What’s wrong about the Hashtag: #DistractinglySexy ?

As a researcher at Imperial College London and head of the Imperial College Women in Physics society, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post this week in response to Sir Tim Hunt’s comments on separating women in science labs. Since then there have been about thousands of similar articles and (genuinely, I looked it up) 38,000 tweets.1 Trending on Twitter now is #distractinglysexy (2500 tweets)- a completely embarrassing misinterpretation of Sir Tim’s words.

Don’t get me wrong- I do not think women shouldn’t be doing liver transplants, or archaeology, or biochemistry or physics- I just don’t think we need to tweet pictures of us doing it to validate ourselves as scientists. What we need to do is acknowledge that there are differences between men and women. Both genders have different strengths and weaknesses, and this is what makes science labs and hospitals and banks and law firms’ brilliant places to be.

I’m part of an all-male research group lead by a female academic. There are certainly differences in what I bring to discussion and how I approach research- and the group is no worse of because of it. The men in my group make scientific claims with more confidence and use more boring colours in their PowerPoint slides. They don’t get as nervous as me when presenting in meetings so don’t speak at the speed of light. I’m not afraid to ask for help in experiment design or changing nitrogen cylinders or opening well-sealed bottles of solvents. I’m quite good at arranging for pieces of apparatus to get serviced and we generally get quite good deals from companies because I’m good at negotiating. I’m not arrogant when it comes to science and think everyone working in the Blackett Laboratory- whether they be the pre dawn cleaners, the support staff, the technicians, the workshop mechanics- are as important as the scientists. The upshot of this is great relationships with people right across the department and a good college-wide contact list. I was lucky enough to receive the bulk of my scientific training from an incredible man called Dr Sebastian Wood, who I still run just about every scientific question passed. Seb showed me the importance of doing everything properly and taking your time to do it (unless it’s cleaning quartz)- I’m very careful when taking measurements and making scientific claims. I’ve designed our group website. I have a lot of time for outreach and passionately believe that it is our responsibility as PhD students to get the next generation excited about science. It’s a gross over exaggeration, because of course not all outreach is by female scientists, but I’m the only one in our group who visits school and universities. I am aware of how difficult the transition is leaving school for university and spend a lot of my time being a tutorial assistant for first year students. I try really hard with this- marking, replying to e-mails and meeting students when they’re particularly stuck- because I know how it feels to be a tiny fish in a massive sea. At this early stage of their scientific careers I see girls who are academically brilliant but have no confidence to speak over to the boys in the class, a few boys with too much bravado to ask questions and a lot of students somewhere in between. It’s a real honour to be there at that stage of their science education, and remind them to question everything until they are sure.

There was a time during my undergraduate degree that I had real difficulties with a boy on the course and I didn’t know who I could talk to. I had a male personal tutor, who I didn’t have any relationship with, and I was very immature. Instead I sought out Professor Lesley Cohen, who is, amongst other things, the Faculty of Natural Science’s Ambassador for Academic Women and Juno Champion. Professor Cohen helped me a lot more than she’ll ever know and is certainly about 98 % of the reason I stayed at Imperial and continued doing physics as a PhD. Since then Professor Cohen has supported me through my postgraduate and helped me with the Women in Physics community.

There was a slightly embarrassing Desert Island Discs last weekend with academic Lisa Jardine. She repeated some advice she’d received- as a female academic presenting at a conference or sitting on an important committee, make sure your voice is heard quickly after entering the room, because the timbre and sound is so different you don’t want that to distract when you’ve got a point to make. This is the kind of practical advice we need on women in academia, not “I’m distractingly sexy”, but this is how to be recognised for what you have to say rather than how you look or sound saying it.

There have (of course) been male researchers at Imperial I’ve found it hard to interact with. There are men in my group I find it hard to interact with. But similarly, I’d have found science very hard without people like Seb, and I hope that at some level my group has benefited from having me in it.

1 Topsy.com

2 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05xcsms

An aside: what would happen if we did have single sex labs? In the physics department at Imperial, there are only 13 academic women. There are 35 female research associates, 5 fellowship holders and 12 PhD researchers. If each academic had their own research group with 3 RAs/ fellowship holders and 1 PhD student (I’m not sure how much this mirco-group would be able to publish, or how long they’d get funding for…) there would only be 13 all-girl research groups. Compare and contrast the possibility of all-male research groups- 123 academic men, 25 fellowship holders, 158 RAs and 72 PhD students. If they had the same size groups as the women (3 research associates/ fellowship holders and one PhD student) there would be 72- and there would still be 50 academics waiting around. There would be no all-girl research groups in Condensed Matter Theory, Photonics, Plasma Physics or Quantum Optics- and these subjects would suffer because of the loss.

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