Looking sideways in science to find the women

Reflections on the WISRNet Workshop on July 16 2013 by Patricia Fara

Dr Patricia FaraWhen I was a PhD student, one of the most useful pieces of advice I received was: ‘Talk to archivists and librarians. They’re the experts on their collections, and they’re the people who can direct you to the gold dust you’re looking for – the long-forgotten documents waiting to be discovered, the surviving records that will bring the past to life and shed new light on old problems.’ And judging from this workshop, the converse must also be true – librarians are longing to meet researchers who will share their enthusiasm for the old documents under their care.

Mary Anning portrait (Natural History Museum)

Mary Anning portrait (Natural History Museum)

This workshop worked because it had a narrow focus – women involved in science during the last couple of hundred years. Just as importantly, the participants interpreted their brief broadly in order to raise more general questions. Using modern definitions, there simply weren’t any female scientists in the early nineteenth century: women couldn’t go to university, they couldn’t work in public laboratories, and they couldn’t join scientific societies. There were, however, many women who contributed to science.  For instance, Mary Anning discovered fossils that revolutionised geology. She was neither a professional palaeontologist nor merely an ignorant collector who knew how to strike a lucrative bargain – so how should we define her role? Many women illustrated and edited books that gave their menfolk international reputations – surely they should be included within the scientific pantheon? Should the definition of science be restricted to discovery and invention – or should it also include the translators, teachers and curators who ensured that knowledge was communicated effectively?

Glass ceilings and leaky pipelines….

Once into the twentieth century, different questions arose, ones more concerned with glass ceilings and leaky pipelines. Since we were meeting at the Royal Society, it seemed natural to discuss whether there should be more female fellows:  but would that ultimately act against women’s interests by entailing positive discrimination? In the past, some fields – plant genetics, X-ray crystallography – had relatively high levels of women: but was that because their male bosses were supportive or just quick to spot cheap workers? Rather than squeezing women into masculine models of work, might it be possible to redesign scientific employment so that all parents are fully engaged in family life?

Those big questions remained unanswered, but I went back to Cambridge with a list of new avenues to explore and unfamiliar archives to visit. A week later, I was invited to a marvellous primary school in Tower Hamlets, where I awarded a prize to the pupil whose second language – English – had improved the most (aged 11, she had reached the national standard of a 14 year old).  Afterwards, I visited the London Metropolitan Archive (LMA), which I had learnt about at the workshop from Howard Benge. He showed me photographs of female carpenters standing at factory benches assembling the wooden wings of aeroplanes during World War One.

At this point, the WISRNet network extended itself in unanticipated directions. By the time I left, I had put Howard in touch with the head of the primary school, so that the children can visit the Education Centre at the LMA to look at photos of Tower Bridge being built and hone their engineering skills with paper and drinking straws. Perhaps in 30 or 40 years time, as a spin-off from our workshop, one of the little girls from that school will be a fellow of the Royal Society.

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