Whole-school assembly delivered on 16th March, 2018 at Streatham & Clapham High School during British Science Week.
30 years ago, a cartoon appeared in ‘Punch’ magazine showing a committee sitting in a boardroom. The cartoon had the caption: ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it’.
I am a white, able-bodied, male. I don’t routinely have my opinions ignored, I haven’t been excluded from receiving an excellent education nor have I been overlooked in my career. I am what is known as ‘privileged’. In the race that is my life, the barriers were removed and the hurdles knocked down before I even reached the starting-blocks.
I am privileged to be in the position that my voice has not been constantly stifled, snubbed nor silenced, but there are many in society who have constant challenges to face and barriers to break down to make their voice heard.
With our celebration of 100 years since some women received the vote and our events on International Women’s Day, hopefully, you will know by now that women are not so privileged and constantly have obstacles put in their way by the very fact that they are a woman. This is evident in all areas of life, but especially in the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), which it is appropriate for us to consider during Science Week.
Firstly, it has been shocking the number of times that women in science have been overlooked and their achievements not recognised. Hopefully, you are now all aware of the story of Rosalind Frankin, who gives her name to one of our houses. Franklin did pioneering work in the area of DNA and it was Franklin’s image of the DNA molecule that was key to deciphering its structure. But was this recognised when the 1962 Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of the DNA double helix? No. Franklin’s significant contribution was ignored and the prize was awarded to three male scientists.
This is not a unique story. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars in 1967 while still a graduate student in radio astronomy at Cambridge University: a discovery that has been described as “one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th Century”.
Despite Bell Burnell analysing data printed out on three miles of paperfrom a radio telescope which she herself helped assemble, the Nobel Prize for this discovery went to her male supervisor.
The scientist Chien-Shiung Wu was approached in the 1950s by two male theoretical physicists, Lee and Yang, to help disprove the law of parity. Wu’s experiments upended this law, which had been accepted for 30 years. Did Wu receive the Nobel Prize? No, it went to her male colleagues, Lee and Yang.
Over the centuries, despite few resources and uphill battles to achieve what they did, female scientists have seen credit for significant discoveries they’ve made assigned to male colleagues, they have been written out of textbooks and they have been overlooked for awards.
One of the films I have enjoyed watching recently is ‘Hidden Figures’, which is based on a true story. The film tells the story of three African-American women who work at NASA in the 1960s at the height of the space race.
Despite their phenomenal brains which enable them to work as ‘computers’, human calculators who checked mathematical calculations before the technological development of what we now call computers, they are overlooked and must fight to break down the barriers standing in their way. However, gender is not their only barrier. These women are African-American in a time of segregation, where laws prevented black and white people from mixing in society and restricted the rights of black people. In the film, one of the characters, Katherine Johnson has to walk a mile just so that she can use the bathroom designated for the black workers and is not allowed to drink from the same coffee pot as her white colleagues. Both their gender and race are barriers to them fulfilling their ambitions and aspirations.
In a powerful scene, another of the characters Mary Jackson has a conversation with one of NASA’s engineers, Karl Zielinski. Zielinski says: ‘Mary, a person with an engineer’s mind should be an engineer. You can’t be a computer the rest of your life.’
‘Mr. Zielinski, I’m a negro woman. I’m not gonna entertain the impossible.’
‘Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?’
To this Mary forcefully responds, ‘I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.’
What is so wonderful in this film is that these women stand up to the obstacles put in their way to pursue their careers. Katherine Johnson pushes to attend the male-only briefings to enable her to produce accurate space flight calculations which were critical to the success of space missions including the Apollo moon landings, Mary Jackson petitions a judge in a segregated courtroom for the ability to attend extension courses at an all-white high school in order to become NASA’s first black female engineer, and Deborah Vaughan learns how to operate IBM computers in her free time using a library book thus preparing for the first introduction of machine computers and becoming the first African-American woman to supervise a group of staff at the NASA Langley Research Centre.
These women do not allow these barriers to get in their way and work hard to overcome them to achieve their dreams. However, the sad truth is that these barriers are not necessary, and they still prevent people from pursuing STEM careers today. Currently just one in five people working in core STEM areas in the UK is a female. This means there is a huge pool of undiscovered STEM talent.
How do we help to break down barriers and expand this number? Firstly, schools like this really help. Girls at a single-sex school are about 70% more likely to take a STEM subject at A-Level. We have Science, Maths, Computing and DT departments that really work hard to challenge gender stereotypes, provide visible role models in STEM careers and encourage us to follow your ambitions and exceed our expectations.
What can we do to encourage others in STEM? Firstly, we should praise and acknowledge the successes of other young women in STEM, for example later we are about to congratulate those amongst us who were successful in the 700 STEM challenge.
Secondly, we should all be curious and investigate the world around us, never giving up in our endeavours.
Lastly, we must work to change society, for example by rejecting the gender conditioning of the younger generation, such as through the labelling of dolls for girls and lego for boys, which plant seeds about what should be considered appropriate activities for boys and for girls. As Stephen Hawking said: “It is not scientific proof of gender equality that is required, but general acceptance that women are at least the equals of men, or better’.
You may know that Professor Hawking died this week at the age of 76. He himself faced his own challenges, but despite being diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21, only being expected to live for two more years and being confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak, except through a voice synthesiser, he never gave up and became more determined, producing ground-breaking work on black holes and relativity and selling over 10 million copies of his book ‘A brief history of time’.
He once gave this advice:
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
Finally, I want to leave you with the words of the scientist Marie Curie, who broke down barriers to be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences.
“We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”