

During 2015, there were a few big events that drew attention to the discrimination women face in STEM industries. Unfortunately, these events were negative and the discussion regarding women in science wasn’t generated by people listening to women, but attention was drawn to the topic because of some obvious and horrendous examples of sexism towards scientists.

In June of last year, a large social media campaign helped to direct attention to the issues women face in science, when scientists responded to sexist comments from a senior scientist. Sir Tim Hunt resigned from his post at University College London after he made comments regarding women in the laboratory in front of a group of journalist. He referred to them as ‘distracting’ and was quoted as saying:

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls, you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!”

In response to this thousands of scientists took to social media to counteract his argument, tweeting pictures of themselves ‘being distracting’ with the perfect amount of satire and passive aggression. Scientists donned their work attire (including Hazmat Suits) to illustrate exactly how ‘distracting’ women are in the lab.

Later in the year, an all-female group of Russian astronauts were asked how they were going to cope in space without men or make-up. 

During a press conference, six outstanding scientists were belittled in front of television cameras, and their qualifications were forgotten. When they sat on a panel regarding Russia’s preparation for their space mission to the moon with an all-female crew, instead of the press asking the scientist panel relevant questions about their journey ahead, they were asked trivial questions about their personal appearances.

These questions (and their fantastic sarcastic responses) helped to draw attention to the issues women have in STEM, but yet again, the discussion is not directed this way because people are listening to what women have to say.

Last year’s hat-trick of sexism in STEM finished with a flourish when IBM hosted an awful PR campaign to help encourage women into science, by asking them to ‘Hack a Hairdryer’. The tech company made a crucial mistake in their efforts to draw attention to the discrimination women face in the industry, by making their master plan to generate discourse regarding sexism in science by being sexist towards women in science. 

All of these events over the last year have undoubtedly helped to draw attention to the overt examples of sexism women battle in their STEM careers. But they haven’t helped to illustrate the insidious effects that the more covert forms of sexism can have on the careers of women in science. Hopefully, this year the discussion regarding sexism in STEM industries will be directed by women discussing the problems they are facing, rather than incidents of horrendous sexism.

Take a look at the BBC's 100 Women project here.

Monday 7 December 2015


Image source, here.

The computer giant, IBM, tried to generate discussion about the lack of women in STEM through their latest project #HackAHairDryer, and they did, but not in the way they were hoping.

IBM hoped to ‘blast away the barriers’ for women in the industry by encouraging people to hack their hairdryer, to ultimately prove women’s worth in STEM. Their intentions were good, but their latest project to raise awareness for sexist stereotypes which hold women back in scientific industries relied on sexist stereotypes.

By theming the project around a hairdryer they are lazily falling back on gender stereotypes, and yet again reaffirming the idea that women will only be interested in science if it is based around beauty products. The #HackAHairDryer project echoes the European Commissions attempt to encourage women into science. The 'Science; it's a girl thing' video is 53 seconds sequence of patronising jump cuts between women in high heels, testing make up and male scientists checking the female scientists out, all set to the backdrop of dance music. The video was an attempt to encourage young girls to see science as a job for them and see it as a relatable career choice. They attempted to do so by equating being a female scientist with wanting to work in the cosmetics industry or showing them that science can be 'girly'.

(If you don’t believe me, you can see it below.)

The issues with this video and the #HackAHairDryer project is that it is ultimately patronising and belittling. It implies that women who would want to be in the industry would only be interested if the scientific research they were completing was in relation to make up or beauty projects.

IBM tried to break down harmful stereotypes which hold women back in the industry by relying on harmful stereotypes which hold women back in the industry. Instead of highlighting the issues women face, such as being belittled, or not being taken seriously as a STEM employee, they belittled the women they were targeting and emphasised some of the factors which make them less likely to be taken seriously as a STEM employee. The flaw in their plan here is fairly obvious.

You can see that the project was poorly thought out, and although it has generated discussion, it is not at all in their favour. Women have been responding to the failed publicity stunt with understandable distain, and IBM were forced to close the project.

I find myself endlessly frustrated with the projects which are rolled out by companies and organisations such as IBM and the European Commission. Instead of addressing the stereotypes which hold women back in STEM, they play into them and essentially further the problem.

And lastly, why on earth would you want to hack a hairdryer?!

Sunday 1 November 2015

One giant leap for gender equality in space, two giant steps back

Image source: Here

In 2029, Russia aims to complete a space mission to the moon and are trialling the mission by testing out a space simulator using a crew made up entirely of women. To prepare for the mission, the six outstanding scientists will be locked in a contained environment for six days to simulate the conditions they will experience in the expedition.

Prior to be locked inside the simulator, the six women answered questions at a press conference and unfortunately faced a barrage of horrendous sexism. 

The women who have carved careers in biophysics and medicine were interrogated about how they were possibly going to cope without being able to do their hair and make-up. The tone for the event was set by the scientific director of the experiment, Sergei Ponomarev, who said: 

“We believe women might not only be no worse than men at performing certain tasks in space, but actually better.”

Sergei Ponomarev’s comments could be considered poor wording, but the series of questions the women faced from the media were certainly not the result of miss-phrasing. The group of scientists were asked how they would cope without men or makeup for the next week, and the all-women group of scientists greeted the sexist comments with suitably sarcastic remarks.

As shocked as people are about these comments, these are patterns of opinion that women regularly have to face.

The perceived successfulness and the perceived aptitude of women is heavily intertwined with their physical appearance. Women who are attractive are often seen as intellectually incapable and women who aren’t considered physically attractive are often seen as ‘unfeminine’; it is a double edged double standard.

These attitudes towards women worm their way into all aspects of their lives, and women in STEM industries also face these stereotypes.

It would be excellent if the questions these Russian Scientists faced were an anomaly, but sadly they are not. Earlier this year we heard Nobel prize winning chemist Tim Hunt publicly state his sexist opinions regarding women in science, referring to them as a distraction and stating:

“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.”

Like Newton’s third law, whenever women make progress economically, socially or politically, there is always an equal and opposite reaction. It truly saddens me that these fantastic scientists cannot do their job without their gender and appearance being bought up as a relevant factor. However, these events do bring the opportunity to encourage discussion about the issues women face in STEM and these comments make it hard for the issues to be ignored.