Fluffy Friday – This is How Girl Scientists Talk

I love group messages. Me and some of the other female scientists I work with have a longrunning chat going on about general life. It’s mostly talk about Orange is the New Black and Orphan Black because women. But our conversation took a sexist turn earlier this week, and we started discussing the Tim Hunt scandal.

So this is what some women scientists thought. Prepare yourselves for tears.

FluffyScience: Love me some of that dna

BustyLabWench: How do you know, jill? We are too busy in the lab knocking shit over with our boobs…no work is ever done
FluffyScience: Sorry I’m too busy falling in love with my professor
Feminist #3: Does anyone else feel a little bit bad for that guy? Like, he’s 72. It’s like your granddad saying something racist and getting yelled at for it. I know he definitely should have known better, but I feel the backlash has been a bit ott :grinning:
FluffyScience: Nah
FluffyScience: His apology was sorry but I meant it

BustyLabWench: Yeah I agree with jill. If the apology was sincere and he just thought it was a funny comment which he retracted, then fine.
BustyLabWench: But he be like “bitches were falling to their knees when I came into da lab”
Feminist#3: But how can you sincerely apologise if you don’t grasp what you’ve done? You can’t rewire an old man’s brain overnight
BustyLabWench: My grandad is a giant racist, but he would genuinely be sorry if he were to learn that he upset someone.
FluffyScience: Then the answer your give is “I’m sorry I don’t actually understand why this is wrong so I’m going to do some training”
FluffyScience: “Find out why I’ve upset people”
FluffyScience: The guy is a fucking genius. I’m sure he can comprehend some sensitivity training

SugarTits: I feel a bit like he got bashed for more than he meant but at the same time yeah agree with Jill about dealing with it in the right way and making the effort to learn why people thought it was wrong…
Feminist#3: Yeah definitely. But I also don’t believe you should be sorry just because you’ve offended someone. If I say ‘god damn’ I could genuinely offend millions of people, and I might apologise but I won’t be sincere. I’ve basically offended (in my opinion) an imaginary friend.
FluffyScience: The difference is you saying God damn isn’t going to reinforce a section of the population being systematically degraded
FluffyScience: His comments did damage.
FluffyScience: He is a respected leader of his field who promoted the idea women were too emotional to work with
FluffyScience: That’s not just offence it’s damaging

Feminist#3: In his mind he’s massively clever and he’s just been told his way of thinking is completely wrong. In his mind that is probably preposterous. Inconceivable He has to genuinely understand why it’s so wrong before he can sincerely apologise.

FluffyScience: And that is a supremely poor position to be in as a scientist
FluffyScience: You must always be open to being wrong
FluffyScience: I have no sympathy for old white straight men who don’t know how to be challenged

Feminist#3: Most of his life people have been hideously sexist, and then to make it worse everyone has probably kissed his ass for at least 20 years. And as for being wrong, we all know scientists with a small fraction of his fame who are totally opposed to the idea 😄

SugarTits: I just can’t comprehend why he doesn’t get it! Yes relationships can complicate things but this is something that comes with every single workplace, and it’s a drop in the ocean of all the other shit that can make life at work harder than it needs to be!
FluffyScience: But he is an honoured fellow who is supposed to represent his community (UCL) and he clearly doesn’t
FluffyScience: He is in no way doing his job
FluffyScience: They sent him there to support female scientists
FluffyScience: He did not fulfill that contract

Feminist#3: I totally agree that what he said was full on crazy train. I just didn’t find it surprising or very upsetting. I just accept that old men are often sexist and racist. Yeah he’s intelligent and should know better. He should never have been sent to talk to people. It’s more worrying if people knew what he was going to say and found it fine.

FluffyScience: I don’t accept that science ambassadors are too inflexible to even comprehend when they’re wrong

Feminist#3: Dawkins comes out with this shit all the time. On one hand says Muslims are shit and on the other says western women have no right to moan compared to what ‘Muslim women’ have to put up with. Man that guy’s a prick! It’s the typical old white, Oxbridge educated idiot view. They all think that because they’re so clever they can’t be wrong.

FluffyScience: And I think he should be publicly denounced too
Feminist#3: It’s weird, some sexist shit makes me want to really hurt whoever’s saying it, but I genuinely laughed when I read what this guy said. It felt too preposterous to get angry about.

