As Dr Jessica Kirkpatrick cleaned her research equipment as a then-undergraduate, a senior member of the team walked by and quipped: "That’s what women are good for, washing dishes in the kitchen".
This is one of the less threatening stories of harassment that have hit the Twitter feeds under the hashtag #astroSH. The outpouring has continued throughout January as women share their tales of sexual harassment in academia.
This Twitter storm comes amid two high-profile incidents of sexism accusations against male university professors. Geoffrey Marcy, a prominent astronomer at Berkeley, resigned after he was found guilty of sexually harassing students last year. And last week, BuzzFeed, Nature and Science all reported a case involving a California Institute of Technology professor placed on unpaid leave for “unambiguous gender-based harassment.”
My heart goes out to every person who has used the #astroSH over the last few weeks. I worked in academia, admittedly for a very short period, and never experienced such sexism. I found the academic environments of York and Cambridge Universities to be innovative and engaging.
Then, I saw this write up on British astronaut Tim Peake. It's a spoof Facebook post from Dylan Beattie, aka TheManWhoHasItAll, in which Dylan took an official NASA portrait of Peake, and wrote the accompanying text:
This week slim redhead Tim Peake, 43, begins his mission to the International Space Station. Later, we'll be talking to father-of-two Tim, pictured here in a stunning blue flightsuit, about the challenges of raising a family whilst pursuing a successful career with the European Space Agency, and what products he's using to maintain his smooth skin and youthful complexion in the harsh artificial environment of the ISS.
Sadly, Dylan's post isn't far from reality. During a press conference in October, an all-female Russian team of astronauts were asked questions such as: "how will you cope without men or make-up for eight days?" And lets not forget that Dr Helen Sharman was actually the first Briton in space.
This joke post struck a chord for me as a science and technology writer. The language we use to describe women in science and technology hints towards indirect sexism. It is based on pragmatics and the meaning and interpretation of utterances. It is also very common and we need a new way to challenge and analyse the way we speak about women in the science and tech sector, and wider world.
I'm not alone. The sexism row has prompted Oxford Dictionaries to review the language they use in definitions. Phrases such as "rabid feminist" and "the rising shrill of women’s voices" could soon be removed. Academic studies have even uncovered such issues, including science faculty's subtle gender bias to favour CVs with a male, as oppose to female, name at the top.
Others have suggested that the supposed need to "lure" women into science is downright patronising and please don't get me started on IBM's "hack a hair-dryer" campaign, with the implication that women will be drawn to solving problems if they involve beauty appliances.
It’s almost as though, despite recognising the apparent sexism within the scientific community, we haven’t come to grips with the root causes of such bias.
I was "only" joking...
The scientific community is dominated by a narrow slice of the world's demographics. Some argue that humour can be used to build a bridge between demographics. But it can also reinforce negative stereotypes when used in a negative manner.
A scientific review looked into sexist and other discriminatory disparaging humour and concluded that jokes do not create hostility where it does not already exist. The report also found that joking reinforces existing prejudice. Another report found that men exposed to sexist jokes were less likely to express support for actions that would improve gender equality.This does little to help those arguing that "it's only a joke" within the scientific workforce, as such sexism appears to already exist.
Then there is the whole Tim Hunt saga. The Nobel laureate expressed ridiculous views on women working in laboratory environments and then attempted to pass the whole debacle as a joke.
I'm not laughing.
A shift in the language we use is one small step to combating the multi-faceted issue of sexism in science. The problem will only be resolved through cultural change and an ongoing conversation. We need to start talking about the issue and we need to start using the right language.
There’s nothing wrong with girls who don’t like science. But there is something wrong with science that doesn’t like girls.
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I'm the freelance writer who gets tech. So, I blog on three core topics:
Science and Technology