Friday, 15 March 2019

Tales of Gender Bias in Science

Fairy tales  
Have you come across a book called “Good night stories for rebel girls"? It started as a crowd-funded initiative of two Italian writers , Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavalli,  and it is now an acclaimed success of public and critics. I bought a copy for my children (the 12-year old daughter that you have already met and my 10-year old son, yes a book on rebel girls is highly recommended for young boys). The book is an anthology of biographies of amazing women narrated in the style of a fairy tale. “Once upon a time there was a girl named Ada who loved machines.” is the beginning of the tale of mathematician and computer scientist Ada Lovelace. And so on through the lives of well-known and less known remarkable women. I loved the book from day one. At the beginning of my journey into motherhood, I used to read the traditional fairy tales to my children but I would always alter the endings. For example, this was Cinderella’s alternative ending: “Realising that she is the beautiful stranger that he has met and danced with at the royal ball, Prince Charming asks her to marry him. Cinderella replies that she would be very happy to, but first she needs to go to university and study veterinary (she talks to animals so I guessed that was her passion). After she has completed her studies, she opens a successful practice and marries the prince. And they live happily ever after or until that works for them.” Similarly Snow White had a brilliant career in singing, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) in psychology and hypnotherapy, and Rapunzel in hair styling (that was the most obvious).
I got away with this until my children learned how to read and then they looked at me and said: “This is not what it really says, is it? You are making it up”. Clever kids. You can imagine my happiness when I found a book which not only had my take on traditional fairy tales (that, incidentally, are full of gender stereotypes) but used that very genre to tell the real life stories of amazing women.

My personal experience
How is that relevant for the experience of gender bias for women in science? I believe there are parallels. Some women scientists sadly do experience open discrimination and harassement (which by the way are illegal). However, some women would say that  have a “feeling” that things are not right or only have seemingly small episodes to recount. I’ll give an example from my personal experience. A few years back when I had recently joined ECMWF, i.e. I was young, I was invited at a party to celebrate the retirement of an esteemed colleague. The party was to be held at a house in the countryside which belonged to another esteemed colleague. I showed up at the door with other young female colleagues, slightly overdressed, but with good intentions. One of the guests opened the door and stated: “Oh, you must be the neighbours!”. To which we politely explained that no, we were colleagues of the retiree and worked at ECMWF. Slightly embarrassed the person who had made the remark let us in. Later on, I sat next to a male colleague. Across the table, another male guest looked at us and congenially said to me: “ You must be the wife”, nodding to the colleague next to me. I politely explained again that no, I was a colleague of the retiree and worked at ECMWF. That was all for that evening. I had other similar episodes during my experience as a woman in science.
An artist rendering shows a laser beam from a spaceborne LIDAR instrument.
a laser beam from a satellite-mounted LIDAR instrument probing the plankton-rich waters of Earth's northern and southern oceans. Credit: Tim Marvel, NASA

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shows a laser beam from a satellite-mounted LIDAR instrument probing the plankton-rich waters of Earth's northern and southern oceans. Credit: Tim Marvel, NASA

Read more at:
shows a laser beam from a satellite-mounted LIDAR instrument probing the plankton-rich waters of Earth's northern and southern oceans. Credit: Tim Marvel, NASA

Read more at:
shows a laser beam from a satellite-mounted LIDAR instrument probing the plankton-rich waters of Earth's northern and southern oceans. Credit: Tim Marvel, NASA

Read more at:
  Credits: Tim Marvel, NASA.
shows a laser beam from a satellite-mounted LIDAR instrument probing the plankton-rich waters of Earth's northern and southern oceans. Credit: Tim Marvel, NASA

Read more at:

Another notable one happened to me at a scientific meeting at which I had been invited as a keynote speaker. After my talk on aerosol lidar assimilation, one male colleague approached me at the coffee break. We started talking about my presentation and he said how much he had enjoyed it, and made several nice remarks. At one point though, he said: “To be honest, I don’t really know anything about lidars other that they work at the frequency of the colour green. Green, like your eyes.” I was speechless. I stopped talking to him and just walked away. I am fine with being ‘chatted up’, that was not the problem, but the fact that it was done in such a casual way right after I had given a keynote scientific talk really baffled me.

From the particular to the archetypal
At this point, you may object that these are just anecdotal and personal experiences which we cannot generalise. Maybe, but as fairy tales were based on stories that were fabricated yet had some cultural references to the time and society that had produced them, so my experience is possibly not isolated.

It would be interesting to collect more that one story and understand how may girls have been told that they could not do something (for example study math) because they were girls and their brain were wired differently; or how many women were not taken seriously because the way they looked (see my blog entry on Beauty and Science); or how many women have been precluded from public offices and high level jobs because they have been told they are too emotional or too hormonal or too old or too young or too aggressive or too weak etc.

