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Tales of a Woman geologist

Current revelations in Britain that sexual harassment permeated the workings of many organisations in the past, will come as little surprise to women 'of a certain age', says Sue Treagus.

kjhThose of us who attended university in the 1960s, and especially those who studied science or medicine, are unlikely to have escaped some awkward moments, or even feeling occasionally threatened or in danger. The dilemma was what to do about it, if anything. It might seem shocking to our sons and daughters, that there was little that could be done without marking oneself as a tell-tale or trouble-maker, putting one's studies or career in danger. Many will not understand why women are coming forward now, and saying they were abused, harassed, forced to accept sexual advances, or much worse, decades ago. Are painful recollections made in the hope of retribution, or valid just as important historical records? I recall a history professor telling me that the trouble with retelling history in TV dramas, is that the lay audience will judge the events from their current lives, and by today's standards. For the younger generation to understand what happened to women 40-50 years ago, we need to go back to what it was like at that time.

I grew up and went to school in Stoke-on-Trent, a traditional British industrial city. What led me to geology at my all-girls grammar school was a remarkable geography teacher, who also taught geology. There my geological interests were ignited, and I ended up in a group of 17 girls taking A-level geology in 1965. This would be unusual enough today, but was more so in the 1960s. Our first challenge was how to do fieldwork - which was on Thursday afternoon trips out, a real highlight in the timetable. The school rule, from our very strict headmistress, was: "No trousers or jeans can be worn with any part of school uniform". Were we to visit Butterton Dyke and climb fences in bottle-green gym slips and tights? Well no: our solution was to change discretely into jeans etc. on the coach, and change back into uniform, before we arrived back at school. This was not the only rule that we flouted.

And so to university. Manchester University was a good place to be in the 1960s. I recall enthusiastic forward-looking professors and lecturers (one of whom I married), and only the occasional sign of what would now be described as sexual harassment - but at the time I saw as pathetic attempts at flattery or seduction by unenlightened men. There was a sizeable intake of women to joint/combined science degrees at Manchester at that time, and I started with combined geography-geology. This I changed to single honours geology after a year, where now there were just two women and 20 men. It was preferable that one became "one of the boys", rather than become a singled-out special case. However, this didn't always work.

There was an optional field trip offered in my first year, down a Lancashire coal mine. Thrilling! Signing up for this created a bit of a problem, however: not only was I the only woman, but no woman had ever been down that mine before. (And women were, apparently, supposed to bring bad luck on a mine – and perhaps I did, as it is surely now closed!) I had to change into the requisite overalls in the mine manager's office, rather than (obviously) with all the men. I did manage to go unnoticed in our group, for a small while, but my small stature - and perhaps other features - eventually gave the game away. But instead of causing ructions, the guide suddenly went chivalrous on me, and insisted I have one of his leather leg protectors. And so, unlike my freer male compatriots, I was lumbered with a massively heavy leather contraption on one leg, making me drag my leg and practically fall over as we walked and crouched through the underground passages. So much for a low profile!

When I moved to Imperial College, London, to take my place on the new M.Sc. course in Structural Geology and Tectonics (1968-9), I found myself even more in a minority. I was the only (and first) female on this course, one of three NERC students who were joined by 8 variably more mature students from around the world, plus a few IC 3rd year undergraduates. We were an eclectic mix in age, experience and nationality (but not in gender). The wonderfully inspiring teaching, and the companionship of my colleagues, were highly enriching. There was only one person whose behaviour would, today, be reported as bullying and harassment. Through vigilance on my part, and perhaps the fatherly/brotherly eye kept on me by the others, I escaped without too much harm. Perhaps the protagonist regarded it as a joke for a large man to corner and grope a small woman; at 21, I saw it as menacing and threatening. I like to think the individual had his come-uppance in his subsequent life!

I returned to Manchester for my Ph.D., and would not wish to embarrass friends and family with any untoward tales! Nor can I, as I cannot recall instances of sexual harassment or sexism that affected me personally. Indeed, I was so keen to avoid any suspicion of nepotism via marriage, that I probably missed an opportunity or two. So, as this is not a life story, I will jump to 1979, when (after a few years at home having two children) I applied for a NERC postdoctoral fellowship – with significant encouragement from staff at Manchester.

