Thursday, 20 June 2013

Women in the Workplace

Today the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee published its report of the enquiry into Women in the Workplace, which drew on 103 written submissions, oral evidence from 46 witnesses, and many more responses to discussions on Woman's Hour and Mumsnet.

It's a thorough report, and also a well-written and engaging read. However, those who live with or advise on the issues affecting women in the workplace will not be surprised by the content - it is generally all too familiar. The usual sticking points are all here: stereotypes and gender representation, equality legislation and equal pay, flexible working, maternity leave and childcare, the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the lack of women in senior positions. It acts as a usual summary of where we, as a culture, are at with regard to these persistent obstacles and discusses some of the reasons why we are still wrestling with them over 40 years after the Equal Pay Act came into force.

What did surprise me was that the report opened with a section entitled 'Nature or Nurture?' which explored whether the disproportionate number of women in particular professions had biological or cultural origins. Mike Buchanan from the Campaign for Merit in Business stated that "the male brain is better for systemising and the female brain for empathising" and sociologist Catherine Hakim claimed that only "20% of women in all societies are work-centred and careerist in the way men are". I don't know anything about the research on which these statements are based, but I wonder what conclusions the committee were expected to draw from them. If men are inherently better at systemising, should women not be expected or encouraged to think systematically, nor expected to enter careers where the ability to make logical deductions is essential? If women are inherently better at empathising, should we expect men to deal dispassionately with their fellow human beings, to be absent from the caring professions and 'hands-off' as fathers? Similarly, is being work-centric and careerist really what typifies men? Is women's success in any career dependent on how much they can be 'like men' in putting their jobs above everything else?

I am surprised that we are still discussing this in 2013. Surely Ann Oakley nailed it with 'Sex, Gender and Society' in 1972, 5 years before I was born. If we look around the world at the wide variety of roles adopted by men and women in different cultures, I think it's clear that the cultural expectations of men and women have a much heavier influence than any slight biological differences in the way we think. Interpreting these cultural norms, the status quo, as what both sexes really want only serves to limit men and women alike and prevent them reaching their potential and giving full expression to all they are and are capable of. I breathed a sigh of relief when, on hearing further evidence, the committee decided that "the root of the problem of the stereotyping of jobs come from the cultural context in which careers decisions are made, not from innate differences between men and women".

I'm particularly glad that this evidence came from the reknowned physicist Prof Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Bola Fatimilehin of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and engineers Claire O'Connor and Charlotte Dunford. Women from fields very similar to mine, requiring a very similar skill-set, speaking about how fulfilling they found their work. This is what we need to hear more of - the stories of women in 'atypical' careers who are happy to be found thriving where mainstream culture does not expect them. I will reiterate what I told the committee, that "we need more visible, accessible and inspirational female role models from a wide variety of careers, and to enable access to those role models for young women at all stages of their education". ScienceGrrl, a network of people passionate about passing on their love of science, technology, engineering and maths to the next generation, has a significant role to play in showing women the opportunities that are open to them. And by that, I don't just mean the fulfilling careers themselves, but that it is possible to have a career in STEM and related fields and the other things you want in your life too; being 'work-centred and careerist' is not the only route to professional success or personal happiness. Most pertinently, it is possible to be who are you are, and do science...or whatever else you were made to do.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Being 8 years old, staying 8 years old....

I love how even the lab's solutions room can provoke a state of wonder in someone who has never set foot in a library of chemicals before. The -80C freezer also gets a good reaction. That's before we're anywhere near the electrophysiology rig and confocal microscope. Having the chance to open someone's eyes to the realities of working in a lab is pretty great, and it's why I encourage A level students to come in and talk to scientists and spend time watching experiments. Recently, a student asked me if I got bored analysing my data. I answered truthfully: 'yeah, sometimes it's a little repetitive but if I want to know the answer it has to be done!'. She looked confused for a moment and then it dawned on her: "Oh! In my practicals we already know what the graph should look like so it seemed a waste of time!". 

The idea that science is uncertain and creative was alien to her. She had been taught to get the 'right answer'. Happily, she agreed that not knowing was much more fun - and then began reconsidering her plan to study medicine in favour of a pure science. I don't know what she will decide, but I do know that the spark of curiosity we have about science as kids can get lost along the way in that quest for the 'right answer'. We don't talk about uncertainty and failure enough - and certainly not in a way that encourages creativity and mindful observation. But poking the world and seeing what happens comes naturally to kids - and so, these pieces from two 8 year old ScienceGrrls make us grin from ear to ear. Aimee Bromfield-Brown spent a day with ScienceGrrls in the Natural History Museum (Tori Herridge) and Imperial College London (myself, Clare Bakewell and Alexandra Anderson). Lara Smith wrote in to tell us that science was great - we agree! Have a read, and a smile. And then let's work out how we nurture Grrls like them. 


My name is Aimee Bromfield-Brown. I am 8 years old and I love science.

My auntie told me about a group called ScienceGrrl and she contacted them for me. They arranged for me to see a real scientist and a laboratory. My trip was even better because I actually did this:

First I went to the Natural History Museum. I got to see fossils. There were many interesting things like rigid sloth poo - yuk! And a baby dwarf elephant's teeth and bones - wow!

I then went to a lab and a scientist did an experiment and showed me how many colours there are in grass. It actually looked green to me before. There were 3 and it was amazing.

Then I went to another lab where they were doing an experiment about worms and their food. The scientists wanted to know if the worms went to the food that was good for them and avoided food that was bad for them, or whether they tried the bad food first then went to the food that was good for them.

I really liked the science I saw.

ScienceGrrl encouraged me to want to be a scientist even more. That experiment worked!!


Why science is great! By Lara Smith

Science is really cool! There are so many amazing things to find out and do! It is also extra-fun. Read on to find out why…

I think science is fun because you get to find out really cool facts and do really fun experiments such as making gloop or even swinging water over your friend’s head! The great thing about them is that things almost always don’t turn out the way you think they will. Also, there will definitely be a great fact or two to be discovered.

I would like to be a cosmologist when I grow up. This is because I am really interested in cosmology and astrophysics. I have a telescope and have tried to focus it on stars but I’m not able to. Luckily, I have found out more from lots of other sources such as going to the Science Museum and watching the documentary Wonders of the Solar System. I have learnt lots from it and would really recommend it to you. 

My favourite science fact is…

LIGHT TRAVELS AT THE SPEED OF 186,000 miles per sec

So, what do you think? Science is great, but are you interested? I hope you are! If you are, here are some websites you should look at: - help astronomers classify galaxies - explore the surface of mars for the first time
These are both zooniverse projects. For more, go to
 Some programmes to watch:
-Stargazing Live 
or if you like animals…

Thanks Aimee & Lara - you've made our day!

Monday, 13 May 2013

TrowelBlazers: celebrating awesome trowel-wielding women

Image reproduced here with the kind permission of the Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University (, Image A_340), and may not be further reproduced without permission

It’s easy to imagine the academic world at the turn of the 20th Century, right? A world closed to all but the most privileged of men – whiskered gentlemen in stiff suits, pipe smoke and port, explorers with a whiff of pith helmet about them.

Imagine, then, arriving on the island of Crete in 1904 to find not one bold, brave young woman researcher digging up the past – but four: Harriet Boyd, Blanche Wheeler, Edith Hall and Dorothea Bate.

Or the Arabian Desert in 1900, where that striking figure riding towards you, headscarf billowing, at the head of a caravan of camels is not Lawrence of Arabia – he was barely out of short trousers then – but Gertrude Bell.

Try archaeology* in the interwar years, then. In our popular imaginations this is proper Indiana Jones territory. But in 1929, on the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, Dorothy Garrod was leading an excavation team of five women. Over the next five years, in caves dotting the steep-sided cliffs of Mount Carmel, Garrod’s team would uncover remarkable remains of Neandertals and some of earliest evidence for modern humans outside of Africa.

There were many, many women archaeologists, palaeontologist and geologists in the 19th and early 20th Century who were well known and respected – then – for their work and achievements. Now, however, they have been forgotten. This isn’t totally surprising – after all, how many men from those fields are household names? But it’s more than just forgetting a name or six; we’ve failed to retain the idea that women like these formed a significant – if under-represented and often resented – part of the cultural and academic landscape. We’ve allowed them to slip from our popular consciousness.

It’s a cautionary tale.

Fast forward to today. Women are a significant, but under-represented, part of the cultural and academic landscape (sound familiar?). Like our predecessors, we face institutionalized prejudice and inequality, even if our individual work is respected. In fifty or a hundred years time, will our existence and contributions have made as small a dent on people’s imaginations as the women of yesteryear?

Not if we can help it! On Friday we launched the TrowelBlazers blog to carve out more space on the Internet for the story of women’s contributions, past and present, to the fields of archaeology, palaeontology and geology (authors note: we aren’t above a spot of land grabbing, and given field-boundaries are a tad blurry and multi-disciplinary study common, we will also be featuring women geographers, explorers and anthropologists).

By scouring the Internet and beyond for images and videos, and posting them alongside short, readable snippets of information, we want to reset people’s imaginations. As the blog grows, we hope that the volume of entries – as much as the individual stories – will be its own powerful testament to just how significant these women were, and continue to be.

Because it isn’t just the derring-do of pioneer-era women we are interested in, we want to celebrate the full diversity of trowel-blazing women working today, from all backgrounds and from all parts of the world. On top of this, we want to highlight the networks of women that have worked together over the years – something often lost in heroic tales of success against the odds, where women are inevitably framed by a world of men.

It’s quite an agenda we’ve set ourselves, and we need help building up this picture. We aren’t historians of science - we are learning too - and we know that we haven’t even scraped the surface of the awesomeness of these trowel-wielding women (even if we are quite proud of our spreadsheet with nearly one hundred women on it already). Anyone can submit a post to our blog, or join in the conversation on Twitter and Facebook. Together, we can showcase the aggregate contribution of these trowel blazers.

One exception to the rule can be dismissed, many exceptions cannot. In essence, that is the spirit of TrowelBlazers, served up with a dash of ancient wonder, a sprinkling of adventure and – of course - buckets of mud and sweat.

