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.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Feminine Science Role Models... and other bad ideas

News of research indicating that feminine scientists may actually put girls off science raised a few eyebrows at Soho Skeptics last month... so we asked the fantabulous Michelle Brook to do some digging and find out what that paper really said:

What does a scientist look like? In an ideal world, if we asked a random group of children to draw a scientist, we would see a huge variety of responses. We would see some male, some female, some dressed in lab coats, and others ‘in the field’.

Scientists, like any other group, are not all the same.

And as a community we ought be showing this diversity. To encourage children to embrace the idea that they can follow scientific careers, we need to be showing that people like them already do science. Evidence shows that perceived similarity is an important factor in creating effective role models, and therefore we need to be providing role models that aren’t just old, white, men.

With scientists – male and female – visiting schools, and taking part in engagement schemes like the brilliant ‘I am a Scientist, Get me out of here!, we hope to start counteracting this image, and show that scientists are human beings; that they have their own sets of interests, personalities, have taken different career paths, and indeed can be emulated.

Therefore, when a news release for a paper entitled ‘My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girlspopped into my Twitter feed a few weeks ago, I was rather alarmed.

What are the implications of this, if feminine role models really do demotivate girls from embracing science? By encouraging a wide range of people, including ‘feminine’ women to talk to children, are we actively doing harm? Social science research can be invaluable at informing our understanding of human interactions, so I took the scientific approach, read the paper, and looked at the results.

I’m not going to repeat what is a comprehensive take down of the paper. However the tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) version is that neither myself nor a number of others are convinced by the conclusions of the study.

The paper focused upon a very extreme stereotype of what a ‘feminine female scientist’ would look like; someone who wears pink, likes fashion magazines and wears make up. I wouldn’t like to define what a ‘feminine female scientist’ would look or act like, nor guess at how such a person would be portrayed in a written interview (as was the method used to introduce the role models to participants of this study).

Whilst I am sure there are some female scientists who do wear pink clothes, like fashion magazines, and wear make up (indeed, my former physics teacher was one), it is statistically unlikely that there would be that many. Instead we would expect a bell-curve of 'femininity' (however that was defined), and indeed a female scientist certainly need not conform to this image in order to self-define as ‘feminine’.

Just by looking around us, and thinking about who we know, we can see that scientists come in all shapes, sizes and skin colours. Some are male, some female, and some would prefer not to define as either. Some are feminine, and others are not.  

Similarly, school aged girls are not a single group. Some of these will be more confident than others, some will have more positive ideas and experiences of science, and yes, undoubtedly some of these will be more feminine than others.

If we want to provide girls, and indeed other groups under-represented in science, with role models, we need to ensure that these multiple types of ‘scientist’ are made visible. The more we do this, the more we breakdown the preconceptions of who and what a ‘scientist’ is, and the more we increase the probability that any one child can find someone they can relate to, and hope to emulate.

Perhaps there will be studies in the future which better show the effects of role model types on perceptions of science. Perhaps we will get better insight into the age at which stereotypical images of scientists begin to form, how these preconceptions are reinforced, and how to better break them.

In the meantime, I think we can do a lot worse than displaying the diversity of scientists in our midst.