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On “seeming like a scientist”

24 Jan

So, I finally watched the Doctor Who Christmas special the other day. Yes, I know, I’m about a month late here – but the part of the special that I want to talk about isn’t exactly Christmas-specific, so I’m going to talk about it anyway. If you’re similarly behind on Doctor-Who-viewing, be warned that this post contains spoilers for the 2014 Christmas special (but not for any other episodes or ongoing plot-lines).

What I want to talk about is the odd ideas the episode seems to have about what scientists are like. So, first a quick recap: much of the episode centres on a group of scientists at a polar research base. Since this is Doctor Who, the scientists and the Doctor are fighting the Monster of the Week; since it’s the Christmas special, Santa Claus is helping too. Shortly after the Doctor arrives, we get the following scene:

(Shona, one of the scientists, is talking to Santa Claus; questioning how the stories about him can possibly be true. As she walks away from Santa, writing in her notebook, the Doctor enters the room)
Doctor: “You alright?”
Shona: “Yeah, yeah yeah. I’m trying to talk sense into beardy-weirdy” (gesturing at Santa)
Doctor: “You don’t seem much like a scientist.”
Shona: “Well that’s a bit rude, coming from a magician.”

This begs the question of what a scientist is supposed to seem like, and how Shona apparently fails to meet these criteria. So, let’s review her actions in the episode up to this point and see if we can figure out where she failed the “seems like a scientist” test.

What does Shona do?     Is it something a scientist would do?
Expresses fear at the prospect of going into a genuinely-frightening-and-dangerous situation (facing the monster of the week) and tries to get out of having to do it. Yes. Scientists are not emotionless robots; we’re allowed to have fears and not want to do scary things.
Admits that she hasn’t paid attention to the whole of the mission briefing (to be specific, she states that she remembers the briefing “until he put his hand on my knee; then I was just grossing”) Yup! You don’t need a superhuman attention span to be a scientist (there’s a reason we write things down in lab books). The only person failing here is the male scientist who jeopardises the mission by choosing to sexually harass Shona instead of giving a decent professional briefing.
Dances to a cheesy Christmas song Again, yes. Scientists are allowed to have (a) personalities and (b) fun. See above about not being emotionless robots.
Is revealed to have liked “My Little Pony” when younger, a revelation that Santa uses to humiliate her. Possibly-related: is female. Yes on both counts. While women are still rarer than they should be in science, being female doesn’t prevent you from being a scientist, and neither does liking stereotypically girly things. (I’m female, a fan of My Little Pony, and a scientist. So far this combination of circumstances has not caused any world-ending paradoxes).
Expresses disbelief and scepticism when Santa shows up, saying “This is totally not happening” and asking “Am I dreaming?” [Spoiler: she is] Very much so, and in most stories this would be treated as proof that Shona does seem like a scientist – she won’t believe in extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence, and instead correctly applies Occam’s razor to deduce that this is a dream.
Asks questions of Santa, probing his apparent impossibilities, and records his answers in her notebook Absolutely! Science is allowed – in fact encouraged – to investigate strange and improbable happenings that it encounters. Shona’s questioning instinct in this situation makes her seem more like a scientist, not less like one.

It’s while Shona is asking questions of Santa that the Doctor strolls in and tells her she doesn’t seem like a scientist. Which is odd, to say the least: he interrupts her in a situation where she’s behaving like a scientist in order to tell her that she can’t be a scientist! I wonder what criteria for “scientist” he’s using; what set of traits someone would need to have before the Doctor and his scriptwriters would recognise them as a proper scientist. I highly doubt that I’d fit their stereotype.

Now, you could argue that we’re not meant to agree with the Doctor here – that he’s a fallible character and this is one of the times when he’s wrong. Unfortunately, the remainder of the episode really doesn’t seem to back up this interpretation. After all the characters come to the realisation that they’re dreaming, they also realise that they are not, in fact, scientists. As they wake up, Shona has this exchange with two of the other dreamers:

Shona: “I work in a shop.”
Ashley: “I’m sorry?”
Shona: “I thought I was a scientist. That’s rubbish.”
Bellows: “Finally, something that makes sense.”

But it doesn’t make sense. There’s absolutely no reason why Shona couldn’t or shouldn’t be a scientist.[1] Or almost no reason, anyway. The main possible reason I can see is that Shona may have been kept out of science by people telling her she doesn’t seem like a scientist.

