It's time to cut misogyny in STEM out by the roots


Rose Blyth explains how invisible barriers still plague gender equality in science

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Image by Dean Calma/IAEA

By Rose Blyth

So now here I am, walking along the shoreline and crying my heart out. I’m not crying because I feel ill and exhausted and like my brain is melting. I’m crying because I have to make a choice: either exert the huge effort required to act like I’m feeling normal and go talk to hundreds of children; or admit defeat and let those young girls listen to yet another man talking about science while showing them a video of more men doing science.

The reason this decision is affecting me so much is that I really believe it matters. I look back through my whole childhood and I can’t find a single example of a female role model in science, someone who I could identify with and aspire to be. When I watched Wonder Woman aged 19 I felt a strange surge of inspiration (she’s so cool, I want to be like her) and for the first time I understood how little boys feel when they dress up as Superman. That moment it hit home to me just how much these role models matter, how they can shape a child’s perception of themselves. Never once did I obsess over some intelligent, powerful female heroine - because there weren’t any. The Disney movie I loved as a kid was The Lion King, with its entirely male-driven plot where the lionesses’ response to difficult circumstances is “Simba, you’re our only hope!” My obsessions were always with male heroes - Artemis Fowl, Sherlock Holmes, Tony Stark - people who I could adore, but not identify with.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that inspiring female scientists don’t exist. I’m suggesting that: (1) there aren’t nearly enough, since throughout recent history the world of science has systematically excluded women; (2) the ones that did manage to make it are often marginalised and their achievements ignored (that’s an issue for a whole other article); and (3) there is a glaring absence of female scientists amongst the vast number of fictional heroes created to engage and inspire children. This in particular is an issue that seems to go largely unacknowledged, but one that I believe has a huge effect on young children as they start to form their identities. It certainly did on me.

I wrote countless stories as a child. Once, when I was 11, a teacher asked me “Why are the heroes of your stories always boys?”. I replied, convinced of my own superior common sense, “Because boys are the ones who go out on adventures and do interesting things.”

I remember another occasion when I was 12, and I went to a science inspiration event with around 200 kids my age, all sat in a large hall. As an introduction activity, the speaker told us all to draw a picture of a scientist. We did. Then she said, “raise your hand if you drew a man”. And up went almost every hand in the room, boys and girls alike. Mine was among them. It had not occurred to me for a single second to draw a woman on my sheet of paper.

So why did I end up studying maths, in spite of all this? Because at the age of 14, I had a massive crush on my maths teacher, and worked my arse off at maths in order to impress him. Because that’s what women are for. We don’t go out on adventures and do interesting things, we try to look pretty and seek the approval of men.

Which is why I desperately want the next generation of girls to have a different experience. I’m furious at the message the world sent me when I was too young to challenge it. I want girls to hear a different message, to see female scientists being awesome and happy and normal, so they can include the possibility of being female in their subconscious portrait of a scientist. And I have the power to do that. I have the opportunity to stand behind a stall at the science fair and say to every schoolgirl who comes to talk to me, “I’m a scientist helping to build the eco-friendly power source of the future!”. To have some little blonde girl look at me and see a grown-up version of herself, and see a new possibility. To change the course of somebody’s life. Frankly, there are so few women in this field, that if I even managed to inspire a single one, it would make a substantial percentage difference.

And so I get out of bed early this morning to drive to the science fair, even though I’m still exhausted from yesterday (as a diehard introvert, talking to a horde of kids 9-5 isn’t easy), even though I feel a bit ill (maybe I’m coming down with freshers flu), even though I have to miss lectures and I’m already swamped in work (the only men coming to the event are the ones who don’t have any lectures today anyway). As the morning goes on, I find myself feeling increasingly dizzy and sick. But my course has only three women out of 20 people, and the other two can’t make it today, so all the pressure to let these kids see a female face associated with my field rests squarely on me. So I don’t get to look after myself and go back to bed like I’m so desperate to do. I have to do this.

Then the speaker makes a horribly loud feedback scream when my head is right next to it. And my brain just falls apart. For a few moments I have no idea where I am or who I am or what’s happening. I come round and my ears are ringing and I feel like I’m going to vomit. So I go outside to the beach and fight to keep it together, to switch the facade back on, to get back in there and inspire people. But my body feels like lead and my head feels like soup. And suddenly I feel the crushing weight of this choice. If I prioritise myself and go home, I leave the stall run by exclusively male faces, playing an inspirational video containing exclusively male faces, and nothing ever changes. If I fight for my dream to inspire young girls, I have to grind myself to the point of mental and physical breakdown. I’m overheating but I’m ashamed to take off my hoodie, because I don’t want the public to see a T-shirt, emblazoned with adverts for my field, worn by a girl with a blotchy tear-streaked face.

And the joke is, I don’t get to be the victim here. No individual has mistreated me or discriminated against me. The men are in there proudly working to run the stall and keep the show going, doing a great job, while I’m a useless crying mess on the beach. There’s no one to direct all this anger at except me, no one who can fix this situation except me. Or at least, that’s how it feels in this moment: I just don’t know who else to blame.

I’ve always had the attitude that if a field is male-dominated, that’s all the more reason to go for it - what better way to increase the number of women? I’ve always gladly maintained that I’ve never in my life experienced direct sexism (although I know many others who have), and I’m grateful for it. But something here feels deeply unfair; something has driven me to where I am now, alone, crying uncontrollably at the sea.

I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that injustice and inequality do not always appear in obvious guises: sometimes there’s no villain to confront, just a system that subtly weaves its web into the fabric of a person’s life. It’s not always black and white, it’s not always easy to explain, and it’s not always clear what you can do about it. But I’m going to keep on trying my best, both to acknowledge the barriers that women in science face, and to figure out what I can do to bring them down.