* Yes, archaeology is a science (some bits more than others), but we are interested in women beyond the realms of science as well.

The TrowelBlazers blog can be found here:

TrowelBlazers is run by Victoria Herridge (@ToriHerridge), who provided this guest post, Suzanne Pilaar Birch (@suzie_birch), Rebecca Wragg Sykes (@LeMoustier) and Brenna Hassett (@brennawalks). They all also tweet at @trowelblazers.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Pants in spaaaaace!

Pictured left to right: Becky John of WhoMadeYourPants, Liz Bonnin of BBCs ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ and ‘Stargazing Live’ and Heather Williams of ScienceGrrl, each holding a pair of pants which make up our new unique product. Thanks to the Science Museum for permission to also feature the model of the Hubble Space Telescope, in their space gallery. Copyright ScienceGrrl/Tirion Jenkins.

The 24th April saw the anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, and to celebrate, two organizations with shared ambition for women to fulfil their potential are reaching for the stars and celebrating.....with pants. 

Launching a new set of beautiful underwear, ScienceGrrl has teamed up with  Who Made Your Pants? (WMYP), a social business created to empower marginalised women through work. Sales of these gorgeous limited edition pants with a customised USB stick “astronaut lady”, will help to fund the work of each of these brilliant and empowering organizations.

The 'Reach for the Stars' pack - three gorgeous pairs of pants in ScienceGrrl colours (a long weekend of lacy loveliness) AND an astrogrrl 1GB USB stick. Copyright ScienceGrrl/Tirion Jenkins.

“We believe that every little girl should grow up believing that she has as much chance as every little boy of flying to the moon or living on the international space station.” said Becky John, founder of Who Made Your Pants? “We believe that at five, ten or fifteen years old, girls’ horizons should be as wide as boys and we believe that hope is priceless, and that aspiration is key to driving people out of poverty, both financial and of ambition. Who Made Your Pants? is all about empowering women. We love ScienceGrrl’s determination to show real women doing real science and are delighted to be working with them.”

And it can be a poverty of aspiration that stops people choosing science as a career.  For some families who are unable to provide such aspiration, hope needs to come from outside the home to harness the inherent wonder and curiosity of children and use it as an inspiring force.

This is where ScienceGrrl comes in, encouraging girls to consider a career in science through real role models, connecting with local schools and providing work experience opportunities, and many other activities supporting those in science careers. The mission of ScienceGrrl is “to celebrate and promote STEM careers by building and strengthening a network of people who are passionate about passing on their love of STEM to the next generation”.

“This is a wonderful collaboration between two organisations that share a passion to inspire and empower. I’m delighted to be associated with this gorgeous product which has at its heart such noble ambition, and to be part of an initiative that encourages women to reach for the stars and achieve their dreams” Liz Bonnin, Scientist and presenter of BBC's ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ and ‘Stargazing Live’.

Dr Heather Williams, Medical Physicist and Director of ScienceGrrl, says: “We’re delighted to be partnering with WMYP. ScienceGrrl seeks to collaborate and strengthen like-minded organisations and initiatives, and I think we have a lot in common with WMYP in encouraging women to reach for the stars and fulfil their potential”.

This is a unique collaboration and opportunity to support the empowerment of women in science and in the workplace - so buy our pants to give more women that chance. There's even £15 off today (25th April 2013)!

This post is adapted from this morning's ScienceGrrl press release. If you'd like more information or would like to feature this story, please contact ScienceGrrl here
Dr Heather Williams is available for interview.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Physics Girlies - young female science students review the ScienceGrrl 2013 calendar

One of the aims of the ScienceGrrl 2013 calendar (now sold out, sorry!) was to show young women that science is for people just like them, and hopefully inspire them to pursue a career in science. But did we manage it? 

I asked the Physics Girlies at Holly Lodge Girls' College in Liverpool what they thought. This is what they told me, via Kate Doran, the KS3 Science Co-ordinator.

The calendar is closely scrutinised by the Physics Girlies. Good job we checked for typos.

Hannah Fityo
Helen Czerski PhD [January 2014], studies something which I think is really fascinating. She looks at bubbles in breaking waves to understand how they affect our weather and climate. Basically a tiny bubble can lead you into the core of our planets complex weather system! How extraordinary is that?! It must be absolutely remarkable knowing that every day you are a tiny bubble away from discovering something amazing.

Holly Dono
I think that this calendar is very unique. Each month the calendar shows different women in the science world achieving amazing accomplishments. This calendar is very encouraging to young women like me, showing them all of the scientific career opportunities that are available to them. The calendar promotes women who aren’t the stereotypical female scientists and in the descriptions the calendar shows women who have hobbies as well as amazing academic achievements such as running and music. In my opinion this calendar is great; it serves its purpose as I feel encouraged to get involved in the world of science.

Grace Kervin
My favourite part of the calendar is the March page. This is because our science building is called ‘Rosalind Franklin Building’ and Rosalind Franklin herself is mentioned on this page. I didn’t really know why our building was called Rosalind Franklin (I knew she was a Scientist) and I was impressed to read: “by exposing DNA to X-rays, she produced diffraction images that revealed molecular structure”. This page has also opened my eyes to other female scientists, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Jill Tarter, Hedy Lamarr.