FluffyScience: I think that’s what makes me so angry
FluffyScience: The complete normalcy of it
FluffyScience: I’m not angry at him. I’m angry at the system
FluffyScience: I consider him a people eater. Just minding his own business while I drive a war rig through his perceptions of the world

BustyLabWench: …this is deeper than our usual chat

FluffyScience: TITS!!!
FluffyScience: I actually want to transcribe this and put it in a blog

Feminist#3: Haha, you can as far as I’m concerned. I can be ‘Feminist number 3’ :innocent:
Feminist#3: Saying that, I can totally get behind mocking him. #Distractinglysexy might be my new favourite hashtag (yes I have favourites) http://mashable.com/2015/06/11/female-scientists-responses-tim-hunt-distractinglysexy/?utm_cid=mash-com-fb-main-link

Your Weekly Sexist Scientist

(Edit: See below for my response to Tim Hunt’s resignation)

Okay, it’s partly because I’m in marking hell right now and don’t have the time to write a big post, but it’s partly because this shit keeps happening.

Nobel prize winner, Tim Hunt, addresses a collection of female scientists and says:

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

Alleges the Guardian this morning.

And then of course, after reading this, you get the joy of reading below the line Guardian comments, including such gems as …

  • there is clearly something in what he says

  • In a world of open omnivorous sexuality, it’s all meant to shut down as you walk through the lab door. Hmm.

  • You must have a very low opinion of young women to believe that [this makes science less inclusive]

I don’t know about anyone else but I think I feel the tears happening already. It wasn’t like last week I was saying that each woman needs to decide for herself what she will or will not tolerate. It wasn’t that a few weeks before I was explaining why representation matters in all we do. It wasn’t that a few months ago we had reviewers saying a man should look over a manuscript, just assuming that the foolish women hadn’t already done so, even if it were a legitimate complaint. It’s not that even with the best of intentions, we can’t help but portray women in science as dangerous Eves, meddling just too far for mankind.

While it’s tempting to make a joke here, to leave off with a light hearted ‘see, I’m the fun kind of a feminist’ statement, something like “Who wants to come smuggle some scientists out of Hunt’s lab on a War Rig and paint their forehead black with me?” – I can’t.

I am tired of making the same argument over and over. I am tired of being told by older white men that I should be grateful for inclusion into a field I am damned good at. I am tired of having younger white men start to nod their heads. My beloved science needs to get over its representation problem.

And I bloody well hope that in forty three years time, when I’m advocating for separate human-AI labs, someone tells me to sit down and shut up. Because it won’t be my future I’m jeopardising then.

Tim Hunt has today resigned from his honourary professorship at UCL. Predictably, the radio this morning was full of old men bleating “political correctness gone mad!”.

A few misconceptions to clear up: the man’s contribution to science is not ‘lost’, nor is anyone throwing out what he’s achieved with his Nobel Prize winning innovations. This was an honourary position and so is supposed to reflect what the organisation wants to be. UCL prides themselves on being inclusive, and I think they’re absolutely right to say this resignation fits with their policies. Whether he jumped or was pushed is immaterial. Academic environments need and demand trust and faith in other scientists, you need to be able to evaluate one another on individual merits, not the makeup of your chromosomes.

And finally – no, I actually wish he hadn’t resigned. I wish he’d said “I have caused offense and I don’t understand why, so my employers are supporting me by sending me to equality and diversity training. I want to be open about this process, and we will review the situation after I have attended the requisite courses. I hope you can appreciate my openness and willingness to investigate opposing points of view”.

That, to me, would have illustrated a truly intelligent and incisive mind. And if, after, he maintained that he didn’t understand how he could have caused offence, then the UCL would be at liberty to open the door or push him out. Now he ends his career as a wounded beast, instead of one who is objectively more than clever enough to listen to what others have to say and feel.

Renewal Season

It’s February, and what I have come to think of as contract renewal season. I’m reasonably confident of continuing the work I’m doing, which is split between coordinating the online MSc (mostly student wrangling, as I think of it), teaching and coordinating my two undergrad modules, miscellaneous knowledge transfer activities, and any bits of research I can stick my fingers into.

