Written by Suze Kundu

Voices

#DistractinglySexy?

Nanochemist Suze Kundu is a teaching fellow in the Department of Materials. She’s also a woman. Guess which bit The Sunday Times focused on when they interviewed her about science.

Suze Kundu

Image taken from the ScienceGrrl 2013 calendar, www.sciencegrrl.co.uk.

Last week, Dotty Winters wrote a letter to Tim Hunt following his poorly judged ‘jokes’ at a conference event to celebrate international female science journalists in Korea. Though lighthearted in tone, the letter’s message was clear: institutional and cultural sexism within scientific academia is alive and well. That science is aware of it is just one step towards winning the war.

A great thing about Huntgate is the army of scientists and non-scientists, men, women, cis and trans, that felt the need to speak up for greater diversity in science, through both social and traditional media. I hope that through this media outlets are now aware of the vast numbers of scientists who can effectively communicate scientific ideas in an engaging manner.

With everyone up in arms about Huntgate, my appearance at the Festival of Education today was rather well timed. This morning, I gave a lecture about my personal journey into the world of science, discussing the challenges faced, how we might be able to start to address these, and what’s already being done. It’s a cause I wholeheartedly believe in – to the extent that I wrote and delivered the lecture during annual leave from my day job.

“We talked about building confidence in women, about creating positive role models, and how the unrealistic notion of being a scientist and looking great and being cool could actually put many girls off.”

The Festival’s sponsor, The Sunday Times, has been covering many of the sessions in the lead-up to the event. Despite my being about to leave for Paris on a long-overdue mini-break, an ST journalist and I grabbed a quick chat in the departure lounge of St Pancras, where we talked about many of the challenges facing women in science, and how hard it can be to be taken seriously in the male-dominated fields of science and engineering.

We talked about building confidence in women, about creating positive role models, and how the unrealistic notion of being a scientist and looking great and being cool could actually put many girls off, citing it as an unachievable fantasy. I felt that in this passionate conversation, the journalist really ‘got’ me and the point I was trying to make.

Apparently not. Apparently the ‘real’ story was whether I was sexy or not.

Following Huntgate, ST decided to expand the piece, which involved sending a photographer to Paris, where I was on holiday. Oh, and my holiday wardrobe of shorts and tees wouldn’t do; I needed to buy a dress – something ‘sexy’. Obviously I questioned the tone of the piece and was reassured: “We’re not the Daily Mail” – make of that what you will. The photographer had been booked and would meet me by the Louvre.

The nice enough photographer had obviously been given the brief of taking some sort of ‘sexy’ shot. My quickly purchased get-up was white and spring-like, not ‘sexy’. I can’t help but use the inverted commas when I say that word, because I am not sexy – nor do I have any particular desire to be in a professional context.

The whole set-up, including the photographer’s continued insistence I do a ‘sexy’ pose, was hugely uncomfortable. I was exhausted, and annoyed with myself for letting my work get in the way of what was supposed to be a relaxing few days. I felt miserable.

You’ve guessed it, right? The Sunday Times piece didn’t mention my talk. It didn’t mention my work or my academic credentials. It didn’t mention my department’s work towards better equality and diversity through the Athena SWAN Charter. It didn’t mention confidence building in women. It didn’t mention my desire for people to be judged on merit and not gender or looks. And it definitely didn’t mention that women in science are afraid to work with the media because of the objectification that comes with.

distractingly sexy scientists at work

Some of the women working in science, medicine and engineering who recently uploaded photos of themselves at work to Twitter with the hashtag #distractinglysexy: (from left) @drtanthony, @finetraces786 and @gkygirlengineer.

In fact, it didn’t mention a bloody thing about anything of any value. What it did mention was a story they had managed to tease out of a brief comment about the only time I remember being discriminated against because I was a woman in a man’s world and how it made me feel. Except it didn’t even manage to do that with any class or dignity.

It also referred to me as a “poster girl” for women in science. What does that even mean? Who said it? I certainly didn’t. It made me look and sound like a vapid bimbo. Taken entirely out of the intended context that was pitched to me, it was simply a piece of writing that said: “Look! Lady scientist!”

Friends who had seen the article understood how utterly out of character and context it was for me, but colleagues or future employers may not know me well enough to know that I’m not just a girl who likes wearing dresses and harping on about it. What does my heel height have to do with my abilities? How does someone’s shape or size affect their ability to carry out any job? And why oh why, given the chance to write a positive piece about women in science was the editorial choice made to instead feed into Hunt’s outdated ideas about women in science?

Was it because I too was #DistractinglySexy? I think not. We need the media on our side to showcase the wonders that better equality and diversity can provide. Let’s try to work as a team a little more often. Stop trying to make people sexy. Science is sexy all by itself. Let us communicate our excitement and passion for these things – instead of duping us into selling ourselves.

@FunSizeSuze

1892 Views
Share:
  • googleplus
  • linkedin
  • rss
  • pinterest

Written by Suze Kundu

Suze is a nanochemist, both literally and professionally, and a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Materials. Suze is also a science presenter, and loves dancing, live gigs, Muse and shoes. @FunSizeSuze