Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Crazy scientists and Mad Men

A dispiriting week for those who thought that the new, business friendly ConLib administration would bring a fresh approach to career aspiration for girls. It started well enough, at the launch of the UKRC report Women mean Business at the House of Commons where LibDem Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone spoke strongly in support of the need to attract and retain more women in science, engineering and technology. She said, “There unfortunately exists a culture in some circles of science – reminiscent of how workplaces were 20 or 30 years ago – which puts off women from pursuing a career in the industry, and makes it extremely hard for those who work in these occupations to progress.”

So it was a pity that the Minister chose to illustrate her speech with shock horror stories that were almost as old as the workplace culture she was criticising. She regaled us with the comment made by a Russian cosmonaut to astronaut Helen Sharman back in 1991 (space is not for women, apparently), referred to the ‘recent’ US experiment with schoolchildren drawing scientists (all eccentric men with crazy hair) which was carried out by the University of Leicester ten years ago and repeated the comment made by Larry Summers when President of Harvard (women haven’t got the brains for maths and science) back in 2005.

No mention of the fact that just days earlier another Harvard luminary, Professor Niall Ferguson, presented a lecture at St Paul’s Cathedral entitled Men, Money and Morality: How can trust in banking be restored, during which he commented that, “It was men, not women, who made the financial crisis.” Or that a month ago NASA successfully sent into space three women astronauts, to join a fourth already circulating the planet on the International Space Station. Or that there is now a woman in the Thunderbirds team or the UK’s Red Arrows. Or the number of female presenters on the increasing number of science and engineering programmes on tv.

Instead the following week we hear from the Equalities Minister that the actress Christina Hendricks is an “absolutely fabulous” role model for girls. Hendricks, a curvaceous size 14 actress, plays the role of predatory secretary in Mad Men, the tv series about the world of advertising in the 1960s. As more than one commentator has remarked, the new minister seems to be rather behind the times – something the world of science and engineering cannot afford to be.

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