Oral History Workshop

Women and Science in the 20th Century:


Report on a Workshop held in April 2014 at Kingston University London,

The use of oral history in the study and recording of the experiences of women scientists was the subject of the second WISRNet workshop, held at Kingston University on 4 April 2014. It was attended by 20 delegates who represented practitioners and users of oral history and also by two scientists who had participated in an oral history project. The objective was to have an open discussion about the place of oral history in revealing women’s participation in science in the second half of the 20th century and beyond. The day was organised around a series of talks from both practitioners in and users of oral history with lots of time given over to discussion.

Oral history offers a voice to members of society whose story often goes untold…

… in science and engineering this voice is often that of women. It allows women to tell their own stories in their own words, but also enables historians to discuss the story with the protagonist, impossible with a paper archive. But oral history also has its critics – accused of not being objective, of being hampered by poor recall or by biased or selective interpretation of events.

As we listened to the talks centred on just how useful oral history can be in finding, revealing and (most importantly) recording the untold stories of modern female scientists, participants were asked to consider the following questions:

  • How useful is Oral History at uncovering women’s scientific lives?
  • How can the usual criticisms of oral history be overcome?
  • How useful are large ‘archival’ projects such as BL’s Oral History of British Science or on a smaller scale NHM’s Museum Lives compared with eg projects designed for a specific research purpose??
  • How is oral history integrated into other forms of research
  • Should we construct an oral history project for a ‘women in science’ project or would it be better to construct a list of existing projects which could contribute to such a study?

The day started with a talk from Paul Merchant of the British Library’s Oral History of British Science project, on ‘Being Female in the Earth Sciences’. Immediately, the problem of women scientists and their invisibility was made apparent when Paul revealed that of 47 interviews conducted in this strand only seven have been with female scientists. He described the difficulty in identifying and tracing potential interviewees: women with promising careers in the early 1950s for instance, left science on marriage, and despite having made significant contributions up to that time were very hard to find subsequently. Women such as Mary Almond, who made a significant contribution to the development of the field of plate tectonics, but who subsequent to her marriage left research, eventually returning to work as a lecturer in science and maths. Sue Vine, a geologist who worked alongside her more famous husband Fred, demonstrates another obstacle to revealing women in science: women’s apparent tendency to occupy the background. In her interview she recalled how the women in the lab were less likely to push themselves forward than their male colleagues, who were much more aggressive in self-promotion. This reluctance seemed to be a recurring theme: that women in the labs wanted to blend in, and considered themselves ‘ordinary’; although at home, Paul mused, they appeared to regard themselves quite differently, as being unusual, ‘not normal’, and found socializing with female friends difficult. Paul’s discussion of the difficulty in persuading women scientists to talk about themselves and their experiences in gendered terms is something we have encountered in the Shadowing Scheme as well, and has the potential to pose significant challenges to understanding women’s role in science in the late 20th century.

The next speaker was Ruth Wainman, a PhD student who is using the British Library’s Oral History of British science collection extensively in her doctoral project on women in science in Britain after the Second World War. She is using the interviews to examine a number of topics including: views of women as scientists and the roles they take; experiences of education; overcoming sexism; combining science and family and the masculine culture of science (a theme picked up by several of our speakers). She spoke particularly of the problems of using existing oral histories, where the researcher is unable to frame the questions being posed and the frustrations this poses when a theme of particular interest is not pursued in the same depth as she would like by the interviewer.

But undertaking your own oral history research is not without problems and the problems of logistics came out quite strongly in Giuditta Parolini’s presentation of her research into the development of statistical software packages at Rothamsted Research Centre in the UK. This was a particularly interesting subject for an oral history project as, as she said, software engineers tend to leave nothing behind but their finished programmes. While conducting her research into what she believed would be a male-dominated team, she uncovered a group of female assistants, whose contribution to the project was significant but unknown. Her main points concerned the logisitics of organising an oral history project, specifically constraints of time both because, not being based in the UK, she had to cram the interviews into a short period but also because the people she is speaking to are getting older.

But she also talked about the ‘calculating girls’, who were instrumental in the development work but whose contributions usually go unnoticed, and as she said, could not understand why someone would want to interview them about a job they only did for a short period of time, mainly as a fill in until they got married/had children.

Joanna Rae’s talk centred on an ongoing oral history project to record the history of the British Antarctic Survey. Only ten out 288 interviews were with female members of the survey. She talked about the issue of misremembering and having to corroborate oral history data with other (more traditional printed and archival) sources; and also about the practicalities of indexing oral history in an archival setting and the kinds of themes and keywords they should highlight to assist researchers today, but also not to close down areas of research in the future.

Unfortunately our next speaker, Tilli Tansey, was (ironically for an oral history workshop) unable to present her paper as she had a bad attach of laryngitis and had lost her voice. Tilli’s contribution was sadly missed, as she had planned talk about her project to record the history of women’s contributions to biomedical science in the 20th century through their roles as lab technicians. In her place Sue Hawkins spoke about the Museum Lives project at the Natural History Museum and the challenges in setting up an oral history project which aims to create an archive for future use, rather than with specific research outputs in mind. Her talk highlighted questions about both planning such projects, and how material from oral history projects designed with specific outcomes in mind can be re-used in new research? She raised the debate about audio vs video recording of interviews, and how these different media might influence the outcome of the interview, and add or detract from the usefulness to historians; and of course the huge cost implications of video (although it assumed such costs will continue to fall as technology advances).The Museum Lives project (under Hawkins’ influence as a women’s historian) interviewed a significant number of women (38% of all interviews were with women), most of whom she interviewed herself. There appeared to age-related differences in the experiences of these female scientists, which bear further investigation; and some of her interviews threw up interesting cultural themes, exposing quite different stories from different eras and in different scientific disciplines.

In the afternoon session, Sally Horrocks from Leicester University set us off on a lateral thinking exercise. If there are problems in identifying or tracing women in science to interview them directly, what can be learnt of them from the much more prevalent interviews with male scientists? This approach also seems fraught with barriers. Too often a male scientist asked to recall any women who he worked alongside or who shared a lab with him would initially answer none – when pushed (echoing Paul’s comments about women wanting to keep their heads down) they might recall a woman being present on the fringes, but would rarely recall their names. Sally wondered how fruitful this exercise might be: especially given modern propensity to be politically correct. Are most men asked now about their attitudes to women scientists in the mid-to late 20th century likely to respond honestly, or to couch their responses in deference to today’s ideals? What can we learn then from such interviews? Factual information perhaps and notions of how women are remembered. We can certainly use such interviews to explore ideas of the masculine culture of science. And perhaps, she pondered, we should not read too much into men’s inability to remember women scientists they worked alongside; they probably don’t remember ‘insignificant’ or ‘subordinate’ men either.

Turning from the users of oral history to the subjects of oral history: two women scientists from the Natural History Museum, Miranda Lowe and Louise Tomsett, talked about their experience of being interviewed. This was a fascinating insight into oral history from a different perspective. They both talked eloquently about how the process had helped them re-evaluate their careers to date and were amazed to realise what they had achieved this far, as Miranda said, ‘I didn’t realise I had done so much with my life’, perhaps echoing the reluctance by women to acknowledge what they have achieved, not only in public but also to themselves. Both had derived pleasure in the reminiscence process, being given ‘permission’ to mull over their achievements, choices and contributions. Louise recalled being fascinated at becoming a subject in history and saw an irony almost in becoming an ‘object in history’ to be curated, in the same way she curates the objects in her collections. She found it fascinating to imagine that in the future her interviews might form part of someone’s research into early 21st century culture or science.Both recalled a feeling that they had to be careful about how they answered some of the more controversial questions about the institution and felt they would be less guarded if interviewed post retirement. They expressed a feeling of sadness that the project had come to (what they regarded as) a rather abrupt end, and posed the question whether a follow up project would be beneficial. It was interesting to hear the views of the subjects of an oral history project – and especially the feelings of having contributed to the ‘history’ of the institution and the associated feeling of having been abandoned almost at the end of it.

Open Discussion

This was a good point from which to launch a general discussion. Some of the issues/suggestions that were raised included questions about the shape of a project:

Which type of women in science should we focus on – Royal Society types, or the ‘ordinary’ women of science (for instance, lab technicians)?

Which disciplines – should a study focus on the ‘problem’ areas like physical sciences, or be more inclusive?

What about studying women who dropped out of science – might they reveal more about the challenges faced by women in science than those who persist? – But how would you identify them? Do funders collect this data? Alongside this question – what about a comparison of women who dropped out with men who dropped out?

Questions about the premise of the Women in Science project as whole – is women’s experience in science any different to their experiences in other disciplines or in the non-academic world? But even if not, does that really make this project irrelevant?

And what about the ‘male’ culture of science referred to earlier by Sally?

At this point it seems we are defining just as much a sociological study as an historical study and perhaps this is one of the key observations to emerge, that whatever follows must be multidisciplinary.

Questions arose about studying ‘mediocrity’ (as someone put it – or journeyman – might be less prejudicial term?) Do women ‘settle’ more readily for the background role? Are they less ‘aggressive in self-promotion’ and does this affect their opportunities for promotion?

The ‘mediocre’ or ‘less ambitious’ or ‘journeyman’ scientists are the majority of scientists surely – male and female; but is this experience of the majority gendered?

On a practical side, there was discussion of what to do with existing OH collections. Can data from interviews collected for one purpose be easily repositioned for a different one? Is creating more oral history the answer or should we also be trying to pull together existing data in a central place, or doing a bit of both? Where does oral history stop – desert island discs, YouTube? The British Lobrary compiled a long list of existing OH collections focussed on science as part of the scoping study for its Oral history of British science project. The document is available online at www.bl.uk/aboutus/stratpolprog/oralhist/oralhistprojapp1.pdf

Other questions which were raised include:

What is the impact of the privatisation of government science – has it changed the opportunities for women? Are private companies more open to gender equality than government? Or the reverse?

What about periodisation – as found in the shadowing scheme young female scientists do not seem to feel the effects of gender stereotyping or discrimination – but is this because it is dying out or because they haven’t tried to start families yet and maintain a successful career?

Would any study need a male control group?

One fascinating long-term study proposed by one participant – a ‘7-up’ approach. Follow a group of young women probably from GCSE as they make their first choices of what to study, and follow the scientists to see who makes it and who doesn’t. Could anyone be persuaded to fund that? Could this be done in reverse? Take a leading woman scientist now and follow her back to her 15yr old cohort – what happened to them etc. That might be an interesting mix of oral history and sociological quantitative analysis?

The day ended with lots of questions as can be seen, but not many answers.

There is much more discussion to have and these questions should certainly feed into any debate on where WISRNet goes next.

Organiser: Sue Hawkins at s.e.hawkins@kingston.ac.uk

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