There’s a part of me that’s afraid of losing out on the research forever, and wants to get a postdoc. But it’s time for a confession: I hate the postdoc lifestyle. The uncertainty and enforced nomadicity wreaks havoc on my anxiety. So on balance, I’m happier to take on student wrangling and get to foster other peoples’ research in the best way that I can.

But the big news being circulated among my colleagues this week has been the news of Bristol University veterinary lecturer who was fired for not bringing in enough research money. Now if there’s anything guaranteed to send chills down the spine of an academic, its actually being judged on the merit of your work.

I’m being facetious. I feel very sorry for the lecturer in question, and the Epigram (Bristol Uni’s student paper) has a more detailed account of the disciplinary process brought against this lecturer. It must be deeply unpleasant going through several rounds of being told you must get more money or else.

We were asked, on our MOOC, how animal behaviour and welfare research happens – it’s a constant fight for funding and the numbers of graduates wanting to go into academia far outstrips the monies available. It is a hard, hard place to be in.

Of the five animal behaviour PhD students who were around when I started, three of us are teaching, one of us supporting academic innovation and business, and the fifth has a postdoc further from her home than she would like. I think we all enjoy what we do, and I don’t know that any of us would do anything different, but there are eight behaviour PhD students I can name in our office. There are probably more I can’t name.

There is always the work, there just isn’t always the money.

I don’t know how universities are supposed to do this, but I wish they’d figure it out.

The Fashionable Scientist

Science, being the awesome beast it is, recently landed a ten year old probe on a comet. My laptop is three years old and it’s already beginning to groan and whine.

But you’ve probably heard and seen the commotion over one of the scientist’s shirt, which was a gaudy, loud, and featured many half clad ladies on it. On Twitter, a wit said this:

 

And thus began a Twitter storm of epic proportions as ever. On the one side, those who (rightly) feel that the posit03ion of women in STEM fields is a tenuous one and needs direct action, the other those who (rightly) feel that what a scientist wears has little to do with their achievements or even their attitudes to other people.

I was asked by some of my friends what I felt about the issue being both a scientist and a dyed in the wool feminist.

Before I commit my words to the internet it’s important to recognise that my opinions on this are based on my own ethics, my own experiences and they might not necessarily reflect that of all feminists, all women or all scientists – but I also believe my opinion is the right one, hence the fact it’s mine (hey – this is pretty much exactly like animal welfare ethics!)

I think it’s a storm in a teacup. The guy wore a dumb shirt, a woman rolled her eyes, and suddenly we’re onto the death threats. Why is this the default position of the internet? I think it’s sad that the guy was reduced to tears in his apology, I think it’s horrific the tweeter’s life was threatened for pointing out a very real problem. It is frankly ridiculous to say that a shirt overshadowed the accomplishment of the human race. Humans are more than capable of carrying two or more issues in their heads at one time.

Really the only person who address this with any degree of clarity was my guiding light, Hadley Freeman. In her style column she says:

There are so many signifiers of sexism in the world and the science world that to attack a man for his shirt feels a little bit like fussing at a leaky tap when the whole house is under a tidal wave . . .  There is a difference – and I concede, the difference may be fuzzy in some cases – between enjoying the weird fantasy-world depiction of women, and seeing actual women as sex objects. Taylor has the right to wear whatever pig-ugly shirt he likes, and people have the right to be outraged by it. But when that outrage leads to a grown man weeping on TV, perhaps we all need to ask if this outrage is proportionate. My God, I’m a fashion bitch and even I don’t want to make anyone cry over my comments about their clothes.

 

But as it’s the run up to Christmas, there is a silver lining. My wonderful STEM field compatriot has her HauteDog Couture shop on Etsy. We’ve decided at our next meet up we’ll wear dresses made of that shirt material. HauteDog Couture is amazing. Check it out.

Fluffy Friday – Fashionista

The letters after my name grant me a small selection of inferior superpowers. Cheaper car insurance. Better tables at restaurants. And the ability to go to very important meetings dressed quite casually.

In the land of animal behaviour and welfare, we don’t really do suits. This week I met the CEO of a very well known animal welfare charity in jeans and a shirt. I met a Board of Trustees in a summer dress. And in all four of the meetings I had this week I didn’t wear make up once (which I possibly should have done because stress spots are popping up on my nose).

