Athene Donald: “Science: it’s a girl thing” is not a cure

The EU scored an own goal a few weeks back when it launched its new website “Science: It’s a Girl Thing,” a site aimed at getting more teenage girls to consider pursuing science as a career. If you look at the site now, it looks innocuous enough, indeed possibly rather interesting and informative, but on the day it was launched it also hosted a so-called “taster video” which set the airwaves alight with horrified comments. The video was pulled within 24 hours due to the vitriol tossed in its direction, but if you really want to see it you can still see it here.

Suffice to say, if you hadn’t known in advance it was intended to make teenage girls take science seriously, you might have been forgiven for thinking it was a rather bad pop video aimed at teenage boys. The three females who “starred” in the film, and wore miniskirts and high heels, were obviously an object of interest (or possibly astonishment) to the only clearly identifiable scientist in the film, a man (needless to say in a white coat) who looked up from the microscope he was peering down apparently in amazement at the sight of this female trio. The girls seemed more interested in their poses and ability to strut than the occasional large “molecule” that wafted passed them or pink balls that fell to the floor. I had little idea what most of the video was meant to convey, but it was wildly inappropriate and deeply disappointing. For further commentary—and a lot was written about it, none that I saw in the least bit complimentary—I’ll refer you to Curt Rice in the Guardian. He was one of the original “gender expert group” charged with providing recommendations for the campaign.

But, as he says

The video was so shocking that the EC had to deny that it was an attempt at irony.

It’s a shame this was such a PR disaster, since there remains a crying need to get more girls into science. Medicine is actually less badly off than disciplines like physics and engineering. In my own field of physics, although the numbers of girls taking A level physics this year has increased by a little bit more than for boys (and the numbers of both are increasing year on year over the past few years), they still represent only about a ¼ of the A level entrants. This is a problem for the medical profession who undoubtedly need well-trained physicists to become the medical physicists, radiographers, and the like of the future, supporting doctors in the hospitals. But for medicine itself, there is now a majority of girls starting on degree courses.

It might be argued, and indeed has been, that this is itself a cause of worry leading to a feminisation of medicine. But, in many parts of the medical workforce—certainly that of academic medicine and also for some specialities such as surgery—there are few women at the very top, despite the numbers starting out. So, I would argue that the challenge for medicine, is not to worry about the sheer numbers of women entering medical school, but to worry what (apparently negative) messages they are receiving about the profession as they progress.

Once the women have started on their training, what is done to support their progression (particularly, but not exclusively, as it may be affected by child-bearing)? Does the profession collectively consider whether adequate mentoring is provided to ensure the best can really fully fulfil their potential, regardless of gender? And can every institution say, hand on heart, there is no unconscious bias lurking in the minds of appointment panels and the like? Medicine is unlikely to be that different from other places of work where the leaky pipeline continues to leak female talent accidentally because it is too easy to lose sight of the big picture.

The actions of Dame Sally Davies in requiring medical schools with biomedical research units/centres to achieve accreditation on these matters through the Athena Swan benchmarking awards before they can be considered for future funding, should make them think very hard about their processes and actions. I know how much effort my own clinical school in Cambridge is putting into addressing the fundamental issues. But there is one thing for sure, videos of young girls strutting their stuff are unlikely to solve any of these problems, but will merely reinforce the message to adolescent girls that looks matter more than brains, instead of conveying that actually doing science is a better way to progress than simply looking pretty.

Athene Donald has been a professor of physics at the University of Cambridge since 1998, having obtained both her first and second degrees there too. She was elected to the Royal Society in 1999. Her research focusses on using the ideas of soft matter physics to study a wide range of systems of both synthetic and biological origin, and for two years she was director of the physics of medicine intiative within the university. Her research has an emphasis on using different types of microscopy, and in particular environmental scanning electron microscopy, but these are by no means the only approaches used. Topics looked at consider protein aggregation at intermediate lengthscales, predominantly using model protein systems including beta lactoglobulin and insulin but extending to A beta; and the physical nature of cell-substrate interactions and how this affects cell mobility. Within the university she is gender equality champion and sits on the University Council. Beyond the university she chairs the Royal Society Education Committee and is a trustee of the Science Museum. She is heavily involved with issues around women in science, including chairing the Athena Forum.