The Rosalind Franklin Building at Holly Lodge Girls' College

Samira Hassan
I think the ScienceGrrl calendar was a great idea as it has shown me that there are a lot of things you can do with science. I feel inspired to try hard and never doubt myself and go for whatever career I want and whatever feels right! The calendar’s appearance is attractive and makes me want to look at who the people are in each picture! I think it’s a great way to get ideas for future career paths from the people in the pictures.

Jumanah Ahmen
Personally, I love the calendar. The information, layout and logo are well thought out and you can see the amount of effort that has been put into making this calendar interesting and useful. It is more than just a calendar. I love the science dates that are included one the relevant days and the little facts too.

Lisa Murphy
My favourite part of the calendar is the month May because I would never have looked at these women and said ‘Definitely a scientist’ and I like that! You don’t need to look like the stereotypical scientist shown in the media to be a scientist. The careers on this page are also really interesting to me and are something that I would like to look into for my future.

I'm pretty pleased with that - particular thanks to Lisa, for being so very lovely about May... 
anytime you want to talk about careers in Medical Imaging, let me know!

ScienceGrrl volunteers in Liverpool have also visited Holly Lodge Girls' College so they can meet female science role models for real. It's so encouraging to us to meet young women who really love science, and to know we are encouraging them to put that love to work in their careers. All the very best to you, Physics Girlies - science needs you! 

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Maths?... no thanks.

Last week I was sorting through my ScienceGrrl e-mail and came across a really encouraging message from a lady who'd just returned to study Maths in her 50s. I thought it sounded like she had a story to tell, and asked her to write a blog for us. Which she did. 

I give you - the inspirational Ingrid Walker-Gibbs.

Ingrid in 1970 - and today

"Hello. Until very recently the title of this post is how I felt about maths.

I'd like to tell you a little bit about why I was put off maths - and consequently the sciences - at a young age, and what I'm endeavouring to do about it now.

Born in 1960 my education was via state-funded, primary and comprehensive schools (in Essex), and class numbers were around 30 or so children, with one teacher.

In a crowded environment learning's not always an easy ride, even for a child with a good subject knowledge; a quiet, shy child however, with only a feeble understanding of a particular topic, is easy to lose by the wayside and any chance of that feeble amount of knowledge developing, can be lost.

I was one of those quiet children, and especially so when it came to maths or the sciences. (My head seems able to grasp languages and rhythms better than it does figures.) I can recall, aged 11 or 12, my maths teacher looking at my very worried face after the input; she came and sat with me, quietly taking the time to explain the whole process again whilst everyone else got on with the work. I remember the glow of understanding I felt when it all suddenly went 'click!' and how I quickly grabbed my pencil and got on with the task everyone else was doing.

Unfortunately for me, that was the one and only time she had a moment to sit one-to-one with me and explain things.

It was even worse for me in Chemistry, Physics and Biology. I'd to go into melt-down and get shouted at by the teacher for 'not listening'; I was listening, but I didn't understand, and I cringed at the idea of showing my 'stupidity' to everyone else. I ended up absolutely hating the sciences. It was a shame, but I do understand that sometimes the teachers just didn't have the time to gather up all the stragglers and talk over what, and why they didn't get it.

Towards the end of my 3rd year (Yr 9 equivalent) someone, somewhere high up, decided that the maths group I was in and all the maths groups below it should be precluded from doing maths as they obviously couldn't!  So we were actually stopped from doing maths classes altogether and put into something they called “Book-keeping” classes instead. These lessons were taken by the teacher who also taught typing and shorthand, and we added or subtracted long columns of figures with headings like “Expenses” and “Receipts”. We were also allowed to use 'adding machines' (the precursor of calculators)...

...the end result was that I left secondary school without a maths qualification.

Now though, aged almost 53, my life is a different matter.

I recently decided on a career change and for the past 4 years I've gone back to school; I work as a Teaching Assistant at the local primary (and it's by no means the 'easy little job' that so many consider it to be!). There I regularly come across the kind of child that I was: quiet, shy and unwilling to draw attention to themselves. I'm really hoping that time will eventually show how I've been able to help at least some of them.

When I started working at the primary school, I realised that I'd have to do something about my appalling maths as listening with the children to the teacher's input at the start of the lesson just didn't suffice! So I enrolled on an Adult Learning Community maths course and I'm pleased to say I passed Level 1, and am now midway through Level 2, which I'm told is a GSCE equivalent. It all gives me a very good perspective from which to work at school.

Do you know what? I love it... I absolutely love maths. Hah! I never thought I'd ever say that. And I'm not frightened to say that I find some things difficult to comprehend [fractions], others though [volume and area] pah! Easy-peasy.

Don't snigger... this is big stuff for me :)

So, I intend to continue on this course for as long as it runs (and who's to say it won't close tomorrow?!)

Why continue further with maths? Because I'm really interested in Cosmology, and I think I'm going to need a Physics qualification to study that!

