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Drag act

Sarah Day asks - why should a woman be more like a man?

Geoscientist 19.9 September 2009

Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in One man in a million may shout a bit.
Now and then there's one with slight defects;
One, perhaps, whose truthfulness you doubt a bit.
But by and large we are a marvellous sex!

(Alan Jay Lerner)
This year is full of scientific anniversaries. From Darwin to Galileo to Kepler to Walcott, we have spent most of the year celebrating the achievements of some of the great men of science, and rightly so. But 2009 also marks a more recent anniversary – 25 years since the start of the WISE Campaign, to encourage more women into science and engineering fields.

When it comes to women’s rights, science has had a rather less illustrious history. Just 107 years ago, for example, Hertha Ayrton, the Cambridge mathematician, was refused fellowship of the Royal Society since, as a married woman, she was not legally a ‘person’. Things are very different now, but the fact that organisations like WISE still exist suggests there is more work to be done. Currently the Royal Society’s female fellowship stands at just 5%.

As an optimistic person, this doesn’t worry me as much as it will others. Things are changing rapidly, and as fellowship of the Royal tends to be a late career development, it’s not surprising that its gender profile reflects the past. What I do find depressing is the popularity - among men and women alike - of the “Professor Higgins” approach: that to achieve equality women should “act more like men”. It crops up in the business world too. Scientific studies have been carried out to find out what the benefits are for women of “behaving more like men” (whatever this means) in the workplace. The ever-flattering Daily Mail recently announced that by adopting a ‘masculine approach’, women could earn £40,000 a year more than ‘nicer’ female colleagues.

Of course, women can sometimes be aggressive and men can sometimes be softies. But can “equality” really be achieved by this sort of perverse drag-act? The solution surely lies in our attitudes to the subject, not to ourselves. Men have historically been more successful in areas like science and business, because it was largely men who invented them. The founding of our own Society, by 13 guys in a pub, is characteristic of the origins of science as we know it today, with learned societies and institutions having their roots in a world that didn’t even allow women to own property, let alone carry out research.

In the UK at least, that worldview is gone and our view of science should go with it. Like men and women, science can be many things. It can be logical, methodical, repetitive, boring. It can also be creative, inspiring, spontaneous, emotionally engaging. But for some reason, particularly at school, it is still regarded as a pretty one-dimensional affair. All the creativity, the passion, the excitement, is veiled in stereotypes.

Change this, and there would be no need for fruitless arguments about what attributes and qualities are typical of men and women. It might not mean the gender profile of Royal Society fellows will one day be an exact 50:50 split, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that in the future there should be no need for organisations like WISE, worthwhile as they are.

Here’s hoping they don’t need to reach their 50th.