Rewind 20 years. I'm a physics and astrophysics undergraduate. When asked what I'm studying, I get two stock responses: 1. You must be really clever, 2. That's unusual for a girl.
These words, no matter how bland or inoffensive they appear on the surface, actually cut pretty deep. They knocked my confidence and made me question whether I deserved a place in the physics department.
Now, I have a pretty thick skin. The ditty "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" sums up my awkward teenage years pretty well. But these two responses formed part of a wider offensive of comments I'd received during my formative years whenever I mentioned my ambitions to study physics.
It felt like society was, at best, confused as to why a girl would want to study science and, at worst, thought STEM subjects should be left to the boys.
Such words cause a crisis of confidence.
An inherent lack of confidence amongst aspiring women in technology is regularly cited as a core reason why girls turn away from STEM subjects. Recent research from Microsoft found girls in the UK are interested in science and tech subjects before the age of 11, but this drops sharply when they turn 16. So, what's happening in that intervening five years?
I'd like to turn to one of the 1,000 girls who took part in the Microsoft survey. Paisley Edwards, a 12-year-old from Croydon, who highlights the importance of having more positive female role models in science, like her Mum who's a pharmaceutical scientist.
However, it is this quote from Paisley that so succinctly addresses the first comment that I 'must be clever' to do physics:
"They say science is quite hard. But I say if you put your mind to it, it’s quite easy.
You see, the thing that always got me with that 'you must be clever' response is the way it would be said. Immediately, a wall was put up. People bristled, put my degree subject in the "too difficult to understand or talk about" box, smiled and moved on.
This always baffled me. Science is just my thing. I'm not sure if that makes me clever or not. It just makes sense to me. (But ask me to bake a cake or drive a car and I'm lost, sweating and swearing - usually in that order.)
While none of my male colleagues seemed to be told they were clever for studying physics, this is not purely a gender-specific issue. It's a science-specific issue.
A divide between the science community and wider society still exists, despite the best efforts of many wonderful science communicators (a topic I've covered into the past - even pulling poor Brian Cox into the debate).
The stereotypical socially awkward geeks so regularly portrayed in shows like The Big Bang Theory don't help. They make science seem impenetrable and an exclusive topic of an intellectually elite few.
In fact, science is simple. Science is changing the world we live in and any good scientist will happily discuss their work or topic you take an interest in. To quote physicist extraordinaire, Richard Feymann: "If you can't explain something in simple terms, you don't understand it."
Trust me, I talk to scientists for a living. It's a fascinating world and one that'll open your eyes to the wonder of the world around us.
"That's unusual for a girl"
OK, now let's look at the second stock response. I was one of five women studying physics out of a class of 100 back in 2000 when I started my first Masters in Physics. So, yes, it was unusual for a girl.
Just as being a male midwife still raises eyebrows with some, as only 99.6% of UK midwives are men.
A use of words, again, is to blame - and it affects both men and women. This fascinating study from Totaljobs used previous academic research from The University of Waterloo and Duke University, which outlined a series of male and female gender-coded words.
Totaljobs analysed almost 77,000 job adverts over a six week period to assess the frequency of gender-coded words in UK recruitment and found 478,175 words that carry gender bias in these ads.
That's an average of six male-coded or female-coded words per job advert.
Looking at these words, it breaks my heart. We're ALL a wonderful mix of attributes and these words are used without thinking to pander to the stereotypes of a society where boys are clever and leaders, and girls are pretty and submissive (I'm looking at you, Clarks Shoes, for calling girls' shoes "dolly babe" and the boys' equivalent "leader").
Yes, I'm a woman who loves science. I also have a husband who is far better in the kitchen than me. What does that say about us? Bugger all.
Instead of pointing out what's different, we need to embrace our differences or we end up living in a Trump-fuelled toxic world where CERN has to launch an (albeit brilliantly worded) anti-sexual harassment campaign and even the most experienced female scientists feel they do not have a place in the world's laboratories.
Instead, we need to start using words to help women in science. Jess Wade is leading the way here and is steadily setting up Wikipedia pages for all those women in science without the recognition they deserve.
Let's start using the power of words to change things so science is never seen as an elusive topic, or one that's purely for the boys.
And when someone tells you they're studying physics, don't dismiss them as being too clever or unusual.
Ask them to tell you more.
Hello. I'm the freelance writer who gets tech. So, I blog on three core topics:
Science and Technology
And I explain science with Lego in Sunday Science.
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