Thank you for taking the time to read this; I hope it might inspire others – of all ages, and all walks of life.

Lastly, a huge thank you to ScienceGrrl for being there, and for giving me courage to really give it a go!"

Monday, 18 March 2013

ScienceGrrl celebrates International Women's Day - with TASTE, in Uganda

I'm really chuffed - as we say in Yorkshire - to introduce this guest post from Amy Buchanan-Hughes, founder of The African Science Truck Experience (TASTE). TASTE runs a mobile science laboratory in rural Uganda so that students in underprivileged secondary schools can get a hands-on experience of science.

According to an earlier post on this blog, TASTE’s copy of the ScienceGrrl calendar is in the “most intriguing” location worldwide. Following the calendar’s first Official Engagement in the field this Friday, I thought ScienceGrrl’s fans would be interested to hear about how it has been inspiring Ugandan girls to think beyond their usual narrow horizons.

Uganda is a difficult place to be a woman. One day, I asked to borrow a bike to go from my village to the nearby town. I was met with awkward surprise from my friends. “But Madam Amy… if a girl rides a bicycle, she can lose her virginity, and then nobody will marry her.” The outrage that this stirred in me made me even more determined than usual to fight against the gender stereotypes!

International Women’s Day is a public holiday here, so we at TASTE had a whole day free from our regular teaching programme with the mobile lab. In honour of the occasion, I decided to hold seminars exclusively for girls in three different towns. We went as a group of four women scientists to talk about the rich variety of careers that are open to the girls, should they continue to study sciences at A-level and university. We elicited some giggles when we lined up to demonstrate the ‘evolutionary’ line of women scientists: from Holly, a gap year student who’s going to study civil engineering at Sheffield University, to Lina, who worked in the UK civil service following a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Sciences, to me, with a MSci in Biochemistry, and finally our esteemed guest Dr Elizabeth Kyewalabye, the third woman ever to qualify as a veterinary doctor in Uganda, now with a string of high profile scientific jobs to her name.

Dr Elizabeth Kyewalabye inspires girls to follow in her footsteps

First, I should explain why we were so keen to encourage the girls to pursue science in particular. While doing research for TASTE, I was particularly interested in local perceptions of gender and of how it affects scientific ability. I was not exactly thrilled by the results. For example, a comment on a major Ugandan news website says “Boys have more chances of studying by revising their notice [notes] while girls have less time due to their Nature. When girls are washing boys are studying and when boys are reading again girls are cooking… This cannot be changed because it is a Natural order.” Also, when I asked the head teacher of a local mixed-sex school why few girls study sciences, he replied that “Pretty girls spend all their time with boys instead of studying, so they only have time to do easy subjects like arts. Science subjects are harder so only ugly girls can do science subjects.” Charming.

With these attitudes commonly accepted as truth, girls quickly lose confidence about their ability in the sciences, and their performance slips. We teach from Senior 1 (the equivalent of year 7 or 8 in the UK) to Senior 4 (when students sit their O-level exams), and in all of the thirteen schools we currently work with, I have seen the same story: in Senior 1, the girls dominate the science lessons, answering and asking questions enthusiastically, and taking the lead in small group work. By Senior 4, however, they are quiet and reserved, allowing the boys to take over, and suddenly discovering something very interesting on their desk when they are asked a question.

During our Women’s Day seminars, we used our own experiences to tell the girls that their gender should never put them off studying sciences and choosing science careers. We then focused on introducing career paths that most students have never heard of. Students here aspire to be doctors, nurses or engineers, because they have heard that these careers are well paid and respected. These are all great jobs and, indeed, they are very much needed in Uganda. But there is a whole wealth of other careers that these young people could and should be aiming towards, that they simply have no awareness of.

Students are told to aim for good jobs, but there is usually little or no career advice provided by their schools

A lot of the problem lies with the local teachers, many of whom rarely venture beyond their own town. On the first page of students’ exercise books in Senior 1, I found the opening question of “Why do we study Physics?” The answers, dictated by teachers, were typically listed as: “To pass exams. To understand physics. To get jobs as engineers.”

However, the real horizons are wider than they can possibly imagine. In 2011, the Ministry of Education in Uganda published a list of the eight most marketable career fields in Uganda for the near future:
  1. Health and medical services
  2. Biotechnology
  3. Agriculture, forestry and natural resources
  4. Information Communication Technology (ICT) Applications
  5. Fisheries and aquaculture
  6. Environment
  7. Energy – solar/wind
  8. Manufacturing and process engineering
Reading down this list, I noticed one thing that they all have in common: unsurprisingly, they all rely heavily on sciences. TASTE’s mantra in lessons is to “Illustrate, instruct and inspire”, and the seminars gave us a great opportunity to do the “inspire” part, by showing the girls how a background in science could lead to them doing jobs that could improve not only their own lives, but their whole country, and even the planet.
Up until this point in the seminars, the girls were paying attention carefully, but they were very serious. However, when we brought out the ScienceGrrl calendar, their faces lit up.

