There are many different quotes that have shaped my life and my writing. ‘Girls can’t do Physics’ is one of them.
Mr M. was the Head of the Physics department at my school. At the end of the 1970’s it was considered quite all right to express such an opinion, and he used to say it so often that it became a wry joke amongst the girls he taught.
In truth, this worked to my advantage. At age sixteen our sixth form syllabus offered a choice of either English Literature or Physics and although Physics was the obvious option in terms of the other subjects I was studying, I wanted very badly to study English Literature. So ‘Girls can’t do Physics’ played straight into my hands 🙂 (I’ll add that my mother, who was fiercely determined that her girls would have the opportunity to do whatever we set our hearts on, was well aware that I was doing exactly as I wanted, so held her tongue.)
I did, however, study Chemistry. The Head of the Chemistry Department was less vociferous on the subject of what girls could and couldn’t do but when we arrived in the Chemistry Lab on the first day of term, we found him no less opinionated. He re-arranged us, putting all of the girls in the back row and the boys in the two front rows. When someone put their hand up and asked why he told us that in these ‘modern times’ he was sadly unable to bar girls from his senior classes, but since he believed us unlikely to succeed, he intended to concentrate on educating the boys.
So we protested – with all the fervour of teenagers who can taste the sweet nectar of change. The Headmaster made sympathetic noises, claiming to understand exactly how we felt. But we had to understand that some of the older teachers needed time to catch up with the idea that girls could excel in the sciences. We were sent back to the Chemistry Lab to resume our places in the back row.
Some of the girls in my class overcame the obstacles by working twice as hard, and when national exam time came around they smashed their way through the first of a succession of glass ceilings. For my own part I had a very serious crush to contend with, and that didn’t leave me a great deal of spare time for extra Chemistry. Will Shakespeare might have been more than 400 years my senior, but since when did the sixteen year old heart bother about little things like that? I wondered whether true love had turned me into a traitor to my cause, but I couldn’t help the way I felt. If the sciences didn’t want me, that was actually fine, because I didn’t want them.
Did I cave in under pressure and miss out on a glittering career in science? I think not – Will still leaves me slightly weak at the knees, and I don’t regret the choices I made back then. But it wasn’t until I was in my thirties and decided to do some Open University science courses in my spare time, that I realised what I’d missed out on at school. The elegant synergy in great books, plays and poetry, didn’t seem to be so far removed from the cause and effect of Science and Mathematics. We were shown how weirdly beguiling fractal patterns worked, taught the mathematics of a rainbow, and for the first time I realised that Science can also be incalculably beautiful.
Things are better now, of course, but many girls are still less encouraged to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, and women are still under-represented in STEM professions worldwide, particularly at high levels. In 2015, the General Assembly of the United Nations established The International Day of Women and Girls in Science, to be celebrated on 11th February. If you’d like to see more facts and figures, and how UNESCO and UN-Women are working to encourage girls and women in science, here’s the link.
I’ll finish with another quote, which is much closer to my heart. My great-aunt was born in Queen Victoria’s reign, one of eight sisters, and was considered the beauty of the family. By all accounts she’d been a little wayward in her youth, and in her old age she’d become a kindly and fragile lady, whose most fervent wish was to get through the day without the slightest hint of discord. Even as a child I knew that she was both clever and perceptive.
When I got a place to study English Literature at University, I was despatched off to visit various elderly relatives, to impart the news in person. I dutifully ignored those who appeared to believe that I’d be spending the next three years reproducing the complete works of Jane Austen in cross-stitch, or who told me that this would be a pleasant, if slightly unnecessary, interlude before finding a husband made my own career irrelevant. I’d heard it all before and learned that loving my great aunts and uncles didn’t mean I had to accept their outlook on life. But it was something of a relief when my great-aunt propelled me into the kitchen for tea-making and biscuit-choosing duties.
As soon as we were alone, she sat me down, and grabbed both of my hands, holding on so tight that I was concerned she might be unwell. She told me that I wasn’t to listen to anyone who said my degree would be of less value because I was a girl. And then the words that I’ll always remember, because they were spoken with a passion I’d never seen in her before. ‘I would have loved to have had the chance to go to University. You go. Do it for me.’
In the face of those words, ‘Girls can’t…’ dissolves in a puff of ineffectual smoke.
And that’s shaped my writing. My heroines can do Physics, Chemistry, or whatever else they choose, and my heroes are man enough to accept that without even having to think about it. If that’s the way the world works today, it does so because of the determination of my fellow occupants of the back row, and the women who came before us and encouraged us to take up the opportunities they never had.
Of course, once you’ve learned to question bias, it’s a difficult habit to break. So before I allow them to slip from my thoughts for good, I’d like to thank my old headmaster and my physics and chemistry teachers. Somehow, despite all of your efforts, you did manage to teach me one thing of great value.