I had to wait until fourth form for my first lesson about feminism. I went to an all-boys school in provincial New Zealand, where classes on contemporary political issues were few and far between. So I sat up straight when my maths teacher told us that feminists believed that “All men are rapists.” For his fourteen-year old audience, he felt the need to clarify “What they mean is that all men are capable of rape.” But he had thought long and hard about this: “Remember boys, if you ever meet a feminist, just tell her that all women are prostitutes.”
What a dick.
Today I work in physics at the University of Auckland, where it is my turn to teach the next generation of young scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs. As a country, it is universally acknowledged that we have a shortage of skilled people in these areas. When I look out at the faces that fill my lecture theatre, one of the sources of this shortage is clear: there are far too few young women who are prepared to consider careers in science and engineering (there is some data on this here at Wiki New Zealand).
This is despite the fact that are some fantastic role models out there. The last three winners of New Zealand’s highest award in science, the Rutherford Medal, have all been women. And in the last few years, women have also taken the lead in science communication. Award-winning microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles was one of the few scientists prepared to step up during Fonterra’s darkest hour and explain the science behind the 2013 botulism scare to a concerned public.
I am very proud to call some of these women my colleagues. Dr Michelle Dickinson, a nanotechnologist at the University of Auckland and the MacDiarmid Institute, is one of New Zealand’s leading science communicators. She tweets, blogs and appears regularly on TV to make science accessible to a broad range of people. So when I see things like this,
it makes me angry and ashamed.
In case you think this is not misogyny, I, like Michelle, am an active science communicator and I have never been subject to this sort of condescending hostility. And in case you think this is a one-off occurrence, female academics who actively communicate seem to be on the receiving end of this sort of thing all the time. That the ability of a female scientist should be questioned by a male colleague in this way is appalling. That this man, like my fourth form maths teacher, seems to suffer no fear of the consequences of such unprofessional behaviour is chilling.
So whatever your take on David Cunliffe’s apology last week for being “a man”, you should be sorry that women who work hard at science communication are singled out for harassment by men who think they are perfectly entitled to do so. You should be sorry that men succeed in science when women with at least as much to contribute do not. You should be sorry that science, like the society in which we live, is sexist.