Only then, when we have a full picture of the “fairy tale”, we can really change the ending.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

International Women's Day

Poster for Women's Day in 1914. Source: Wikipedia.
Back to the beginnings
On Friday March 8, (some) people around the world will celebrate International Women's Day. This day was originally suggested in 1910 at the International Socialist Woman's Conference as a gathering to be held annually. The picture shows a poster for Frauen Tag in 1914 which demands women's right to vote. The translation from German reads: "Give Us Women's Suffrage. Women's Day, March 8, 1914. Until now, prejudice and reactionary attitudes have denied full civic rights to women, who as, mothers, and citizens wholly fulfil their duty, who must pay their taxes to the state as well as the municipality. Fighting for this natural human right must be the firm, unwavering intention of every woman, every female worker. In this, no pause for rest, no respite is allowed. Come all, you women and girls, to the 9th public women's assembly on Sunday, March 8, 1914, at 3 pm." The day became a national holiday in Soviet Russia after women gained voting rights in 1917. After that year, it was predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries until it was adopted in 1975 by the United Nations.

Lost in translation
Mimosa flowers (Acacia Dealbata. Photo credits:Nursery Live.)
Growing  up in Italy in the 80s, International Women's Day (IWD) for me was the day women received mimosas, the bright beautiful acacia flowers. I was not aware of its political significance, but I liked buying them for my mother or seeing that she was receiving them as a "thank you" for all her  hard work as a mother and full-time teacher. I also simply liked the intoxicating/intense scent. When I smell these flowers, I automatically think of all the great women I encountered in my life and who inspired me  (that will be the subject of another post on "role models").  Later on, in my twenties, when I became aware of the political significance of this day, I started paying more attention to it. Writing this blog, I got the chance to reflect on this feminist celebration which, in some cases, has lost its original significance (i.e. a day for the revendication of the right of women to vote), particularly now that women had obtained the suffrage almost in every country with Saudi Arabia being the last country to allow women to vote in 2015 (well, there is still Vatican City where women cannot vote, but neither can men who are not cardinals).

A new concept for IWD
So, what is the relevance of IWD in today's landscape? I think the answer to this question is as varied as there are people (yes, not only women) in the world. For example, for some women it's the right to drive a car, or to go to school, or to walk alone in the streets if so they choose. For some women, it's the right to have the same opportunities that are given to men in the workplace and to find their voices in the public arena. For some transgender women, it's the right to compete in women's sports or being included in women's electoral lists. For some men, it's the right to adequate parental leave and the notion that they won't miss the train of opportunities if they take that time off to care for their children. For young people, it's the right to study, to find a job when they come out of school and to know that they will be able to have a future on a planet which has been put under dangerous stress by irresponsible choices of its inhabitants. The list can go on and on.
The poster in the picture was photographed by me last weekend in Lisbon, Portugal. Similarly to the poster for women's day in 1914, it calls for a day of action - an international feminist strike - on March 8, to revendicate the rights of working people, students, nurses and consumers. That illustrates perfectly how IWD has started to take a whole new meaning, unifying different causes under the flag of what are considered feminine characteristics: caring for others, caring for the planet, asking for social justice, expressing solidarity. Perhaps this is the best way to celebrate it.
Poster on the streets of Lisbon, photo taken on March 3 2018.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Beauty and Science

What is beauty?

This is the first of a series of blog entries with the following sub-title: "How do I convince my 12-year old daughter that scientists are not all nerds without any sense of fashion (her words, no offence meant)"? Ever since she made that comment, I have been meaning to write on this topic. Here's my first attempt.

Recently I came across a TED talk by Dr Anjan Chatterjee entitled "How your brain decide what is beautiful". Dr Chatterjee makes a convincing case for a Darwinian theory of beauty (which I will refer from now on as canonical beauty) based on three main cardinal points: averaging, symmetry and level of hormones. According to this theory, features that are attractive are those that are most likely sought and passed on from one generation to the next by natural (sexual) selection. Moreover, the human brain has evolved into paying beauty a lot of attention, even at the unconscious level. According to Dr Chatterjee, when a random set of people were shown pictures of different individuals with the aim at recognizing faces, most of the cerebral activity recorded in the study participants was around "beautiful" faces. Moreover, there is often an association of beauty with goodness, a concept already expressed by the Greeks with their "kalos kai agathos" (beautiful and good) concept. I believe this is hardly under dispute. What struck me most though was what he said at the end of the talk: people that considered beautiful get better jobs, are generally paid better (not sure this applies to women across the board), receive less punishment and are considered more capable and worthy than less attractive people.