Aged 31 by then, I was above the NERC age limit of 28 for applicants at that time. Nevertheless, I reached interview, and duly went down to London. The three eminent geologists on the panel explained that they were obliged first to ask me a question on behalf of NERC, the gist being: would there be any conflicts between doing the research and looking after the children? I said no: but then boldly added (playing devil's advocate) that if there were ever an emergency, a choice between the work and my children, the children would come first – and that I would hope it would be the same for any man! Uncomfortable murmurs followed, the air was cleared, the NERC mandarins at the other end of the table were presumably satisfied, and the real interview commenced. And yes, I did get the fellowship. This anecdote might amuse current applicants, male and female, and those who sit on today's NERC interview panels. What a lot has changed.

During the 1980s, when I might have hoped to find a lectureship within striking distance of Manchester, we had freezes and cutbacks (not unlike today), and any positions were competitively fought for. So I ended up on a different path. Thanks to the invitation in 1981 to become an associate editor of the newly formed Journal of Structural Geology, I slipped into editing work, which led to my taking over as chief editor of JSG in 1985, a position I held for more than 12 years. It was rewarding part-time work that suited family life, allowing me also to undertake personal research, and carve out a separate identity within structural geology from my husband. The downside was that I was in the unusual position of being based at Manchester University with an honorary position, earning modest fees from Pergamon Press, but dependent on JSG expenses for conference attendance. Rather different from the university authors whose work I was editing and publishing.

Science editing was - and is - a field largely unaffected by gender politics, in my experience. And yet it was while doing this work, and at an international conference, where I had a crushing experience - not harassment, but prejudice, and definitely gender-related. Bear with the preamble, to reach the nub.

I had several reasons to seek expenses to attend the IGC in Kyoto in 1992. It was a good opportunity to have a meeting of JSG editors and board from around the world. I had also recently convened an international association of structural/tectonic geologists, and Japanese members wished to hold an inaugural reception. I had also been invited to convene a session – and for this last reason, it seemed inappropriate to expect the journal publisher to fund the whole trip. I turned to the Royal Society, at the time the main funder for attendance of international conferences. To my dismay, and those of my sponsors, I was turned down. Perhaps the RS misunderstood my position, thinking I had other sources of funding. Perhaps my application was poor. However, I did the unspeakable, and challenged the decision, pointing out my position (unsalaried), that I would not be able to convene the session without help, and added that I expected there to be very few women attending this conference. (On that, I was correct.) Surprisingly, not only did the RS revise its decision and fund me, but I was invited to be one of the six official UK delegates to this IGC.

Perhaps a little self-important, this 45-year old was thrilled, and on arrival at Kyoto, sought out the other delegates to find out what we should do. I met up with one delegate, a tall professorial head of department, some years older than me, and clearly experienced on the international conference circuit. He looked down at me in a patronising way, and said: "Don't you worry your head about that, m'dear". I was, at a stroke, put in my place, a little woman whose head clearly couldn't cope with such responsibilities; either that, or the person in question could not countenance anyone other than himself and his male cronies being UK delegates. As I recall it now, I was rendered crushed and speechless - and those who know me recognise how unusual this is! I would like to think there was a moral here, and that another even more powerful man stepped forward and said "hang on, did you really say that?" It does sometimes happen, but not this time. And so Prof Doo-da probably never realised what presumptions he had made on my behalf. But I have not forgotten!

Is there a moral to these reminiscences? Perhaps not, except to say that women working with men, often in a minority, can be put down in a variety of ways. Sexual advances and assaults can now be reported, as they should be. However, more subtle put-downs, from senior men assuming women are unsuitable for certain tasks, or simply men who lack the empathy and imagination to accept women on equal terms, are more difficult to deal with or rectify. We have come a long way in the last 20 years, as demonstrated by the increased numbers of prominent women geologists in industry and academia. I hope these women have not had to bear too much prejudice, harassment or misplaced patronage on the way.

*Susan H Treagus, Manchester