Being a woman in a heavily male dominated field has, on the whole, not been a problematic experience for me.  In fact,  I think I got a bit of a kick out of it for a while during the first couple of years of my PhD in Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sheffield, under the supervision of an extremely supportive and inspiring boss. 

My first academic conference

In 2011, I attended my first academic conference, and it was at this time that my understanding of the issues surrounding women in science changed dramatically. 

My poster presentation went – I believed at the time – terribly. 

(People who know me well emphatically roll their eyes at me when I tell them this, as I’ve been known for a tendency to undervalue my own work and achievements.  This is something I’ve worked on very hard over the last few years and I’m glad to say I have significantly more confidence in my work, my skills and my persistence to see a problem through until the end.  I’m sorry to say that what I experienced at this conference didn’t help in this endeavour.)

I was faced with questions that were far more technical than I was expecting, from people far more senior than I thought had any right being interested in a second year PhD student’s work.  Though I did my best to engage coherently with my audience, I came away feeling deflated, overwhelmed and completely out of my depth.

Consequently, I couldn’t decide whether I was more elated or more baffled when, the day following my poster presentation, I was awarded an actual prize for it.  I actually thought I’d misheard when they’d read out my name, but no.  I’d only gone and achieved something great.  Fantastic!  I was chuffed to bits.  Later, on the final evening of the conference, I was chatting to a male delegate who I hadn’t previously met.  Over drinks I mentioned that I’d won a prize the previous day, and how pleased and surprised I was.

“Congratulations! That’s great, well done.”, this charming fellow said.

Except, he didn’t.  What he actually said was, “Oh, yes.  They always give the prizes to the pretty girls.”

I tell you, if I’d had the book I’d won on me at the time, I might well have clonked him around the head with it.  I was gobsmacked.  I had to double check that I hadn’t somehow fallen through a wormhole into 1922.

A personal passion for supporting women in science

It was on that day that I finally realised what sexism really is: it’s not being able to escape your gender.  It’s your achievements being put down to feminine wiles, prettiness or flirtation; it’s your failures being put down to being less intelligent, creative or powerful than a man.  Whether you succeed or fail, it’s not because of who you are as an individual with your own set of thoughts, talents, flaws and eccentricities.  It’s because you are a woman. 

Sheffield ScienceGrrl launch

Ever since, I’ve been far more aware of the generally poor representation of women in science and passionate about changing it, so when I found out that ScienceGrrl had loads of local chapters but not one in Sheffield, it was a no-brainer to get one established.

So, ScienceGrrl Sheffield kicked off to a flying start on Friday 31st January with a drinks and quiz night at the lovely Sheffield Showroom. 

All the worry in the preceding fortnight that I’d be spending the evening quizzing an empty room save for four of my more supportive mates turned out to be for naught when around 50 guests of a huge diversity of backgrounds battled through the unrelenting Yorkshire wind and rain to come and find out more about ScienceGrrl. 

It was awesome to see some brand new faces who weren’t yet involved in the Sheffield scicomms scene and everyone was really enthusiastic.  I was lucky to chat to loads of interesting people with great ideas for ScienceGrrl Sheffield, from one-off blog posts to huge events, while the talented Nynke Wierda kindly donated her professional photographer services for free, documenting the whole evening for us in picture form! We began with relaxed drinks and chatting to a wonderful Science themed playlist put together for us by the lovely Steph Kerr of local, student-led science outreach organisation Science Brainwaves.

Sheffield launch event

A science-themed quiz

Later, an introduction to ScienceGrrl, its aims and the story of its unconventional origins was followed by a science themed quiz, with rounds hosted by me and a truly fabulous team, without whom the event wouldn’t have been half what it was.   Dr Nate Adams, Lisa Heywood, Chella Quint, the extraordinarily dapper Dr Jon Wood* and I delivered rounds on Sheffield science, science history, women in science, ‘name that cartoon scientist’, and science in the news. 

Guests were admirable in their forbearance of some seriously obscure questions (sorry!).   Prizes – kindly donated from organisations including Science Brainwaves, ScienceShowoff, Beer Central, Festival of the Spoken Nerd, and of course, ScienceGrrl itself – were hard won! 

Of course, we’re not just about the knowledge and prizes were also given for the best team-name puns, amongst which was my personal favourite: ‘Marie Furious-about-the-under-representation-of-women-in-science’.  Most excellent.

It was a great evening.  I for one had a fabulous time and I was so pleased to see so many people come and get involved.  We had interest from far and wide, and I was later interviewed about the beginnings of ScienceGrrl Sheffield for the Science Brainwaves radio show, and the fantastic Science podcast ‘In The Abstract’

What’s next?

ScienceGrrl Sheffield teamSince the launch, we’ve had another meet up for drinks and to talk about people’s ideas for ScienceGrrl Sheffield.  We’re now in the process of getting some of them up and running, and I’m really excited about making them a reality.  I can’t wait to see what we’ll achieve. 

Take that, sexist man at conference.  

Keep Sciencing, Grrls.

Dr Jen Lewis is the Sheffield chapter co-ordinator and a research associate in neural modelling at the University of Sheffield.

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*Jon is better known as the lead of the Birmingham chapter of ScienceGrrl.  At the ScienceGrrl first anniversary lecture in October he solemnly vowed always to dress in black tie for ScienceGrrl events.  Jon has so far remained true to his word!