This may be true in general,  but then I thought about my daughter's comment: in science being beautiful might actually be a disadvantage.  Here's why.

The face of a scientist

Image credits. Creator:Getty Images
Credit:Dave Hogan for One Love Manchester
Copyright:2017 Getty Images
If I showed anybody these two pictures, one of famous scientist Albert Einstein  (left) and the other of likewise famous pop singer Ariana Grande (below), I bet you any money that 99% of the people would say that the older man with messy hair is a scientist  whereas the young girl with long luscious hair is definitely not. My point here is that in our age of images we have come to associate the  face of a scientist with that of a senior man. Far from me to dispute the fact that Einstein may very well have been attractive in his own right and that he himself spent most of his life in pursuit of the beautiful symmetry of the law of physics, but surely his is hardly a face in which a 12-year old girl can recognize herself (unlike Ariana's). Of course, I went to the extreme and used an iconographic scientist and an iconographic pop singer. But the point remains that there is a stereotypical notion embedded in our culture that to be a scientist one should not care about looks and should not be a canonical beauty. The stereotype is so strong that it goes beyond the gender boundaries to the point that even male scientist who are good-looking are met with a lot of suspicion by their peers and by society in general. Basically scientists cannot be beautiful according to Dr Chatterjee's canonical definition, or if they are, they cannot be good at science.

Science: is it a girl thing? 

A few years ago, the European Commission ran a campaign called "Science: it's a girl thing" in an attempt to increase the number of young women in Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The testimonial video featured extremely good-looking  young women in high heels, with heavy make-up and glasses, surrounded by molecules and circuits. The official video was taken down shortly after an out-pour of criticism from the scientific community, outraged at the fact that it misrepresented the profession and reinforced stereotypes about what young women should like or look like (see for example, an interview with astronomer Dr Meghan Gray and an article in the Guardian by professor Curt Rice). 

The irony is that in this example the Beauty Myth is completely reversed but still used against women. Author Naomi Wolf argues that beauty is the "last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact". In the workplace, she writes, women are often valued or judged according to their physical appearance rather than their performance, even in jobs where physical attractiveness is not part of the requisites. In science, the opposite is true. The more beautiful a woman is, the less she is considered capable of being good at science or being even able to perform rational thinking. How many jokes are there about "stupid blondes"?. For sure, everybody would agree that there is no scientific proof of a correlation between a person's intelligence and the colour of their hair. In a way, the EU campaign was trying to challenge that very stereotype, unfortunately playing straight into the hands of the misogynist narrative, so that young girls interested in science might have taken home the message that they had to be as good-looking  and fashionable as the women portrayed in the video (possibly professional actresses and models) to have a chance in a science career, on top of being good at maths and physics. Of course we do not know that as I am not sure the target audience was ever consulted on the matter.

How do we fix this?

There is no easy solution. The first step is to bring awareness regarding the stereotypes that we all carry with us. Being aware of our (unconscious) biases brings us closer to being able to challenge them. The second step is to keep an open mind: you don't know where you are going to find the next Einstein and whether she/he will have moustache and messy hair or a tidy pony-tail and perfect teeth. The third, and most important, step is to get school-age children acquainted with inspirational scientists of all walks of life to show them that the faces of scientists are as varied as the faces of the entire world population.

That, and possibly convince Ariana Grande to give up her career as a pop star, get a degree in one of the STEM disciplines and become a testimonial for the sciences. It is possible that a lot of young people would be  then inspired in considering science as a career option.


Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Why this blog

I have been recently asked by a colleague to talk to a young woman who is deciding whether to choose environmental sciences for her university degree.

This is what he wrote to me:

"Hi Angela

I have a favour to ask!

My God-daughter is interested in pursuing study (and a career) in some aspects of environmental / climate science and has to make some university course decisions later this year.

I am going to bring her to ECMWF on Monday so she can see what we do here, but I would also really like her to meet and have a very quick chat with some inspirational females already working in different aspects of our field (she thinks science is all boys!).

Is there any chance you might be available to spend just 10 minutes with her and explain what you do and the path that led you here ?"

I accepted very gladly. First of all, he had ingratiated me with calling me "inspirational". Second, I thought this was a great opportunity to practice what I had always preached: try to show to the young generations that we are all the same, girls can do science as much as boys (sometimes even better).

I am not sure if my colleague's God-daughter was convinced by my arguments, but it got me thinking that it was time for me to stop musing over this topic on my own or through random emails sent to my colleagues at work with articles and clippings of the life scientific according to a woman scientist, and start talking (or better blogging!) about it.

Topic of the first blog will be: Beauty and Science.