The women whom science forgot

On 19th June Jawad Iqbal published this article on the BBC Science and Environment page –  The Women whom science forgot

‘A quick web search for the world’s most famous scientists lists, among others, Galileo, Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Stephen Hawking and Alexander Fleming.  One of the few women to receive a mention is Marie Curie, a physicist and chemist who basically discovered radiation and helped apply it in the field of X-rays.

The Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt was heavily criticised for his disparaging remarks about women in science last week, which for some raised the issue of where women stood in the scientific community. But many female scientists in the past were not given the credit they deserved for their achievements. As a result, their names have all but disappeared from public consciousness ……..’

sther Lederberg  - an American microbiologist

Esther Lederberg – an American microbiologist









The list includes:

  • Esther Lederberg – a microbilogist who undertook groundbreaking research in genetics
  • Rosalind Franklin – a biophysicist who pioneered X-0ray crystallography
  • Ida Tacke – conducted groundbreaking research in chemistry and atomic physics
  • Lise Meitner – her research led to the discovery of nuclear fission
Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin













Jawad Iqbal notes that ‘the Royal Society, swift in its condemnation of Sir Tim’s remarks, was founded in 1660 and has yet to elect a female president.  Some say that the comments from Sir Tim, a prominent fellow of the society will damage the efforts it is making to improve diversity.  It has been reported that only 6% of its fellows (a prestigious title in the world of science) are women.  That statistic, some say, sums up the scale of the wider problem of the difficulties faced by women in the scientific world’

What do you think?  Have any female scientists in your field of research disappeared from public consciousness?

Brick Walls: Diary of a SAGES Athena SWAN Lead by Hilary Geoghegan

Wednesday 10th June
I receive a forwarded email from a SAGES colleague with a link to a Guardian article “Nobel scientist, Tim Hunt: female scientists cause trouble for men in labs”. It was accompanied by the message ‘sigh!’









Thursday 11th June


Friday 12th June
I spot our technical manager coming down the corridor – I say something like: ‘what are you going to do about all this falling in love in the labs? It must be a health and safety nightmare’. We laugh. We bump into one of our scientists, I say, we’re talking about the idea that people fall in love in labs and women cry. We discuss the move on Twitter to highlight the issue #distractinglysexy. The scientist tells me that she and one of our students have already taken some photos to draw attention to the issue. A few hours later, we put out a blogpost containing photos of our scientists responding to the global trend of raising the profile of women in science:

No falling in love in the lab!

No falling in love in the lab!













Saturday 13th June
Barbecue with friends. The conversation moves to the latest news in science – the remarks from a world-respected scientist: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry”. It’s a comment that clearly divides opinion. On the one hand, these are comments made by an individual based upon personal experience. On the other hand, taken out of context, they add to the list of remarks that damage the reputation of women scientists. Because this comment suggests that women are the agents of trouble here. Our conversation continued with a discussion about how we work in close proximity with others, not just in labs, but office spaces, and attachments are bound to form on occasion. This story is clearly not just a topic for discussion within science.


Sunday 14th June


Monday 15th June
I attended the ‘Student Wellbeing in Tertiary Education’ policy in practice workshop led by members of the School of Politics, Economics and International Relations. The event showcased the results of The Student Wellbeing Project set up in 2011 to “study how student wellbeing, performance, productivity and satisfaction with university provision are related”. Sarah Morgan from the Cabinet Office argued that whilst the number of women going to university had increased, a pronounced gender difference remained around subject choice. She also noted that there remained clear gender differentials with respect to a widening pay gap and lifetime earnings. The male graduate premium is approx. £121k and the female graduate premium is approx. £80k. Career breaks, discrimination and other unexplained elements were offered as reasons. Sarah went on to argue that we need to value women and the roles they do. There needs to be unconscious bias training. Institutions (and society) need to support women into non-traditional areas, offering imaginative solutions, as well as addressing formal inequalities. A linear career progression isn’t feasible for all in 2015. These are the sorts of issues that the Athena SWAN awards seek to address.






Tuesday 16th June
Flexible working from home.


Wednesday 17th June
Results day for our finalists in Geography and Environmental Science. I turn up to work. I chat with my colleagues in the GES office as I usually do. We are laughing. I get a tap on the shoulder. Could I come to see a student who is upset? I do so immediately. I’ve never met this student before. The student confides in me. I do my best to help and reassure.

This moment puts the events of the past week in sharp relief.

Last Wednesday there was a ‘facepalm’ from colleagues as we read the comments about women scientists. Some of my colleagues responded in a light-hearted way to a difficult and serious topic, joining a community of scientists from around the world (regardless of scientific discipline) to draw attention to the place of women in science. I attended a talk about student wellbeing with comments from a government official that reinforced to me that we aren’t as far ahead on these issues as perhaps many of us assume we are. And then after a day of writing at home with these things running through my mind – I turn up to work and meet an early-career scientist who is carrying the weight of many of these issues. We’ve made a great start in SAGES, but we can and we must do more and better on this issue. This will benefit staff and students.


