Monday, November 8, 2010


I have just read two very different books: Randy Olson's 'Don't be such a scientist' and 'Healing our History: the challenge of the Treaty of Waitangi ' by Robert and Joanna Consedine.

Olson's book is an easy read - short, breezy, anecdotal but making the very important point that if we want to engage non-scientists with science we need to have good stories while retaining factual accuracy. Anyone who is involved in science communication should read this book but for me it also sparked some thoughts about how we communicate about women in science. For example, much of our communication is directed to scientists, people to whom accuracy matters, the sort of people who feel the need to point out to an actor speaking enthusiastically about spotting whales that there are no gray whales in the Atlantic or who are worried by the fact that in James Cameron’s original version of Titanic the ship sinks under southern hemisphere stars. Are we careful to make accurate statements? Do we play to the strengths of academics or do we regard them as problems? A male participant in the University of Michigan’s STRIDE programme commented on its style saying it followed ‘pure academic principles of engagement … It was clear that they wanted you to study, work, read, form opinions, validate or invalidate current approaches … to become educated.’ (Reference 1) Are our efforts concerned with engaging scientists as scientists or are we uncomfortable with argument and dissent?

'Healing our History' was a difficult book for me as a Pakeha to read. Some background: in 1840 the British government signed a treaty with the Maori people of New Zealand. The representatives of the British government and successive New Zealand governments then spent the next 140 years ignoring the provisions of the treaty and exploiting the Crown’s position as the sole purchaser of Maori land, while promoting the view that if Maori were disadvantaged then it was their own fault and the solution was for them to become Europeans. Requests for restitution for the failure to abide by the treaty are still spun as ‘demands for handouts’.

I would hesitate to draw parallels between the situation of Maori in New Zealand and women in science. I think the histories and consequences are quite different. Nevertheless, I believe there are lessons from the Consedines’ book that can be applied to thinking about women in science.

Firstly, I now understand the attraction of ‘wilful ignorance’. If you take no steps to understand the facts then you can comfortably deny that there is a problem. Those who refuse to collect data on the grounds that they already know that their workplace is fair may fall into this camp. Knowing that there is a problem demands a response, even if that response is to decide to do nothing.

Secondly, Robert Consedine runs workshops on Treaty issues. The initial workshops are run in parallel: one for Maori with a Maori facilitator and one for Pakeha with a Pakeha facilitator. Prior to attending a workshop, many people are uncomfortable with this arrangement, which they feel smacks of separatism. However, experience has shown that it is useful for Pakeha to be able to express their fears and misconceptions in a safe environment and it is useful for Maori to be able to explore their identity as Maori without being regarded as representative of all Maori. Before attending a parallel workshop only 16% of participants believed they were needed. After attending a workshop 90% thought they were needed. The need for women to have a safe environment in which to express their concerns has long been recognized. What about men? Do they have a safe space in which to express their concerns and fears?

A common reaction to the workshops was puzzlement that a group of Pakeha were teaching the Treaty of Waitangi. The idea that Pakeha would take responsibility for learning and teaching Treaty commitments was mystifying. How many men are willing to take responsibility for promoting gender equality? How often is it seen as a women’s issue? What does ‘take responsibility’ mean? The Consedines quote Jorge Rosner: ‘Responsibility literally means “the ability to respond”. You only respond when you are fully aware of you behaviour and your choices, then, on the basis of your awareness, you can freely choose what to do.’ (Reference 2) Taking responsibility does not mean accepting guilt for what has happened in the past. It means looking at the current situation, asking what needs to be done, and doing it.

Robert Consedine also writes ‘I encourage people to live with the questions, as a ‘solution focus’ is often a barrier to change in this arena.’ This is a difficult concept for those of us in a ‘What’s the question? Here’s the answer. Move on’ culture, especially those of us trained in using reductionist techniques to solve problems.

So, two very different, but challenging and thought-provoking books.

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