Sunday, July 18, 2010

Women in science

I was interested to see Rowenna Davis' article in the Guardian last week looking at undergraduate course choices by gender, and questioning why women's participation in certain subjects was still quite low.

But I thought it was unconvincing on two counts. First, the data didn't really look too bad. Life sciences, medicine and vet science courses were significantly female dominated, and there was 'only' a 60/40 bias against women in the physical and mathematical sciences, which is not particularly dramatic. Computer science was highlighted as a particularly male-dominated field, but that probably surprises no one, and especially as it got a recent 'dishonourable mention' as the undergraduate subject most likely to produce unemployed graduates, it's hard to justify why you think more women should pursue it. Things aren't so bad at undergraduate level, leaving the feeling for many readers that this was trying to make a story out of nothing - the real problem, possibly, is further down the line when well-qualified and competent women disproportionately drop out of scientific and technical professions for various reasons.

Secondly there seemed to be an implicit assumption in the article that every subject should have a perfect 50/50 gender split, with no explanation of why - and understandably a lot of commenters picked up on this, criticising it as an irrational and idealistic insistence on 'equality of outcome' for no logical reason.

There are two arguments about why such equality is a good thing. The first, and best in my view, is that its better to draw from as wide a pool of potential scientists as possible, so as to maximise the chances of getting the best and most talented people. This one works both ways; as well as women who would have done very well in hard sciences or engineering, a gender bias the other way means nursing and teaching and early years care miss out by men being put off these professions.

The second, which is a bit annoying, is that we need more 'girly' traits in science and technology. We need people who can communicate, who can multi-task, who have the 'soft skills', the people skills, who can collaborate and be nice. Which may well all be true, but why put that burden on women? To me, the 'we need women for their people skills, because we men are just so bad at it' translates as 'we need women to do all that boring soft/admin/non-science work for us, because we really don't want to make the effort', wrapped up in a compliment (women love getting compliments, you see). A little like 'but you're just so much better than me at doing the housework'. Not only does it reinforce in the workplace the idea that that sort of thing is women's work, it's another reminder of how invisible those women are who don't fit the feminine stereotype. Is it not possible that a woman might make a useful contribution to science for exactly the same reason a man would, not just because of her people-pleasing skills?

It also adds to the invisibility of women who don't happen to fit the feminine stereotype - and we have a difficult enough time anyway, excluded from the 'geeky' men's social circle because of being female, and not really fitting in with 'normal' women either...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

On Overeating

Apparently the new government are cutting funding for the healthy-living 'Change4Life' campaign, which they hope will be funded instead by snack food companies in exchange for 'freeing' said companies from further regulation of their products. Because they're not the big, bad evil monsters they've been painted as, and it's not their fault if some people choose not to eat in moderation.

It's easy to say - people like high-fat, high-sugar foods. It's what we've evolved to like, from the times when humans struggled to get enough calories to survive. The companies sell what we like, what else would we expect them to do? But it's very much more complicated than that. Yes we probably have evolved to favour fat and sugar, but still I feel little inclination to eat sugar by the spoonful from the packet in my kitchen cupboard, or to raid the fridge for butter or to drink the olive oil. These things in themselves do not produce the intensity of craving or lead to eating binges in the same way that certain prepared and packaged foods do.

People frequently describe the feeling of being 'out of control' around certain foods. I would have dismissed as them being 'just greedy', but then...it happened to me. I found myself overeating. I'd find myself eating another slice of pizza after I was already uncomfortably full, then another, and it would be as though I was watching myself and wondering what on earth I was doing. I found myself getting up from my desk at work, thinking only of having a break, getting away from the stress of the busy, noisy trading floor, to find myself wandering down a short corridor where I was confronted with The Vending Machine, surrounded by a gentle white-noise whirr, lit by a soft glow displaying the rows of snacks wrapped in shiny paper, red and gold and silver like Christmas gifts. So I'd buy a chocolate bar and eat it, feeling the textures and smoothness in my mouth, the coolness, wrapped up in how it felt to bite through layers and discover more flavours, uncover new sensations in each one. That was, well, kind of nice. So I'd usually buy another one, and another, and feel myself drawn back for more, and if I felt sick of chocolates and sweets there were always the delicious salty crisps and corn chips and cheese-flavoured crackers, or cold, cold, fizzy drinks. I felt a bit embarrassed by my behaviour sometimes, but I couldn't long resist The Vending Machine and the simple, private, non-judgemental transaction, the card in the slot, the numbers punched in, my every desire dropping with a satisfying 'clunk' in the vending tray below. So without dwelling further on my personal binge-eating adventures, this experience made me feel there was something going on as well as me being greedy.

I read recently David A. Kessler's The End of Overeating which examines the phenomenon of compulsive over-eating and is also a detailed expose of the food industry (in the US in particular), his argument being that dysfunctional eating habits involving foods produced by this industry are not coincidental, and not even an unintentional, evolution-driven result of the industry, but are intentionally created and exploited.

Because these products are not just foods, they are complex 'multi-sensory experiences' designed with great care to produce addiction-like reactions in those who taste them. I was shocked and slightly in awe of the weight of biochemical and food science and psychological research, the vast quantities of time and money and expertise, that has gone into designing these products/experiences, at just how much there is to the food industry beyond the simple logistics of preparing and transporting and selling the food. At how much of it is about designing something not just to look and taste good, but to produce a specifically engineered pleasant-but-fleeting sensation in the mouth to encourage another bite, another portion. To dissolve quickly in the mouth without need for chewing to facilitate eating as much as possible in as short a space of time as possible. To behave in the stomach environment in such a way as to artificially delay the sensation of fullness, to encourage the eater to cram in more and more.

That's before we even start on the advertising to encourage people to consume more, more often, on more diverse occasions. A good example is a particular sugary breakfast cereal, which is now being heavily advertised as an ideal snack for when you get home from work. Don't just have it for breakfast. Have it other times as well, perhaps times when you wouldn't normally think of eating. Eat more of it. And more. And there's my personal nemesis, the vending machines in workplaces and public spaces, owned and sponsored and carefully positioned by the companies who produce the products, of course, displaying them enticingly, making them available in places where there wouldn't normally be food, encouraging you to eat right here, right now, making eating easy and acceptable everywhere and at all times.

The flip side to this is personal responsibility. I don't want to downplay this, and I know that in criticising the food industry there's a risk of portraying us all as passive consumers, unable to do anything but what the advertising tells us, unable to put down the packet of biscuits or walk past the fast food restaurant or say no to another donut or chocolate bar. Of course we can say no, as has been helpfully pointed out to me, it's my hand putting the chocolate in my mouth. It's hard to do, but then doing the right thing often is. It's our responsibility to look after our personal health and weight and wellbeing as far as we can, and I'm not necessarily saying the food industry should be excessively regulated, though I'd certainly like to see more people know about how it works.

But, that doesn't stop it being a hugely jarring juxtaposition to have a 'healthy eating' campaign funded by companies whose very business model is to trick and manipulate their customers into eating as much as possible, as frequently as possible, of food products containing substances known to be harmful to the health in large quantities.