Tag Archive: feminism

Jun 05 2017

Book review: Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky

women_in_scienceWomen in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky is a whistle-stop tour of 50 women in science mainly from the mid-19th century onwards. Each woman gets a double page spread, with a few paragraphs of text on one page and a cartoon drawing of them and some catchphrases on the other. As well as this there is a centrefold of lab equipment, a timeline and some very brief descriptions of 14 further women in science at the end. You can see more on the authors website, here.

Also included are some statistics on women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), I suspect the figures relate to the US but the picture would not be dramatically different in the UK. On the plus side the proportion of women in STEM has increased from 14% in 1970 to 41% in 2011 and it has been rising steadily. The proportion of engineers who are women rose from 3% in 1970 but has been on a plateau at 13% since 1990. In computer work the proportion of women peaked in 1990 and has been dropping since then, it now stands at 27%.

Why is this important? Historically women have been treated as second class citizens. It wasn’t that they tried to do the things that men did traditionally, and failed. They were very actively prevented from studying in their chosen fields. They weren’t allowed into science labs or science lectures. And if by some chance they did manage to train themselves, there were no jobs or facilities for them to continue their work because they were women. This is the legacy we are trying to overcome.

It isn’t a matter of deep history, women alive today will have been refused access to degree courses in their chosen subjects. Cambridge University, for example, only awarded the first full degree to a woman in 1946, which is the year my mother was born. The parents of men alive today would have kept those systems in place. Women only got the vote in the UK during the lifetime of my grandparents. After I was born my mother was denied an application form for an administrative job at a local garage because the owner felt that her place was at home with her young children. Since the 1970s the spirit of the welfare system in the UK has changed to one in which it is seen as best for both parents to work. And yet historically women have been denied access to many careers. This leaves a legacy because people tend to recruit other people like themselves. The aspirations of children and young people are shaped by the roles they see people like them undertaking.

This book provides a set of role models that show that women can be successful in science. 

The 50 chosen women are from a range of sources, many of them are from the rather sparse roll-call of female Nobel Prize winners. Some of the names I recognised: Marie Curie, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, Jane Goodall, Ada Lovelace, Katherine Johnson (through my very recent reading), Dorothy Hodgkin, Rachel Carson, Lise Meitner. Others I had never heard of, like Lillian Gilbreth who worked on psychology and industrial design. Or Patricia Bath, who founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. 

I’ve looked through the book with my son (aged 5), he seemed to like it – although his main questions on each page were “Where was she born?” and “Where did she go?”. Then again in a book on the history of art his questions were “Where’s Jesus?” and “Why are those people naked?”. I suspect it is better suited to children a little older than him.

Currently my son is binge watching “Horrible Histories”, a programme for children about history. It is a string of vignettes from history acted as adverts, as music videos, game shows or just plain acted. It is lively and educational. It strikes me that Women in Science would provide an excellent source for a sister programme.     

I don’t think I am the intended audience for this book but it did remind me to put some more biographies of women in science on my reading list. I’m pleased to see there is a biography of Maria Sibylla Merian, 17th century illustrator and entomologist. Ada Lovelace and Mary Anning are also on my list. 

Mar 07 2017

Women Writers

Over the past year or so I’ve been making an effort to read more books authored by people who aren’t white men. I suppose the trigger for this was my post on feminism in which I realised that women live quite different lives from me. I thought it would be interesting to find out more, and since I read a lot this seems a natural place to start.

My reading divides into three broad categories:

  • Fiction, quite often science fiction – I don’t tend to blog about this;
  • Technical books in the area of programming and machine learning;
  • Other non-fiction – mainly the history of science or industrial history;

These categories differ in the way that I select books to read and my reason for reading them. Fiction I tend to read in bed shortly before I go to sleep, whilst non-fiction I read earlier in the day (when I can take notes). Fiction I read entirely for entertainment whereas non-fiction I enjoy but I’m normally reading for some purpose.

Non-fiction I select from my interests, and recommendations on twitter. For example, I’m interested in James Clark Maxwell and the number of book-length biographies of Maxwell is approximately 2. Fiction I’ve tended to select from prize winning, recommendations by Amazon or similar or from habit.

It turns out switching to reading more women authors of fiction was pretty straightforward. Of the fiction I’ve read over the last couple of years, about 60% was written by women and 70% was written by women or men who were not white Westerners (I read the Cixin Liu trilogy and a couple of books by Ramez Naam, whose is Egyptian by birth).

Are these books by women different from those written by male authors? One obvious difference is the main protagonist is more often female, and themes around sexual ambiguity are more common. It feels like there is a bit more inner emotional life to characters, and their interactions with others. This is all subjective since I didn’t make these readings blind. Books like “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula le Guin and The Imperial Radche trilogy by Ann Leckie are amongst the best fiction I’ve read. 

In the past I would likely picked books by male authors because that is the sort of book I felt would interest me, I associated women authors with girly things in which a boy should not be involved. There’s a huge range of science fiction written by women so it was easy to change my habits.

Outside of fiction I have had more trouble. On the non-fiction side the fraction of women authors in the books I read is about 14%. This is a little odd since I can easily list several very good women authors in the area in which I read – Lisa Jardine, Andreas Wulf, Jenny Uglow, and Georgina Ferry. It seems likely this low proportion is in part driven by a lower proportion of books written by women in the areas in which I am interested. The proportion of women winners and short-listed authors in the Royal Society Science Book prize, going back to 1988, is about 8% (see the spreadsheet here). I struggle to discern a difference between these books, predominately on the history of science, written by men and women. More generally it seems like the role of women in the development of science is more widely recognised and written about than it was perhaps 30 years ago. Looking back at the authors I have enjoyed I see they have written other books that interest me, and the Royal Society Science Book list looks like a good source for more.

In technical books the proportion of women authors I have read is even lower, at 6%. This corresponds to one author so its something of an uncertain figure: that’s to say chance could have easily given me no female authors or twice the number. This seems to be approximately reflective of the proportion of technical books with women authors. Of the O’Reilly books in their “Python” section 6 of 46 authors were women (corresponding to 13%), for Manning 3 of 70 authors in their Software Engineering section are women (corresponding to 4.5%). It also seems to be roughly in line with the proportion of women contributors to Open Source projects on GitHub (at about 6%).

In my non-fiction and technical reading I felt I had no prior bias as to gender of the author, I selected based on my interests (primarily the history of science) or what I felt I needed to learn from the point of view of professional development. As a result I read a low proportional of women authors in these areas largely because there are a lower proportion of books authored by women.

You can see all the books I have read on my Goodreads profile, although the dates and sequences of reading go to pot in mid-2015.