I have a simple message. Just because lab coats, test tubes, and microscopes are science, that doesn't mean that science is lab coats, test tubes, and microscopes.
I realised several years ago that the scientist stereotype actually deters some children and young people (particularly girls) from getting involved in science or STEM careers more broadly. As a geospatial scientist who works with drones and satellites on the Great Barrier Reef, the stereotype doesn't resonate with me. So I wanted more kids - and the community in general - to realise that there really is a science for everyone - they just need to know where to look.
But it's not just about what type of science...
Because along with the test tubes, comes a vision of an older white man with crazy hair. Over the years, I've asked countless audiences to consider what a scientist looks like. Without fail, at least 90% of people I've asked from a range of demographics will describe this stereotype.
So what's the problem with that? There are two parts to this answer. Firstly is that great ideas, creativity, and innovation come from diversity of thought. And diversity of thought comes from diverse people - which is what we need in science to solve a variety of big, hairy, problems. This leads to the second part of the answer, and the commonly used phrase 'see it to be it' is important here. To bring diverse people into science, we need diverse leadership and role models. Not a narrow stereotype.
Women in scicomm
In fact there are many programs now specifically showcasing women in STEM and profiling their work. Here are just a few examples:
Through some of these programs, and others, women have become so good at spruiking their science that we pretty much own the scicomm hashtag on Twitter. There's not many men in sight!
And before you scream #notallmen - I get it. There are some great men in scicomm too. That's not my point.
My point is that many women are working unpaid overtime (literally) to ensure that other women and girls are able to see it and be it. Why should we have to shout louder and for longer just to gain an equal footing?
At what cost?
Well, here's the cost of my labour.
I am a university academic with a traditional 40/40/20 role. This means that I'm expected to balance my research, teaching, and service / engagement with a split of 40%, 40%, and 20% respectively.
That 20% engagement split is then cut three ways into service to the university, the profession/discipline, and the community. Let's just say they have equal value, so my community engagement can contribute around 7% of my role, give or take. This is about 2.5hrs per week.
At face value, I'll admit that this is pretty reasonable. Tomorrow I have a media call that will take about that amount of time, so that's my quota for the week! I'd best stop writing this blog now...
But then there are other weeks where entire days are taken up with engagement events. 'Celebration' days like International Women's Day are filled with appearance requests - pro bono of course. Because I should be grateful of the 'platform' to promote my message. (BTW, let's flip that one on it's head!)
So beyond my paid labour, there are many hours of unpaid, followed by scrambling to meet my research and teaching requirements. Because it is also abundantly clear that engagement isn't considered in the metrics we're required to hit for promotion.
Did I mention the emotional load of 'being it' just so others can 'see it'?
And what of those who don't have to 'be it'?
I've been somewhat lucky (or was that cursed?) to get a significant grant in the past for engagement, and have even converted my activities to a publication. But in a world where not all grant money is considered equal (seriously!) and even publications out of discipline aren't so highly regarded, this is small comfort.
And then comes the inevitable cop out - 'I'm no good at scicomm, it's better if you do it'. News flash, I wasn't born good at it. But naturally we all get better the more that we do, so of course I'm better than many others. This should not be an excuse to load me up. But that's what happens, and the cycle continues.
As for the 'I'm too busy' excuse - this is just like those people who won't empty the dishwasher at work. Hello sunshine, we are all busy. What makes you think that your busy is more important than mine?
At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, I hosted an online interactive STEM show with 50 guests over eight weeks for kids around the world who were unable to attend school. I rarely had a woman deny my request to appear on the show, but several men told me that they were too busy. I hope they got their grant.
My biggest concern
I worry about the old (rather offensive) saying: 'those who can, do; those who can't, teach'. What if that becomes true for women who are groomed for scicomm? They lose touch with their scientific selves, they don't have time to write grants, and we lose more senior scientists and the value that their diversity of thought brings.
I think we need to fix the system, not the women
- Instead of putting pressure on women to 'be it', we put pressure on media outlets to recognise that women and their science is great as it is. Media outlets should be held accountable to promote the work of diverse science and diverse people.
- We acknowledge greater diversity in the roles that our academics play and recognise scicomm as equally important as the research we are comming about in the first place.
- Everyone is encouraged to shoulder the scicomm load. Please don't make this 'women's work'.
I'd love to hear your 'what ifs' to change the system, not the women.