It’s time to get rid of the ridiculous notion that there’s a certain strict formula for “seeming like a scientist”, and that anyone who doesn’t fit this formula can’t truly do science. In the real world, all sorts of people can and do perform science. The more we acknowledge this, the more talented potential-scientists will end up feeling as though it’s okay for them to pursue science. And if we want more innovation, that can only be a good thing.


[1] In fact, I’d like to believe that she is one. In my personal headcanon, Shona works in a shop in order to help with her living costs while she studies for a PhD. The memories just came back to her in the wrong order – shop first, science later.

I want my jetpack: Why STEM’s woman problem affects everyone

27 Sep

So, I’ve talked about the dearth of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) fields. And I’ve talked about wanting to encourage little girls who think science is cool, and show them that they, too, can grow up to be scientists. But I haven’t talked so much about why this matters.

Obviously it matters to me. As a woman in science, I have a personal stake in the issue. But maybe you’re not in STEM yourself, or you’re a man, or both, and maybe these things make it harder to see why you should care about this issue.

Well, I have some suggestions on that topic.

Have you ever thought something along the lines of “it’s the year 2014, where’s my jetpack?” It doesn’t have to be a jetpack you’re waiting for. Maybe you want a cool Marty McFly-style hoverboard, or a flying car, or one that drives itself. Or perhaps, rather than a neat new gadget, what you’d really like is a solution to an existing problem. A Babel fish, or abundant clean fuel, or safe drinking water for everyone on the planet. Or how about a cure for a certain disease? Cancer, or HIV, or Alzheimer’s, or even just the common cold. If that’s not ambitious enough for you, maybe you’d like some immortality?

The exact nature of the scientific or technological advance you’re waiting for isn’t the point. The point is that most people have some wishlist items that can only come into existence via the efforts of people in STEM. I’d like you to pick one – the thing you most want STEM to deliver for you – and think of that thing. It’ll need an inventor, obviously. Someone whose brain can turn this idea into a reality. Imagine that this person is already out there, somewhere in the world.

…Now imagine that she’s given up her pursuit of STEM, despite her interest in the field, because cultural forces pushed her away from it. Or maybe those forces meant that she never developed an interest in STEM in the first place. Either way, instead of becoming a scientist or engineer, she’s entered a field that seems more welcoming to people of her gender. A field where she won’t have a chance to invent the thing.

I guess you’ll just have to keep waiting.


(And yes, this idea that there is One Person who could invent the thing is a glib oversimplification of the way inventions happen, used above only for rhetorical effect. The fact remains that the more good STEM people there are in the world, the greater the chances that STEM will produce a decent version of [particular thing] within [specific number of years]. Maybe if we hadn’t spent so long excluding half the population, we’d already have some of the items on our technological wishlists.)

Why I do science outreach (a selection of reasons)

17 Sep

Over the summer, I took a couple of days off work and spent a long weekend helping out on a science outreach roadshow. I first got involved with this outreach group when I was at university, and their roadshow’s been a regular feature of my summer ever since – this was my 5th year. Why do I keep going back? Lots of reasons. The chance to hang out with a group of like-minded nerds (i.e. the other volunteers) is always good, and this year I spent some rather enjoyable time plotting potential future experiments with a fellow Materials Scientist. The experiments themselves are pretty enjoyable too, even from the perspective of a grown-up: a chance to play with fun science things like vacuum chambers, a chance to think about real-world uses of all sorts of scientific principles, sometimes even a chance to learn new stuff (did you know that there’s a security feature on banknotes which only shows up when you look at the note with an infrared camera? I didn’t!)

But the thing I enjoy most about the roadshow is the audience. The public events I helped out on this year were open to all ages, but most of the visitors were families with primary-school-aged children. Kids of this age, by and large, haven’t yet absorbed the idea that it’s “uncool” to enthusiastically like certain things. Science hasn’t acquired the stigma of nerdiness for them. These children are perfectly willing to engage, and when you show them an interesting new thing – like how they can build a bridge strong enough to walk across, or the way certain objects glow under UV light – they get genuinely excited. They declare it to be cool, and want to see more, and it’s so much fun knowing you showed them something they enjoyed.

I’d like to hope that these kids will always be willing express their genuine enjoyment for things, that they never feel as though their enthusiasm is something they need to hide. When it comes to enjoying science, I particularly find myself hoping this for the case with the girls in the audience, because I know – just look at the statistics – that they’re far less likely to end up pursuing science than their male counterparts. And it’s not for lack of ability (if it were, boys should be outperforming girls on science GCSEs: they’re not), nor some biologically-hardwired lack of inclination (if it were, there’d be a similar dearth of female scientists and engineers in other European countries: there’s not). It’s probably many things, because the world is complex, but one of the many things is a cultural perception that science is Not For Girls.[1]

It was refreshing, on the roadshow, to see girls who haven’t yet absorbed this message. A particular mention must go to the little girl who’d clearly dressed up specially for her visit – in an old adult’s white shirt that fell to her knees and looked like a child-sized labcoat, with a picture of the periodic table drawn by hand on the back. And bright pink shoes, because contrary to popular belief, you can enjoy stereotypical girl things and science at the same time. I hope that little girl remembers this fact as she grows up. I know there’ll be plenty of messages out there telling her (and all the other little girls like her) that science is not for her. But on the more positive side, I also know that a lot of efforts are being made to counter those messages. These efforts can be as big as a national event, or as small as individual people being visibly female and scientists at the same time. I fall into the latter category: I’m just one of many data points that says “actually, you can do this”, but I’m happy to be a data point. And that’s another very good reason to keep doing science outreach.



[1] The ubiquity of this perception was brought home to me in a meeting earlier today: three people in a room, all female scientists, discussing future options for a work project. Somehow we all ended up referring to the hypothetical researcher-doing-the-future-science as “he”, because that felt like the natural thing to do. Even as women in science, we still carry the idea that science is mainly something for men.

An update on “To my professional institution…”, in which said institution responds

23 Jun

My post this morning on National Women In Engineering Day (and in particular, my disappointment with the way IoM3, my professional body, had chosen to mark it) received a response from IoM3’s twitter account. In the interests of fairness and debate, I feel I should post this response here. It said:

“Hi, I’m sorry you feel disappointed by our event. We have held two WIE events before and part of the idea of this one was to engage with men more and have a better balance. Our event was organised by women including @SarahBoadIOM3. I hope you can attend.”

I do appreciate feeling like I’m listened to, and the fact that the organisers’ perspective was offered. However, I’m still not entirely satisfied by this. Striving for balance may be a good thing, but this event isn’t happening in a vacuum, and the majority of engineering events are heavily male-dominated. This means that this attempt at “balance” is taking away one of the rare opportunities for female engineers to have a platform, in favour of the men who already have a multitude of such opportunities. In trying to be balanced, it’s failing to redress a current imbalance.

On the other hand, “this doesn’t happen in a vacuum” also applies to the fact that IoM3 has held previous WIE (which I assume stands for Women In Engineering) events before, and that these have presumably had more female-dominated panels. Knowing this does soften the negative impact of this particular event’s gender composition, in the same way that individual works of fiction failing the Bechdel test would be less of an issue if there were a multitude of other works passing that test. The more often you see well-represented women (or any other group, for that matter), the less harmful it is on occasions where this representation is lacking. In the same vein, it’s good to know that women organised this event. And engaging with men is definitely a valuable goal – if you want to dismantle the cultural barriers to women entering engineering roles, then addressing the mindsets of the men who’ll be working alongside (and sometimes hiring) these women is definitely important.

The question that remains is whether the men on the panel were chosen simply to give a sympathetic male perspective, or whether they’re there because of the idea that some members of the engineering profession need male presenters before they’re willing to listen. If it’s the latter, I’m still just as disappointed as I was this morning – but for a whole new reason.

To my professional institution: this is not the celebration I’m looking for

23 Jun

Did you know that today is National Women In Engineering Day? This fact may not be particularly relevant to you personally, depending on your gender and field of work. It does, however, matter a fair deal to me. I’m a woman working for a large technology company, one where approximately three-quarters of the workforce (including myself) are either engineers or scientists. Of those, the vast majority are men. In my current team of around ten people, I’m the only female employee.[1] This is not particularly surprising: in fact, if you look at the statistics on women in engineering, you’ll learn that one out of ten is actually a slight overrepresentation. The UK engineering workforce as a whole is only 7% female, around one woman in every fourteen engineers. If we expand our definition to look at women in all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) jobs, we still only get 13% women, just over one in eight.

These numbers are shockingly low. In fact, the UK is the worst country in Europe for representation of women in engineering.[2] This may be in large part related to subject choices: fewer girls take STEM subjects at A-Level; fewer pursue STEM options into further or higher education. And no, the difference can’t be explained by boys having “more innate talent” for these fields – at GCSE level, girls’ performance is comparable to boys’ in all STEM subjects (and this isn’t just a selection-bias effect of comparing a small number of exceptionally-good-at-STEM girls to a larger number of less-exceptional boys, either: maths GCSE is compulsory as part of the core curriculum, and there’s no longer any gender gap when it comes to science GCSEs, so we’re comparing similar numbers of boys and girls here). So why do so few women end up in STEM careers? As is so often the case, the reasons are complex, but culture and stereotypes definitely play a large part. The perception that Engineering Is Not For Women exists, and this perception needs to be challenged.[3]

So I’m glad we have a National Women In Engineering Day, described by its originators as “a day dedicated to raising the profile and celebrating the achievements of women in engineering”. Because, despite the gender disparity, women are making valuable contributions right now, and this needs to be acknowledged. Too often in history, women’s contributions to STEM have been glossed over,[4] and this only furthers the misconception that STEM fields are men-only. If we want to invite more women in, then showing them what they can do is a good place to start. I also applaud the day’s stated aim “to spread the word that engineering offers as many opportunities for women as men”, even if potential hiring biases mean this might not be entirely true. What can I say, I’m an idealist.

Therefore, I was pleased when I learned that IoM3, the professional institution to which I belong, has decided to mark this day with a celebration of its own.[5] And then I looked at the details of the event. And… oh dear. I feel as though the point has been missed a little.

They’ve entitled it “Engineering Success” and promised to give “the employee / employer perspective of the success of women in engineering”. The “employee perspective” is given by a woman who’s very accomplished in her technical field: so far, so good when it comes to celebrating women’s contributions and showing what they can do. So now let’s turn to the “employer perspective”. Since we’re meant to be showing that engineering offers as many opportunities for women as men, I’d expect to see a female employer here, showing that women can make it to the top of the management heap in engineering companies, and having her success in a less-technical but still engineering-related realm celebrated. But no, the employer perspective comes from a man. Okay, his group of companies employs a very respectable 46% of women, so I can sort of see the reasoning behind picking him, although I also note that no word is given on how this 46% splits between the various job families. I’d like to see more detail in these stats: if HR, PR, administrative functions and the like are female-dominated with the technical jobs still being overwhelmingly-male, I’m not going to be impressed. And either way I’ll still be disappointed that they couldn’t fit in a female employer as well. But never mind, let’s turn to the chair. On a day dedicated to celebrating the success of women, I’m sure they’ve found a highly distinguished female engineer to chair this event. Oh wait, my mistake. It’s chaired by Mark Miodownik. And I mean no disrespect to Professor Miodownik here: I’m sure he’s very good at chairing events. I just question whether his gender makes him the right choice to chair this one.

When half your hosts, half your speakers (arguably the more powerful half) and your chair are all male, what you’ve got is a rather lacklustre celebration of women’s successes. And when it comes to showing women and girls the opportunities that exist for them, you may be accidentally sending the wrong message. Because this arrangement of chairman and speakers seems to be saying, “Ladies, it’s fine for you to enter engineering. Look, here’s someone else who’s done it! But you need to know your place. The spots at the top are still only for men.”



[1] Unless one of my colleagues really isn’t telling us something.

[2] If my father is reading this, he may be pleased to know that Cyprus, his country of origin, comes out of the comparison fairly well – topping the European league tables with nearly 30% of its engineers being female. In other words, somewhere between one in four and one in three. It’s still not exactly gender parity, but it’s a lot better than what we’ve got here.

[3] And not by making engineering pink, either.

[4] For one randomly-chosen example, compare the number of people who’ve heard of Watson and Crick to those who’ve heard of Rosalind Franklin, whose work was vital to discovering the structure of DNA.

[5] In case that page gets taken down after the event in question, an internet archive version of it is available here. This is relevant, because I’m about to start discussing the page’s contents.