On female scientists and engineers… and why toys matter

I work in a research and educational institution which specializes in (tropical) medicine. While the gender balance is quite good if we look at all employees, there is certainly much less balance if we see the number of women in leadership positions. In my department only 3 out of the 11 professors in tenured positions are female, so less than 1/3rd.

So why are there so few women holding leadership positions in research and academia? And why are there even less women in science than in other fields of academia? Recently I have had a number of discussions on these issues (mostly on Facebook), and it struck me how many men (and women!) think (=read: have been lead to believe) that women don’t study science and engineering because they are not interested, because their “brains are wired differently”, etc…

Some of these discussions ended up being about nature vs nurture, in which I was trying to argue that if, from an early age you wire little girls in way that they think that science is for boys, then they will not see that as a valid option for themselves regardless of their otherwise inherent interests. And where does this begin? Some argue it begins with toys. For example, there is a UK parent-led campaign called Let Toys Be Toys which is asking retailers to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys. Because if you so do, this is what happens:


You may have also seen the video by GoldieBlox that went viral on social media after being picked up by Upworthy. GoldieBlox is a toy company that is trying to show the world that “girls deserve more choices than dolls and princesses. Their founder, Debbie Sterling, is a Stanford engineer who decided last year that girls need more choices than the pink aisle has to offer. She developed GoldieBlox, an interactive book series + construction set starring Goldie, the kid inventor who loves to build.”

OK. So what happens after these little girls grow up, and despite all the playtime with dolls and make-up, they still decide to enter the masculine world of science? In her video, Emily Graslie, the “Chief Curiosity Correspondent of The Field Museum in Chicago, former volunteer of the University of Montana Zoological Museum”, who has a channel a YouTube, gives the audience an honest (and funny) recount on some of her daily struggles…


I can’t remember anymore when it was when I first heard about FGM or female genital mutilation. It must have been rather late, in my early 20s, at university (on my side of the world this was one of the miseries that women did not have to endure). What I clearly remember, however, is what shaped my thinking about it. After reading The Color Purple I became fascinated with Alice Walker. So I started reading her books one by one, and I soon got to Possessing the Secret of Joy. I was amazed, shocked and appalled by Tashi’s story, who undergoes this dreadful ritual as an adult and then tries to get on with her life in America. Walker broke taboos and at the same time raised awareness of this practice in the Western world when she wrote the book in 1992.

A few years ago I moved to a part of Europe where the number of immigrants is quite high from Northern Africa, and from French-speaking countries of Africa. I also work in an environment where most of my coworkers have lived  in developing countries for decades and worked on missions trying to “make the world a better place.” Many of them are doctors and many volunteer for various NGOs in their free time, so I have become much more closely exposed to this issue. One of them very actively took part in the European Campaign of Amnesty International to End FGM (as the immigrants from these countries bring their culture with them, there are about 180,000 girls at risk in Europe of undergoing FGM. Worldwide, 3 million girls undergo FGM every year.) Recently I took a class on Gender, Diversity and Politics at a Brussels university and some people argued there that if we want to fully respect and protect multiculturalism, then we should not intervene and advocate for the end of FGM. We should let people do things according to rules of their own culture. I disagree in this case, strongly. I tend to agree more with Alice Walker (and my colleagues): “Torture is not culture.”

This was only an intro to a video I stumbled upon on TED recently. It is a must see. The speaker, Kakenya Ntaiya made a deal with her father: She would undergo the traditional Maasai rite of passage of female circumcision if he would let her go to high school. Now she is changing the destiny of girls in her village by having built a school for them.

Sexism, video games, trolls

Anita Sarkeesian from Feminist Frequency is a feminist media critic who initiated a successful Kickstarter campaign to examine sexism and representations of women in video games. (Kickstarter is a fundign platform for creative projects.) Apparently, little did she know what this will bring out of some of the members of the gaming community. Shortly after, she fell victim to (cyber) harassment, and there was even a game developed where users could punch a photo of Sarkeesian.

Street harassment – this time in NYC (and how they try to fight it)

According to the TEDx website, when feminist icon Gloria Steinem was asked, “What women today inspire you and make you feel that the movement continues?,” her response was, “Emily May of Hollaback!, who has empowered women in the street, literally.”

So who is Emily May and what is Hollaback!? Emily is an activist who (along with a couple of her friends) created Hollaback! in order to fight street harassment in the streets of New York City. Their aim is to empower the targets and make the harasser feel uncomfortable. In order to achieve this, they encourage people to use their smartphones to document, map, and share incidents of street harassment. Hollaback! is now present in 25 countries of the world, in more than a 60 cities.

Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia

This video went around the globe, and rightfully so. Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister of Australia gave a heated speech in the Australian Parliament on sexism and misogyny, targeted at opposition leader Tony Abbott. Jezebel gave some insight into the history:

“Abbott demanded that Peter Slipper, the Speaker of the House, step down for allegedly sexually harassing an openly gay male staff member in a series of text messages, one of which apparently compared female genitalia to mussels. I know. Juicy already. Abbott then implied that if Gillard defended Slipper, she would be just as sexist as a gay man who talks shit on vaginas. Abbott said, “And every day the prime minister stands in this parliament to defend this Speaker will be another day of shame for this parliament, another day of shame for a government which should already have died of shame.””

Gillard’s reply is epic. You rarely see something like this in parliaments (unfortunately, because there would be room for some lecturing on our side of the planet as well). My favorite quote: “If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia he doesn’t need a motion in the house of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”

Wearing nothing new

Once again, a little detour from (hard core) feminism. As I wrote in a previous post, I consider the issue of being environmentally friendly (or “green” as we now say) part of being socially sensitive. Sensitive to what is going on in the world and responding to it, consciously.

Part of being green (hate this expression by the way) means trying to buy second hand things. Furniture, books, kitchenware, and ultimately, or actually primarily, clothes. Most girls I know have been to clothes swap events, and most of them have shopped in second hand clothing stores. It is fun: partially social activity, partially treasure hunting, partially looking for a new piece for the wardrobe, and partially eco-friendly.

So my friends, here is a little inspiration by designer (and empowering female figure) Jessi Arrington on how to take this to the next level:

Roz Savage, ocean rower

You might ask what an ocean rower has to do with a feminist blog. Well, at first sight: not much. But if you look at her story as a source of inspiration, het motivation as something to think about and herself as a very empowering (female) figure, then you have an instant connection.

For me, being socially sensitive encompasses a lot of things: caring about people, but also about the environment, and about various causes. In my mind they are all inextricably linked. If you do something good for the environment, that affects the people in the long run. And (hopefully, but not in such a straightforward manner) vice versa.

I love spending time on TED, I find it one of the true justifications for the existence of the Internet: spreading knowledge. A few months ago I stumbled upon a presentation by Roz Savage. She is an ocean rower who gave up a high profile career to row across the Pacific, and ultimately to raise awareness along the way of plastic pollution and climate change. (It was because of her that I found out about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a high concentration of (mostly) plastic waste in the Pacific. I was stunned.)

I find Roz an exceptional woman who is leading an exceptional life: she is brave, strong, and was not afraid to turn her life upside down. Enjoy her story: