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Editorial - Girls into geoscience

TedNield024.jpgPress officers, an embattled breed among whose ranks I thankfully no longer count myself, are used to peculiar questions – from media and public alike. In my former life, as spokesman for UK universities, one of Her Majesty’s Press, curious about student recruitment by gender (in those days heavily weighted towards males), told me he was “interested in the proportions of University women”. I suggested he not advertise this fact too widely. However, all institutions should ask themselves if are doing enough to attract equally from both sexes.

Ms Dany Cotton, a firefighter since her teens and since January London Fire Brigade’s new Commissioner, is clearly not “a six-foot-two hairy-arsed man”, as she pointed out upon her appointment. At 18, imbued with a hearty loathing for education, she eschewed the universities (which alas, on the day of writing, find themselves embroiled anew in accusations of under-reported sexual harassment in a Guardian investigation) - deciding instead to answer a recruitment ad for firefighters. In 1988 she was one of three women to graduate from training, and only the 30th to join the 6000-strong service. By 2010 she was deputy assistant commissioner. Now, she runs the show.

It is easy to see why older firemen might resent the irruption of women into their ranks because they feel it ‘de-machos’ their role, Cotton says. But in truth, the role itself has already changed. House fires are no longer common. Seventy percent of the job now involves community engagement and fire prevention work, rather than shinning up ladders and breaking down walls.

Much the same can be said of Earth science. The word ‘geologist’ doesn’t have the word ‘man’ in it (‘fireman’ still rankles with Commissioner Cotton), but the long shadow cast by the bare-legged, if not hairy-arsed, heroics of Sir Edward Battersby Bailey and his ilk is still likely to throw a pall over the enthusiasm of young women making their choices in education. Stereotypes, no matter how outmoded, persist long in the memory, perpetuated by the clichés of fiction.

When ‘firefighting’ on behalf of universities was my trade, tackling headlines about harassment (usually, though not exclusively, of females by males) was always the most difficult. But as in all public relations, the secret is coming clean, admitting what must be admitted, and showing you are taking action. The gender balance in university science courses today has improved to 60:40 males to females, but there is a way to go. Are we still too ‘hairy-arsed’?


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