Equality in science: why we all need to stand together

by Richard Hornby

Today is Ada Lovelace Day – “an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths” (1).  It should be a celebration, where people all across the globe take time to look at the work done by others – and to a certain extent, it achieves that: it stimulates thought and discussion. and enables people to think about the contribution made by a large part of our society, which is extremely underrepresented in their discipline.

Therein lies the problem with Ada Lovelace Day, and other such celebrations.  The fact that we need them at all.  Don’t get me wrong: right now, with society such as it is, “minority” groups (and I will explain my use of quotation marks in a moment) need every single piece of support they can get.

In the last couple of weeks, I have read two stories which highlights the issue of the under-representation of women in science.  The first is a letter by Jared Mauldin (), a Senior in Mechanical Engineering at Eastern Washington University:

To the women in my engineering classes:

While it is my intention in every other interaction I share with you to treat you as my peer, let me deviate from that to say that you and I are in fact unequal.

Sure, we are in the same school program, and you are quite possibly getting the same GPA as I, but does that make us equal?

I did not, for example, grow up in a world that discouraged me from focusing on hard science.  Nor did I live in a society that told me not to get dirty, or said I was bossy for exhibiting leadership skills.  In grade school I never had to fear being rejected by my peers because of my interests.  I was not bombarded by images and slogans telling me that my true worth was in how I look, and that I should abstain from certain activities because I might be thought too masculine.  I was not overlooked by teachers who assumed that the reason I did not understand a tough math or science concept was, after all, because of my gender.  I have had no difficulty whatsoever with a boys club mentality, and I will not face added scrutiny or remarks of my being the “diversity hire.”  When I experience success the assumption of others will be that I earned it.

So, you and I cannot be equal. You have already conquered far more to be in this field than I will ever face.

Mr Mauldin raises a very important issue which society needs to tackle: that of sexism.  Sexism, intertwined with stereotyping, is often seen as a “taboo” subject within public facing fields.  It is all to often the case that famous people and organisations will “keep their head down” when issues regarding inequality come up – lest they be judged by others one way or the other (or probably both), or perhaps because they don’t see it as “within their remit”.  Now, I’m not famous.  Nor am I speaking on behalf of any other organisation. But I am going to stand up and say that we need to take action.  Sexism, alongside all of the other “isms” of modern society is “within our remit” to discuss.  We are very fortunate to live on a planet, and be part of a species with so much character and variety.   We as humans are independent, free thinking, creative, and amazing.  That’s all of us. Not just the fraction of population that we each belong to, nor the fraction of population which dominates our particular society or profession, but each and every one of us.

As it has been pointed out to me many times, my chosen pursuit, science, is very much dominated by the fraction of population of which I am a part: white, relatively middle-class, male.  This means that it’s very difficult for me and others like me to understand what it’s like to be female, because I have never experienced it.  Yes, there was a time in my life where I was bullied for who I was, but fortunately, that has now passed.  I don’t have to live with the “constant sexism, belittling, socially conditioned self doubt and worry about not ‘showing women to be competent'” (3).  It is the same how white people fail sometimes to understand the impact that racism can have on a person: we simply have not lived through it.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we can just carry on as if it doesn’t exist.  We need to take positive action. It is vital that, for a society to be successful, that all its members should be on an equal and equitable footing, and the fact that prominent members of it, whichever field that are involved with, are using their position to affect and intimidate others without consent is wrong, and our society needs to openly have a zero tolerance approach on this matter.  We need to make sure that everyone in society is doing things for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.  Organisations (and society as a whole) need to have solid anti-harassment practices – which don’t just protect the vulnerable, but also enable those who have done wrong in the past to properly acknowledge their mistakes, and improve themselves, so that they learn and become better human beings because of it.  We also need to make sure that people are aware of these issues: not to personally attack people who have done wrong, but so that we all can become more understanding and tolerant of each other: if we can identify potential problems before they occur, it is so much easier to develop a society which is understanding, fair and equal to all.

Finally, you may be wondering why I put minority in quotation marks earlier.  Women make up 50% of the world population, so I’m not sure that it’s fair to call them a minority.  Society and stereotype have made them such in many professions and it’s up to us – the 21st century society – to challenge those previous discriminatory practices and stereotypes – and to stand up and advocate for a world that this free of bias and discrimination, where people are treated on merit alone, and where everyone, no matter what adjectives can be used to describe them can confidently stand up and say “hey, I’m me”, free from risk or fear of oppression of any kind.

I hope that, in whatever way you can, be that advocacy, increasing awareness, or simply listening, you can join me on this journey to a better, fairer humanity.


(2) http://easterneronline.com/36007/letters-to-the-editor/letter-to-the-editor-stem/

(3) a female friend

(4) http://www.buzzfeed.com/azeenghorayshi/famous-astronomer-allegedly-sexually-harassed-students