Canals, Council Chambers and Science Laboratories

I was asked to write a blog this week by Councillor Penny Holbrook. Penny met a girl this week who didn’t think that women could be scientists. When asked why, it turned out that she had never met one or seen one. So, as her friendly neighbourhood physicist, Penny asked me to put her right. This isn’t that blog – this is a somewhat self- indulgent blog about me thinking about how to write to the girl. More of a blog for those who work with her.

I seem to have a habit of ending up in places women don’t traditionally go; I’m a woman with a physics degree who currently works in politics. I know what it’s like to be the only woman in the room, to be mistaken for the note taker, the work experience girl, the councillor’s daughter or the scientist’s friend. I know what it’s like to be asked to speak at an event “because we need a female face on the panel”. I also know what it’s like to think you can’t be in the room in the first place.

There’s a story I often tell school children when I’m asked to speak to them, and it’s about how I picked my career. When I was sixteen, I chose science- funnily enough, I never realised it was a “boy thing” until I found myself outnumbered 15-3 in my A-Level class. Maybe that was because of Dr Hudson, a real live female science teacher I had in year ten? Maybe it was Miss Wood, who so clearly loved the science experiments we did in year five. Anyway, I went off to university and did a degree in physics. I didn’t, however, pick what I should have- engineering. And that’s because I’d never heard of it, and my college careers adviser never told me it was an option. Boys in my class went on to become engineers, but not the girl with A-Levels in Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry, and an AS in Politics. No one had thought to mention it to her. Even though I’d broken through the invisible barriers enough to pick science, there was still somehow something in the way of me getting the same advice they did.

But there was another aspect to what I wanted to do, and this I didn’t tell anyone at all about. I was interested in social justice, and saw the route to achieve that as politics. Why didn’t I tell anyone? Well, I’d only ever met one politician. He was my local MP, and he was a grey haired homophobe. The ones on the telly were posh, and I wasn’t. People like me from “bad” schools in little towns didn’t do that kind of thing. It wasn’t something that my time at university really challenged either- I once ended up as the Labour rep in a debate against two MP’s sons, whilst in the audience sat the son of a Lord. I reckoned I didn’t stand a chance- my dad was a nurse and my mum was a teaching assistant. Although maybe he’s where I get my unconscious gender-stereotype rebellion from.

I wound up breaking through the big invisible barriers in my head and becoming a council candidate, and then to my surprise a councillor. I served for two years as the only woman on Birmingham City Council’s Cabinet – but you’d be amazed how many people didn’t notice I was the only one. It was, I think, gradually seeing other women do it that made me change my sub-consciously held view. My local Labour Party branch chair was Theresa Stewart – the first, and to date only, woman to lead Birmingham City Council. I saw people like Gisela Stewart and Shabana Mahmood go to Parliament. People like Harriet Harman started getting a bigger profile on the telly. My inhibitions got eroded without me really noticing.

And that’s what I wanted to do for the girl Penny met, but it’s not something I can do on my own. It’s something we have to do in every school in the city, and that every work place has to help with. My likeness exists somewhere in Leicester on an HE STEM resource made to show young people what scientists really do- I want schools to use it, and resources like it. I know amazing young women who have gone to work in science- my mate Heather worked for NASA, Laura programmes for the NHS, Sameera builds nuclear power stations- I want schools to invite them in. But it’s not just about science, and it’s not just about girls. I want nurses like my dad to be visible. I want councillors like Penny to be seen. I want men like my mate Cory teaching in primary schools. I want children to grow up without the hang ups I did. I want to see women in science laboratories, council chambers and walking along canals. And I want to do what I can do help.

Why canals? Well, that’s the end of my story. Because liberated as I thought I was, I found myself protesting in horror this week when my mate Chris suggested we walk home along the canal at night. I love canals, but it was dark, and I was NOT going down that canal. The group of guys I was with all laughed. Why on earth wouldn’t I walk that way? It was much quicker, and the light pollution meant it was pretty well lit. They ran and cycled along it after dark all the time. So I gulped, and followed Chris into the terrifying abyss.

And it was utterly beautiful. We didn’t encounter another soul the whole way back, just sleeping geese and gorgeous moonlight. I had discovered a whole new view of my city, and it was gorgeous. But it had been off limits to me, because I was a girl, and had the fear of the Gods put into me about what might lurk in the silent shadows that no one had thought to mention to the boys.

As I walked, I remembered a piece I had written some years ago that struck a chord with a surprising number of readers. And it reminded me that the barriers still lurk, where you least expect them. I’ll write my letter to Penny’s girl later, but this one is for those that work with girls like her, and girls like I used to be, and the girl I realised I still partially am. Male, female, young, old, you can help make the difference in everything you say to them and teach them.

So do it.

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2 Responses to Canals, Council Chambers and Science Laboratories

  1. Algar Goredema-Braid says:

    Dear Brigid
    This is brilliant and just what we (Soroptimists in Birmingham @brumsoroptimist) are seeking to advance with Partners and in memory/honour of our late member Valerie Evans a scientist who was as passionate about opportunities for women and girls. She was just before she passed away honoured with a NAWO award. Gisela Stewart was at her funeral a few months ago because she too believed in social justice. We plan to use her NAWO award for an annual recognition of girls/women who are committed to this. It would be powerful if we were able to work together. I have met @cllrholbrook and would love to connect with her too on this. Thanks to @marieannswift for signposting me to your blog after I had talked to her about this. It would be great to work with you to ignite girls in science passion in Birmingham.

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