Sometimes language is a barrier, and culture even more so, but each picture spoke a thousand words. Suddenly, our words became reality, as we told the girls about each woman in each picture: “This lady tries to make artificial bones out of chemicals because she thinks we could use them as building materials someday” – cool!

“This lady is finding ways of using sunlight to make energy, without polluting the environment” – how useful that would be for Uganda, which currently relies almost exclusively on hydroelectric power. And how about “This lady just loves science so much that she writes songs about it!” – that got the loudest laugh of the day.
After showing them all the pictures, we passed the calendars around, and suddenly we couldn’t keep order as the girls crowded around trying to find out more.

For the hundreds of girls we teach, there was no better way for us to communicate ‘YES YOU CAN’ than by showing them these real examples of real women scientists. In the end, we literally had to drag the calendars away to move to the next school, promising as we left that we would bring the calendars back for the girls to read at another time. My hope is that reading the biographies will fire their curiosity, and that in a few years to come some of these girls might even feature in a Ugandan version of the calendar!

Friday, 15 March 2013

Hatching a plan – the ScienceGrrl strategy for 2013 onwards

ScienceGrrl started out as a reaction to *that* EC video, which spawned the idea to create a series of images representing who female scientists are and what they do – the ScienceGrrl 2013 calendar. In the process we collected a network of people who are passionate about passing on their love of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to the next generation. We could have just stopped at the calendar... but I wasn't alone in thinking it would be a tragedy to dissolve this network of enthusiastic volunteers, when there were other things left to do in tackling the problems we had highlighted.

As I've said from the beginning, ScienceGrrl isn't “mine”, it belongs to all our members. Also, I know we are not the only ones who are working on tackling the under-representation of women in science and complex jumble of factors that influence that. So we went out to consultation, and following that consultation, many phone calls, a fair amount of head-scratching and the use of some fairly epic spreadsheets (love a good spreadsheet, me) we came up with our strategy, which was launched at the AGM and voted in unanimously.

You can read the strategy in all its glory here, but it was beautifully summarised at the AGM by artists Adrian and Rachel Haak. I find these 'visual minutes' useful in terms of helping me recall the major themes of the discussion and how they inter-relate, but more than that, they remind me of the scale of our ambition. It's audacious, but I find that inspiring rather than intimidating. I particularly love how collaboration, partnership and flexibility are at the centre, represented as our DNA, with specific projects shown as additional - expressions of that definitive ethic. The whole drawing is below - click on it to enlarge.

Whilst we've big ideas and ambitions, we're also aware than Rome (or gender equality in science) isn't built in a day. It's important, particularly as a grassroots network of volunteers, that we take developments at a sustainable pace. So this year is a year of trying things out, developing collaborations, finding out where we're most needed and the difference we're best placed to make. And we intend to have a lot of fun doing all this cool stuff. Watch this space.

If you'd like to fully get on board with what we're doing, receive regular updates from me, be the first to hear about invite-only events, and eventually (sometime this year!) gain access to a members-only discussion forum on our website, please sign up as a ScienceGrrl member. It'll only cost you £5 for a year and all of that will go towards resourcing ScienceGrrl's work. For an application form, please e-mail us here and we'll be in touch.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

ScienceGrrl and International Women's Day

International Women's Day celebrates the achievements of women worldwide. In Russia (and elsewhere, I believe) it's a public holiday. Here at ScienceGrrl, we wanted to take the opportunity this presented to highlight the great work that women are doing in science. The recent WISE report highlighted that only 13% of the STEM workforce are women, but that's still 693,000 women doing interesting and valuable work.

We've had female scientists wandering around science museums in London and Manchester, wearing large badges proclaiming 'I'm a SCIENTIST talk to me' and occasionally jumping on a purple soapbox to tell people what we do - Jess Breen and Becky Wraggs Sykes have already blogged on this. In Manchester, we teamed up with Manchester Girl Geeks to offer soft electronics and mathematical magic workshops, run by women, to highlight the creativity of electronics and the fun you can have with maths. We've had representatives at a WISE 'Mothers of Invention' reception at the Science Museum and the Suffrage Science celebrations of women in STEM. And this morning, I joined a panel discussion concerning women in science at the Women of the World Festival, with Emily Sidonie-Grossman, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Marieme Jamme and Kate Bellingham. What a privilege even to be added to that list!

We talked about the myriad factors influencing the under-representation of women in science, from gendered marketing of toys, low confidence, peer pressure, gender stereotypes, preconceptions about absence of creativity in science, lack of emphasis on contextual teaching, scarcity of visible role models and women in leadership, cultural expectations of family dynamics (as summed up here, by The Flick)...but it was by no means negative. Kate Bellingham, the chair, did a great job of stopping me blathering on, fielding the many questions from the audience and encouraging points for action. We could have talked for hours, and I wish we'd had more time to hatch firm plans to address the issues raised. Perhaps a breakout session (with coffee and cake, obviously) is needed next year?

I was particularly encouraged by hearing from Marieme Jamme about the growth of technology hubs in Africa, South America and the Middle East, and the leading role of women in this context. It confirms to me again that the lack of women in STEM has nothing to do with women's inherent aptitude for these subjects, but everything to do with culture, education and expectation. We've been pushing against these barriers in the UK for generations, but I take inspiration from Marieme and others like her that change is – and will be – possible. Until we do, the potential of so many brilliant female scientists will remain untapped and the world will be lacking the fruits of their labours and their genius ideas.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The first ScienceGrrl AGM!

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Isla Stevens, who will now regale us with merry tales of Friday's first ever ScienceGrrl AGM. Over to you, Isla!

Last Friday I was lucky enough to be able to fit in a trip to London for the first ever ScienceGrrl AGM – calendars, tote bags and posters everywhere. It was great to see a few familiar friends from the consultation evening at the end of the year, as well as meet some fantastic new faces – it’s not every day you get to chat to someone who spends their workdays firing lasers.

Having been involved in the consultation evening and subsequently as a social media minion under the guidance of Anna Zecharia (seen the tumblr yet? Why not?) I’m also lucky enough to now have membership of ScienceGrrl, which meant I was able to vote on the motions being raised. It was a strange and wonderful feeling, realising that I had I say in where we would go next – and realising that I was along for the journey as well.

Stand back, we’re going to try science.

The mood at the AGM was fantastic – there was no need for icebreakers or introductions, and there was a great variety of people there, from all ages and career backgrounds, networking delightedly and having a good laugh as they did so. It was somewhat humbling to realise that just eight months ago, none of this existed. Eight months later, ScienceGrrl has calendars around the globe (including a few winging their way to my old High School), and a far-reaching network with a vision. They are changing the lives of women in STEM, little by little – they’ve certainly already had a positive effect on mine. It’s easy to feel isolated, I think, when you’re working or studying in a field in which you are a minority, and the AGM was vastly comforting in that sense. It made me realise that we are all of us passionate about the same things – the same vision:

A world where access to a fulfilling STEM career is decoupled from gender.”

And the same mission:

To celebrate and promote STEM careers by building and strengthening a network of people who are passionate about passing on their love of stem to the next generation”.

It’s safe to say ScienceGrrl is already on task. The network is already there, and it’s only getting bigger. Every day I see new ideas and collaborations popping up on my Twitter feed – the usual suspects are generally in there somewhere, keep an eye out for our esteemed director, Heather Williams, the indefatigable Faisal Khan, head of science at The Market Bosworth School, or Fran Scott, science translator extraordinaire.

Plotting in the pub?

There are plans for a dedicated online forum with regional chapters to establish a network of support based right across the country. There are finalised events already marked in the (wonderful shiny ScienceGrrl) calendars – if you’re in the Manchester area check out the afternoon of mathematical magic andelectronics, hosted by ScienceGrrl in collaboration with theManchester Girl Geeks to mark International Women’s Day. We’ll be working with schools, being unswervingly positive in our conversations with policy makers, and launching new projects such as interactive science workshops and a work experience network, as well as sending a team of students from Tower Hamlets to Mission Discovery 2013 with some of the calendar proceeds.

ScienceGrrl is young. But in eight short months we’ve gone from strength to strength, from a mildly irritated twitter conversation about That Video (Grr) to a respected grassroots organisation with a plan. The next year will both be exciting and a learning curve for all involved. However the overwhelming feeling I took away from the AGM – and I’m fairly sure it wasn’t just me – was a sense of cheerful optimism. I for one believe ScienceGrrl and friends are more than ready for any challenges the next year will throw at us, and I feel privileged to be involved.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The amazing adventures of the ScienceGrrl 2013 calendar

It's mid-February. When you have spent the last 4 months of your life flogging 2013 calendars, mid-February is a good time to be able to say 'we have none left'.

A mere 2 hours before the ScienceGrrl launch party in October, I took delivery of 1500 copies of the ScienceGrrl 2013 calendar and arranged them artfully around Louise Crane's flat (much to the amusement of her cat, Loki). I remember being both exhilarated and terrified. 1500 is a big number. Fortunately I didn't have long to think about it before having to get changed into a long red dress, jump in a taxi, and spend the evening celebrating the fact that we'd actually got the thing ready on schedule.

More fortunately, we sold over 900 copies, to personal contacts, through shops at the Science Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Jodrell Bank and Imperial College London, but mostly through the online shop. The online orders have been administered, parcelled up and posted out by Louise Crane and Suzi Gage - bless 'em - and travelled all over the world. 

You can have a tinker with the interactive map below to find out exactly where they've got to - just  click on the red dots for the nearest town. We have Louise Crane to thank for this, too. Caution: like a good Google doodle, it's highly addictive.

Of course, the UK loves us (not least Dundee and Birmingham, where Universities placed huge orders to distribute to local schools), but the map indicates we have a fair smattering of fans in the US too. Here's a photo one happy customer sent us of the calendar sunning itself on a beach in Florida:

Wish you were here?

By contrast, another copy headed for chillier climes to join the all-female team working for the British Antarctic Survey at Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula

Tamsin Gray, Mairi Simms and Rosey Grant - Antarctic Meteorologists

Most intriguing, perhaps, is the copy heading to Lwengo in Uganda - it will take pride of place in the TASTE mobile laboratory, which gives children in rural areas the opportunity to get 'hands on' with science.