Thursday 18th June
I receive an email from my Head of School – “Have you seen the brilliant Twitter feed from women scientists across the world responding to Tim Hunt? Some archaeologists and geologists among them. Should we share this with colleagues?” This brings a smile to my face – this social media story has piqued the interest of our gender and archaeology professor. Brilliant. I reply almost immediately, sharing the blogpost from last Friday with our #distractinglysexy scientists. Our Head of School sends out a School-wide email asking colleagues to check out Twitter and check out our blog. Chances are that because it has come from our Head of School, the hits on our blog are going through the roof. They did – 146 views before 2pm!

Environmental Management students falling in love AND working

Environmental Management students falling in love AND working










A short while later, it turns out that the blogpost has divided opinion within the School on how or even whether we should respond publicly to these pressing issues. Two colleagues reply commenting that whilst they have a good sense of humour, this blogpost might be a step too far and regarded as unprofessional. They call for the blogpost to be removed. I thought this might happen. I blog about academic life on my own site and I know the mixed reactions that something like this can lead to. However, the overwhelming response to the blogpost (that has remained on our site) was positive. It was positive for a number of reasons: i) it got people talking. Talking to each other and talking about these issues. Colleagues emailed and turned up in person to support our Head of School’s decision to retain the blogpost; ii) the scientists who participated were connected to something bigger than our SAGES community, standing in solidarity for the important issue of women in science; iii) our blog attracted a new audience. An audience that have on occasion relayed to me – stop blogging and write papers; and iv) it revealed to many the work we are doing and must continue to do within SAGES to facilitate an open discussion on equality, diversity and wellbeing.


Friday 19th June
My focus in this blogpost on my everyday experience this week reminds me of the work by feminist and queer theorist Professor Sara Ahmed, who describes how equality and diversity work is about coming up against brick walls. We need to come up against these walls in order to bring the issues to life and transform our workplace. In Ahmed’s research, some participants described equality and diversity work ‘as banging your head against a brick wall’. As Athena SWAN lead for our School, this certainly rings a bell. Yet, without coming up against these brick walls and creating a space to discuss and breakdown these walls, our School and Departments will never be the equal places we aspire to.


After Tim Hunt What Next?

On her blog Athene Donald (Professor of Experimental Physics and Gender Equality Champion at the University of Cambridge) makes some suggestions about what we can all do as a result of the news stories surrounding Tim Hunt’s comments:

■Call out bad behaviour whenever and wherever you see it – in committees or in the street. Don’t leave women to be victimised;
■Encourage women to dare, to take risks;
■Act as a sponsor or mentor (if you are just setting out there will still always be people younger than you, including school children, for whom you can act);
■Don’t let team members get away with demeaning behaviour, objectifying women or acting to exclude anyone;
■Refuse to serve on single sex panels or at conferences without an appropriate level of female invited speakers;
■Consider the imagery in your department and ensure it represents a diverse group of individuals;
■Consider the daily working environment to see if anything inappropriate is lurking. If so, do something about it.
■Demand/require mandatory unconscious bias training, in particular for appointment and promotion panels; Unconscious bias training is taking place for 20 SAGES staff this month!
■Don’t let the bold (male or female) monopolise the conversation in the classroom or the apparatus in the laboratory, at the expense of the timid (female or male);
■Nominate women for prizes, fellowships etc;
■Tap women on the shoulder to encourage them to apply for opportunities they otherwise would be unaware of or feel they were not qualified for;
■Move the dialogue on from part-time working equates to ‘isn’t serious’ to part-time working means balancing different demands;
■Recognize the importance of family (and even love) for men and women;
■Be prepared to be a visible role model;
■Gather evidence, data and anecdote, to provide ammunition for management to change;
■Listen and act if a woman starts hinting there are problems, don’t be dismissive because it makes you uncomfortable;
■Think broadly when asked to make suggestions of names for any position or role.








What will you do? What can we all do………..?

Sir Tim Hunt resigns from university role over girls comment

Tim Hunt has resigned from his position as Honorary Professor with the Faculty of Life Sciences at UCL.

‘He told the BBC he “did mean” the remarks but was “really sorry”. See the full story here –

Tim Hunt







‘A statement from the university read: “UCL can confirm that Sir Tim Hunt FRS has resigned from his position as honorary professor with the UCL faculty of life sciences following comments he made about women in science at the World Conference of Science Journalists on 9 June. UCL was the first university in England to admit women students on equal terms to men, and the university believes that this outcome is compatible with our commitment to gender equality.”

Nobel scientist Tim Hunt: female scientists cause trouble for men in labs

Tim Hunt, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Medicine has addressed the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea to argue that men and women should not work together in science labs.  He argued that gender-segregated labs are essential. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

See more about this news story in the Guardian -”Hunt’s words have also been roundly criticised by female scientists on Twitter. One woman, a postdoctoral researcher, tweeted: “For every Tim Hunt remark, there’s an extra woman in science that takes an interest in feminism. Ever wonder why there are so many of us?”










What do you think about these comments?