Our dirty laundry is out there and we need to deal with it

by Nicola Temple | November 16, 2016

A series of events has led to this blog post, but let me start with the straw that broke the camel’s back. Two nights ago I was out running with my friend Louise. It was dark. We were running along a broad stretch of pavement – broad in the sense that it could easily accommodate four to five adults walking side by side. This is admittedly rare in Bristol. I could see two men – I would guess late teens – walking toward us. Louise and I moved to one side, as you do. One of the men moved to the opposite side, as you would expect. His friend, however, made eye contact with me and made a clear effort to walk directly at me. I engaged him in eye contact, no doubt with an incredulous look on my face. I prepared to tuck in behind Louise if I had to (not because I planned on using her as a shield, but because she’s just faster than me and I’m generally half a step behind), but everything in my body was screaming ‘hold your ground girl’. I did. He passed me by on my right shoulder and as he did so he screamed ‘Bang!’ right into my ear. Then, as we continued on our run he yelled something incomprehensible followed by ‘Nice ass!’. We ran on.

I stewed as we ran. I stewed because of what he had done. I stewed because I was unsure how to engage him in that moment, or whether it was even wise to do so. But mostly I stewed because I knew that my inaction meant he got away with really inappropriate behaviour. (That’s the mother in me talking now.)

So, this was the straw, but this has been building. Working backwards, the events are as follows: the election of a person completely unqualified for a rather important job over a woman who (whether you like her or not) is supremely qualified for the position; reading a scientific paper that was blinded in its interpretations by blatant sexism; Brexit; and finally, being labelled a ‘woman in science’. So, let me expand on these briefly.

Trump v Clinton

I find it interesting that it is usually Trump v Hillary. Is this because the media want to avoid using the idiotic ‘The Donald’ or is it to differentiate Hillary from Bill? Or is it a subtle and yet sexist difference to use the surname of one and the first name of the other? I don’t really know and I don’t want to spend much time thinking about it, it’s just an observation. I am not a US citizen, but many of us non-Americans were fully aware that the election results would affect us all. So we watched and then there it was. And in some bizarre way, it was a relief. We no longer have to pretend that there is equality of the sexes or that bigotry doesn’t exist. It’s there. It is the President Elect.

Sexist science

The paper I read recently (written in this century I might add) discussed the evolution of the human hand. Compared with our fellow primates with opposable thumbs, our thumbs are relatively long and our fingers are straight. This gives us a range of hand movements that is unequalled by any other animal. Without going into too much detail, the authors credited some successful spear-throwing and club-wielding males in our ancestral lineage. The males who could grip a spear or a club to acquire more resources (presumably by either spearing the resources or beating competitors on the head) would be more likely to attract a female. Over generations, those with better grips would have more children and eventually the relative length of the thumb would increase. By this theory, one might expect to see hands listed among the traits that differ between the sexes. In other words, as well as differences in body size and different genitals, women’s hands might look a little more chimp-like. Imagine all the rings we could fit on those long fingers?!

I realise the genetics of this is far more complicated than I am writing about here. However, the paper fundamentally ignores how women’s hand movements also would have contributed to this evolution. There is one sentence that admits that females may have also used clubs to protect their children, but that is the extent of it. The author has missed 50% of the story, making the interpretation very limited.

Brexit

For me, this was the first real awareness of how widespread bigotry was. It was an eye opener.

I am a woman in science, but when will I ever just be a scientist?

Well, technically I’m now a woman who writes about science, but ignoring that…. Several months ago I had a disagreement with a male colleague and in the midst of the conversation he said to me (and I paraphrase) ‘I have always been supportive of your work. I do what I can to support women in science’. I found the comment patronising. Firstly, I am mid-career and I am hopefully where I am as a result of my qualifications and experiences rather than my gender. Secondly, women don’t need some sort of special assistance hand-holding to help them rise through the echelons of scientific careers – they just need to have the archaic barriers moved out of their way! We need good scientists, their gender is irrelevant.

I don’t want to let them get away with it again

So these events have culminated in a mixture of emotions for me. On the surface they might seem unrelated, but all of them have taken me outside of my circle of like-minded thoughtful friends into an intolerant world that, quite frankly, scares me at times and angers me in others. But I refuse to run meekly into the night and there is enough anger in the world already. So these are the promises I have made to myself.

I will not let people think verbal assaults are acceptable. If I could replay the other night, I would stop and calmly say something to that teenager. I don’t want to be confrontational, but I also don’t want to be passive. He needs to know he can’t get away with that behaviour. The next person he does that to might not be with a friend, she might be on a darker street, she might not be feeling confident in herself…who knows, she might have a knife.

I will call out those who describe me professionally by my gender rather than my skill. Self-explanatory really.

I will endeavour to learn as many stories as possible. I recently listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speak about the danger of a single story on a TED video. I can’t recommend it enough. While I have friends with slightly different political, religious and social viewpoints, they are united in that they are all accepting (perhaps even advocates) of diversity. So, I was admittedly blindsided by both Brexit and Trump’s win, but most importantly by the acts of intolerance that followed these events. I think we have been sold a single story about the type of people who support Trump and the people who supported Brexit and I need to expand this viewpoint to understand this political world better.

It’s not a definitive list, but it’s a start.

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