Friday, 28 September 2012

A girl in a boys' world?

When I was sixteen, I sat on a wooden stool in my chemistry class. The whole class sat around one huge laboratory bench and most of the faces that stared back at me were boys. It was the same in maths and physics. I was girl in a boys’ world.

Where were the girls? At this point, I didn’t consciously ask this question, but I was puzzled. The whole of society was skew. All around me and in my own family as well, men were breadwinners and women were housewives. A teacher said to me: “It’s going to harder for you to have a career because you are a girl.”

It was only years later that I began to pursue this further. Over three decades of gradual accumulation of messages that women were more suited to some roles and men others, and that the roles of men and women are valued differently, I decided to find out the truth.

I read feminist books, talked to experts and started writing a blog ( My neuroscience doctorate from years ago became useful as I delved into academic papers and searched for an answer to the question: are men and women naturally different in the way we think, the way we behave and what we aspire to? Or are we shaped by society’s expectations of us and the different activities that we do, skills that we learn and roles that we play?

Many studies have been carried out in this area, and as yet there is no clear answer. The results are hazy and there is no conclusive evidence to show that boys and girls are born with different cognitive talents. What is much more likely to be happening is that our brain changes in structure and function as we absorb the messages around us and we are influenced and moulded by the stereotypes of society around us.

At the end of 2011, I led the successful Hamleys campaign (, which resulted in the famous toyshop ditching its gender signs. The story received media coverage all over the world and debates went on for weeks. The strong resistance and the controversy confirmed how strongly gender is embedded in people’s identities and is locking the status quo.

A few months later, I set up the Breakthrough gender stereotypes programme ( in schools, in partnership with Laura Kirsop, a year 5 teacher at Soho Parish School. This was a series of lessons on the theme gender stereotype awareness covering the spectrum of the National Curriculum. The results – transformation of the children’s perceptions of the world around them – were uplifting and powerful.

This is just the beginning. This is an important message that can change people’s lives and open up opportunities, and my mission is to take this out to share it with as many people as possible. Schools is one route, and I am designing programmes and principles and working on a model of dissemination. But there’s also the rest of the world. This is about much more than gender stereotype awareness. It’s about self awareness, which is the key to self-empowerment, fulfillment in life, and success.

Dr Laura Nelson ( is a writer, speaker and entrepreneur.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Hey, Miss Producer!

Hello everyone. I thought it was about time to introduce myself. I'm Louise and I'm the producer for the ScienceGrrl Calendar 2013. What does this mean, exactly? Well, to use my favourite literary device, the analogy, and my favourite animal, the swan: I'm the webbed feet of a magnificent, beautiful bird, paddling furiously to keep it moving along seamlessly.

My job is to oversee everything that needs to be done to make the calendar happen. The tasks are multitude and I would not be able to do this without a strong team of volunteers, especially our production assistants Ellie Cosgrave and Suzi Gage. The tasks include the obvious, like scheduling the photoshoots, and the ones you might not immediately think of: sourcing quotes for envelopes in which to send out the final, shiny calendar.

I also have artistic direction over the calendar, which means both liaising with our designer, Cosima Dinkel, and photographers Ben Gilbert, Greg Funnell and Naomi Goggin, to ensure we have a consistent look to the calendar. One of the hardest things to do is juggle the schedules of these three photographers with all the calendar participants - including some famous faces who are at the mercy of their ever-changing filming schedules.

How does my job fit in with that of our director, Heather Williams? ScienceGrrl started off as a bit of a dream, just some female scientists on Twitter saying that there should be something that represents the achievements of women in STEM careers much better than "that video", and wouldn't it be great if there were some projects that encourage girls and young women into STEM devised from the ground up by working female scientists? Heather was the dreamcatcher who brought these ideas and people together and I was the, er, ancient magic that made sure the dreams came true... or, hang on, don't dreamcatchers trap nightmares? (...sometimes analogies fail, reader).

Of course, with all good "dream come true" tales, there is a sob story. Exactly six months ago, I was in hospital hooked up to acetylcysteine. My life had fallen apart around me. My boyfriend had left me; in turn I'd had to leave my role running Science Showoff. My grandmother was having hallucinations, and I'd just had an MRI scan that would reveal the reason for the awful pain I'd experienced for two months: three "slipped" discs in my lower back. I had hit the eject button. And when that didn't work thanks to the intervention of an old friend and the NHS, I aborted my regular job to return to university this September. I lost a lot of friends, a lot of weight, and a small part of my mind.

I was asked to help out with ScienceGrrl a few months ago when I was still feeling, in precise medical terminology, pretty shit. I was waiting to start my masters degree, still broken-hearted, still depressed, and very lonely. I could have said no and gone back to hiding under my duvet, but I took a deep breath and said yes. So here we are. I have the ScienceGrrl lifebelt around my waist. I told you I like analogies. Or is that a metaphor...?

Now look, all these juggling acts I do cost money. Photographers, designers and printers need paying. I'm going to be living off baked beans for the next year so I can't stump up the cash. We really, really need money from you so that we can make the ScienceGrrl Calendar 2013 come to life. So that you can see pictures like these ones below on shiny, glossy, A4 paper (at 250gsm, don't you know?).

