Last week I went along to a debate at the ICA to celebrate the launch of Suffrage Science – a booklet featuring inspiring tales from and about women in science, which I helped to write. There’s some great coverage from the evening over at The Scientist.
Hosted by the fabulous broadcaster and writer Vivienne Parry, who described the evening as “Loose Women for science”, an eminent all-female panel debated issues around the challenges of being a woman in science, from how to deal with the guilt of having a nanny for your kids to whether you should flirt with your head of department to get your own way, and pretty much everything in between.
Something that really struck me – and that I’ve been pondering over for the past week – is one of the comments raised by someone in the audience. A physicist (I think) by trade, she recounted how her young daughter had shown an interest in building houses at school. “Well dear,” the teacher had said, “Maybe one day you could become an interior designer!” Despairingly, physics-mum lamented the fact that the teacher hadn’t suggested something more technically minded, such as engineer or architect.
Before I get colour-coordinated death threats from any interior designers reading this, in no way at all do I want to suggest that any one career is more or less worthy than any other. But it struck me that perhaps there is a subtle force at work, pushing girls away from careers in technical areas and towards the less nerdy side of life, when they might actually have aptitude and appetite for the former.
I remember a similar episode from my own life. I have always been interested in science – medical science and biology in particular, with a passing interest in chemistry (oh the sad, sad day when I ran out of copper sulphate in my home chemistry set!). At school, I started to look into the sort of careers I could do in that area, and I remember being offerred lots of leaflets about careers in nursing, and not much else – despite my protestations that I wanted to be a “mad professor” and do experiments.
Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong at all with a career in nursing (and being a nurse isn’t the sole domain of women…), but the challenging life of a ward sister isn’t really what I had in mind. For a start, I’m not really the caring sort. And, more importantly, I wanted to Do Science and Find Stuff Out.
Granted this was the mid-1980s, and I suspect that a nation firmly under the handbag of Margaret Thatcher wasn’t too keen on encouraging girls to do anything much, lest they accidentally spawn another Maggie. Let us not forget that the Iron Lady herself started out as a chemist.
At the drinks reception after the debate, I found myself chatting to Professor Dame Sally Davies, one of the panellists and newly-appointed Chief Medical Officer for England – the first woman to hold the post. She’s had a string of impressive appointments, including Director or Research and Development for the NHS.
She told me a story about her daughter, who was asked by her teacher what her mummy did. “My mummy’s in charge of research for the whole of the NHS,” the daugter replied. The teacher declared that no, her mummy couldn’t possibly be doing that and the girl must be lying. I wonder whether the teacher would have questioned it if the child had claimed her daddy was director of R&D? I have to say that Sally was more restrained than I would have been under the circumstances. She told her distraught daughter to be content with knowing the truth – I’d have sent in her next sick note on DoH headed notepaper…
Based on this purely anecdotal evidence (n=3), it seems that maybe things haven’t changed that much. There’s still a notion that there are “girls’ jobs” – teaching, nursing, interior design – and “boys’ jobs” – architecture, research, high-ranking officialdom- despite the growing (but still minority) visibility of women across the board in science, technology and business.
Are girls still being steered towards more vocational professions, like teaching or nursing, when they should be encouraged to strike for the heights of the Ivory Tower? What do you think?