Those of you who are adept at mental arithmetic will be wondering where the remaining 600 copies from our 1500 print run have gone. I'm pleased to say that they have been mainly donated to schools - thanks to Chi Onwurah MP and colleagues, every in school in Newcastle will be getting one, and others are heading out to schools in London, Belfast and Bolton. We've donated others to science clubs and libraries, and used a few as gifts to introduce ScienceGrrl to would-be collaborators - including MPs across the political spectrum, others involved in science policy... and Maggie Philbin... and Prof Brian Cox

If you've got a ScienceGrrl 2013 calendar, we'd love to hear where it is and how it's inspiring the people who see it - e-mail us via the website or tweet at us with the details.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Cooking up a twitter storm. Or: What not to do about the gender divide in science

Today, an article appeared on the Guardian website, not in the science section (it was on the US news blog), but tweeted by @guardianscience and containing the word ‘science’ in the title. About girls and science, its headline claimed to explain ‘why the gender gap exists and what to do about it’.
I’ve written about women in science before, as there is a large and worrying body of research which suggests that women are less likely to pursue science careers than men, and that there is a ‘leaky pipeline’ whereby women are disproportionally lost from science (or indeed STEM careers in general) at all stages throughout their career. Not only that, but attempts to address this problem have sometimes faltered, been massively misguided, or downright offensive.
So, an article addressing these problems is exactly the type of thing I want to read. However, I didn’t have to get far in to this one to realise these were not the droids I was looking for*. The author cited a couple of studies as evidence that girls perform worse at STEM subjects than boys, though her argument was slightly hard to follow as one study showed girls doing better than boys, apart from in US, UK and Canada, whereas the other suggested girls do worse at maths in countries with poorer gender equality. Anyway, that aside, she used the premise that environmental differences between the way girls and boys are brought up affects their STEM ability and motivation, to peddle some dangerous or baffling ‘tips from the experts’.
Ignoring the complete lack of links (there are 'sources' at the bottom of the article, but it's not clear what comes from where, and these are books, rather than peer reviewed research) to evidence for these 'tips from the experts', the huge problem I have with this article is that, rather than discuss how we could remove the gender divide, bringing up our children as equals and removing these imaginary differences between little girls and little boys, the article gleefully points out ways in which girls are different to boys (real or imaginary), and leaps upon these as a way to reinvent teaching science to girls, because they don't 'get it' when it's done more generically. It’s completely backwards; the problem isn't girls' ability to learn science, it's the motivation and encouragement to pursue and enjoy science that needs to be fostered and nurtured. And that’s before we get to the pseudoscience.
Talk of girls using the left, or language side of the brain, being more responsive to colour, and needing to read instructions aloud are ridiculous, but at times the article is sexist (learn science through cooking? Women learn best when science is applied to domestic scenarios?) or actively gives bad advice (learn by rote if you don’t understand? Play with Lego, but only to follow the instructions?!). I sincerely hope there are no parents of young girls reading this who think these are good ideas.
ScienceGrrl was originally set up after the ‘Science, it’s a girl thing’ video debacle, but articles like this remind me once again of its relevance and importance. There are women in science (and despite what this article seems to imply at the end, there are plenty of excellent female role models in science), and we need to encourage the next generation to follow in our footsteps. Applying 1940s science-of-the-kitchen logic to engaging them is not the answer, not when there arescience museums full of hands on activities and wonder, people like Fran Scott and Maggie Philbin on TV showing the awesome-ness of science, and organisations like ScienceGrrl keen to get a diverse range of inspirational women in to schools to engage first hand with the female (and male) STEM leaders of tomorrow. Science isn’t something different for boys and girls. It’s for everyone, and it rocks.
Or, if you want the tl;dr version, here’s what Anna Zecharia, SienceGrrl’s head of Comms, said in the comments:
ScienceGrrl ( was formed in response to laziness of this kind. And, whoa, isn't it multi-layered laziness?! First, many of the claims are unsubstantiated by evidence. Second, it reinforces the narrow view that all girls must be collapsed into a limited stereotype. Third, it delights in the ‘gender divide’ and the advice it gives reads as patronising because it is: girls can be shown the world, but only if it isn’t too overwhelming for them, poor lambs. Articles like this show us that true equality may not be here yet, but the ScienceGrrl motto is to be positive and to move forward with action. We believe the best way to challenge such attitudes is to celebrate the diversity of women: to give girls a wide range of role models to choose from, so that when they find the one they identify with they can be themselves, not one of many suffocating in a box. Science is for everyone. -- Anna - Communications, ScienceGrrl @Science_Grrl
Basically: that.
Now, I’m off to talk myself (aloud) through this jigsaw puzzle. Where are my safety goggles?
This post is written by Suzi Gage, who will appear in the ScienceGrrl calendar during the month of April and has helped post out a fair few of them. The post also appears on her own excellent blog, Sifting The Evidence. *Suzi's favourite Star Wars droid is EV-9D9.

For further comment on this article, here are some excellent remarks by Athene Donald, Becky Wragg-Sykes, Chris Chambers and Kate Clancy.