Lia Han and Ceri Brenner. Copyright Ben Gilbert/ScienceGrrl

Lucy Olukogbon, Sarah Hall & son, Helen Whall and Sheila Dargan. Copyright Naomi Goggin/ScienceGrrl

Please donate just a fiver towards our production costs via Sponsume. It will take less than five minutes. And if you don't, the ScienceGrrl swan will come and break your arm with its wing.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

What's up, Doc?

One of our Twitter followers asked how those not connected to us via the joys of social networking can keep up-to-date with what ScienceGrrl are doing. I directed them to this blog… and then had an “ahhhhhhhhh” moment when I realised I hadn’t actually updated it very recently. 

So here is the Director’s update. Beware that I am writing this on the way back from London after another superb 24 hours of ScienceGrrl-related sorting-out, so I will branch out into polemic and get all misty-eyed and romantic about science at some point. Well, if it’s good enough for Prof Brian Cox… 

So, developments in a nutshell:       
  • The calendar is coming along beautifully. We have completed 6 of 14 shoots and there are a large number of gorgeous images from our fabulous photographers Ben Gilbert, Greg Funnell and Naomi Goggin (alphabetical order) to choose from. Arrangements for the other 8 are coming along nicely thanks to the wonder who is Producer Louise Crane.
  •  We’re currently drawing together brief biographies for all those who have appeared in shoots, asking them to sum up what they do and why… and what they do when they’re not doing science
  • Cosima, the design genius behind the Geek Calendar, has sent us some ideas for our logo and the calendar design overall and it looks amazing… fresh, funky and sassy… love it.
  • We have received £2100 from the Science Council, The University of Durham, the Society for Advanced Microbiology, the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol and the University of Bristol Industrial Doctorate Centre in Systems. This will go towards our photography and design costs.
  • We are in the process of crowd-funding our print costs via Sponsume at Please keep plugging this like mad to all your contacts, we have raised 18% of our total and have two weeks to go. If nothing else, the site is worth a visit to see the extent of my home video skills.
  •  We will open the website shop at for pre-orders on the 24th of September, which is when our press campaign will really kick off too. Expect to see ScienceGrrls (and Scienceboyz) being interviewed everywhere, and if you want to get us on your podcast/website/radio or TV show or in your magazine/paper… now is the time to ask.
  • The calendar itself goes on sale on 18th October, and the ScienceGrrl team are marking the occasion with a launch party in central London. I’ve bought the best dress ever to wear for the occasion. Today I bought lipstick to match. You needed to know that.
  • We have assembled the executive committee who will head up ScienceGrrl going forward: me (Director), Louise Crane (Producer), Anna Zecharia (Social Media Manager), Ellie Cosgrave (Production Assistant) and have had several others say they are happy to act in an advisory role. We are in the process of finalising our constitution and tracking down a treasurer, and when that’s done ScienceGrrl will officially become an unincorporated association (a not-for-profit society). I’m working on the financial arrangements that reflect that, so we can collect the promised donations from our sponsors… and PayPal.
  • Later in the year, we’ll be asking people if they want to become official members of ScienceGrrl, which will mean you'll get a say in the future of ScienceGrrl and be able to vote at our Annual General Meetings, the first of which will be in the first quarter of 2013.
  •  We’ve already committed to fund ‘Breakthrough: the Gender Stereotypes Project’ to develop primary school lessons that challenge gender stereotypes in science and are developing no less than 5 other good value, grass-roots projects which will draw on the expertise and enthusiasm within the ScienceGrrl network to encourage more girls and young women to engage with STEM.
In the last 24 hours, I have also gossiped with Louise Crane over sparkling rosé (now that’s what I call a production meeting), popped in on colleagues at UCLH to charge my phone and gaze longingly at their new PET-MRI scanner (Dear Santa…), interrupted Dallas Campbell recording audio for BBC Generation Earth in Soho, visited the awesome da Vinci exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, been interviewed by Pallab Ghosh about the under-representation of girls on A-level Physics courses in the new and shiny bit of Broadcasting House AND met new and familiar ScienceGrrl faces at the pub after work. Lots of happy, lovely memories to get me through my 12 hour shift tomorrow. 

I think that’s it for now… oh, I nearly forgot the polemic! 

ScienceGrrl is a network of predominantly female scientists who are passionate about passing on their love of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to the next generation. Through our current project, the ScienceGrrl 2013 calendar, we aim to show the female face of science, by showcasing the work of a wide variety of female scientists doing an amazing range of science in partnership with their male colleagues.

Oh, and I want ScienceGrrl to be fun, when it stops being fun I'll stop doing it. I already have a demanding job and a young family, I don't need to invest this much energy in something that's a real drag. I sometimes think that discussions surrounding 'women's issues' can be a bit dour and negative and almost foster a victim mentality... our ethos is to highlight what is already being done and celebrate that, to encourage more of the same, to embody the change we want to see; we seek to be inclusive and uplifting, a supportive community for all female scientists, a host of positive role models for girls and young women. 

That’s all, folks!