The thing is, my colleagues complimented me on looking smart, and we all commiserated with one another about how we don’t own smart clothes. It’s just not in our nature. Oh sure we can look nice, but we’re not good at smart.

When you start at Glasgow Uni, at least back in the early noughties, you had an initial meeting with an advisor. Mine was a lovely microbiologist named Ailsa who wore amber jewellery and beautiful silk scarves. I sat in her office with three other students and clutched my maps of the campus on my lap. One by one she asked us what we planned to do our Honours in, all the time telling us that we could change our course right up until fourth year. Most people never took the Honours they started with, according to her.

What was I planning on? Zoology. She laughed when she heard and told me to buy a woolly jumper. “That’s what we call the zoology lot. The Woolly Jumpers.”

I still think that should be the name of my band. In the zoology museum of the University of Glasgow there was a truly staggering array of woolly jumpers. There’s also a lot of handmade jewellery, a lot of interesting tattoos in unusual places, and people trying soap hair shampoo from Lush.

I tried the soap hair shampoo from Lush. I have thick, dark hair that feels greasy within hours of washing. I used the soap shampoo. I tried the no-shampoo at all approach. I tried the compromise ‘natural type’ shampoos from Lush. I tried the shampoos from the independent little sellers in the studenty areas of Glasgow. In the end I went back to the shampoo that comes in plastic bottles. Greasy hair triumphed over my ethical concerns.

Working with animals and in the fields that I do, vanity becomes a very strange thing. How can you take pride in your appearance when you wear a pair of mucky overalls and steel toecapped boots? Is it appropriate to wear a summery skirt to the office if you might have to jump to the farm? Sometimes you can pay the price for a little bit of style. Once I was rocking a chunky knit jumper over a denim mini skirt one day when I had to pop to our beef unit. I slung some overalls over the top and completely forgot I had hiked the miniskirt up to do so. When we’d finished I was animatedly chatting to colleagues while stripping from the overalls, miniskirt still around my waist.

I have half a dozen little fashion faux pas to mention. Like the undergraduate student of mine who used to move cows with one great dangling earring (she only ever had one – it was when I realised I was no longer ‘down with the kids’), or the time I decided to wear a smart skirt to a conference and ended up sitting in a non-air conditioned lecture theatre sweating through a dry-clean only skirt beside a very important gentleman from another well respected animal welfare charity. Or the time I accidentally wore a top that had very large arm holes and exhibited my bright red bra to my brand new workplace. Or the time I was sitting in my supervisor’s office and pulled a swan louse from my hair. I could go on.

I’m not sure we make it easy on ourselves either. Most of us were the weird kids at school who wanted to know why home economics didn’t use free range eggs, or cried because they missed their dog when they were at camp. All our lives we learned how to pride ourselves in our differences, and I think there’s an element of that pride which tempts us to reject the more classical notions of ‘looking good’.

If you think I’m tarring the good name of scientists unfairly here, I can count two incidences in the past few months where scientist friends of mine have outright criticised or expressed shock at some basic sartorial choices I’ve made (basic in the dictionary, rather than the Tyra sense). At a sushi restaurant, I defended an £80 hairdressers bill to some of my very good friends who laughed at my expense while we all ordered a strange dessert we knew we wouldn’t like just to taste it. At tea break, a month or so later, some colleagues broke off on a discussion about how much they’d spent on their bikes to ask me how I could justify what I’d paid for a Shellac manicure.

In our field we place terribly arbitrary values on what’s considered appropriate. It’s fine to order tempura battered ice cream just to try it (don’t, it was disgusting), but it’s eyebrow raising to have nice nails for a few weeks. We will happily turn up to a meeting that could hold the key to millions of pounds worth of funding in a pair of jeans, but we wonder why the world thinks scientists are scatter brained and odd balls.

My superpower is the power of not needing to care about my appearance. But like all good superheroes, sometimes I try to hide my power. Sometimes I like to look good. Sometimes I like to retro it up, or blow out my hair, or get Shellac, all because I can.

And if you like a little bit of Fluffy Fashion in your life sometime, may I recommend one of the most stylish women I know who launched her Etsy store last week. HauteDog Couture is a geeky, handmade collection of dog collars and other pet accessories. It’s a new store, just starting out, but Armita is one of my favourite people and is a demon with a seam ripper, so check her out!