Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Prizes for Women (only)?

Posted by Athene Donald on August 22, 2010

Do women need prizes simply because they are women and can’t compete with men for prizes more generally? AS Byatt  clearly feels that women-only prizes are demeaning and sexist according to a recent article in the Guardian following her appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  As the winner of a women-only prize in science, and therefore having thought a lot about this topic, I would like to offer some thoughts in response.

One doesn’t know how accurately she is quoted, but apparently AS Byatt said ‘The Orange Prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don’t believe in. It’s honourable to believe that – there are fine critics and writers who do – but I don’t.’ But is the Orange Prize really given for writing about feminine subjects, or is it given simply to ‘celebrate[s] excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world’ as its web site says? There is a difference, and I think it is a crucial one.

This was very neatly expressed, within the scientific context, by one of my fellow L’Oreal laureates, Eugenia Kumacheva as she accepted her prize. She said that there is no such thing as female science, only science done by women.  Exactly.

However, does that mean there shouldn’t be prizes for women? I was asked this question by Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs so my reply is a matter of record. I believe that if such prizes exist, they give a wonderful platform to celebrate the fact that women do do science and do it well. Since I – and clearly AS Byatt too, who won the Booker Prize in 1990 and has just been awarded a James Tait Black Memorial Prize – am perfectly capable of winning prizes in open competition, I do not feel I won the L’Oreal award as a consolation prize when I was too incompetent to win anything else since I am a mere woman.  If I had thought otherwise my reaction would have been entirely different.  So, the reason for woman-only prizes is not a dumbed down version of a proper prize; on the contrary it serves some completely other purpose, that of celebration. More on this later.

AS Byatt made some further points when she went on to say that she thought women who write intellectually demanding novels are perceived by critics as strange and unnatural, ‘like a dog standing on its hind legs’.   In other words she thinks critics are often sexist, a very different point from the Orange prize being sexist in itself. I cannot comment on literary critics’ vagaries, and I will save my thoughts on whether there is sexism in science for a later post (maybe).   But I think it is unfortunate if the presence of sexism in the community of literary (or scientific) peers is mixed up with ideas of sexism of the prize itself, thereby devaluing it.

So why do I think that the L’Oreal/UNESCO For Women in Science awards (at all their different levels: national and international fellowships for early career researchers, and the continent-wide Laureates) are a worthwhile enterprise and should not be marked down as sexist? Now, more than a year on, I probably have a much clearer idea of the impact the prize has had on my career. But first let me quote some previous winners’ comments:

  • “This award can serve to inspire more women to overcome obstacles and pursue their dreams of a career in science” (Nancy Kip, China 2004 Laureate)
  • “This award was mixed with the sense that the patients played a prominent role, because lepros is a disease that is still stigmatized. Patients perhaps go attention again because of this recognition of me as an individual” (Indira Nath, India 2002 Laureate).
  • “This public recognition of scientific research is a special event that has challenged me to be an advocate for young women wishing to pursue a scientific career” (Joanne Chory, USA, 2000 Laureate).

So, as these comments indicate, the prize is about far more than the money that comes with it (useful though that is) and the pleasures of a week in Paris at someone else’s expense. It is about the visibility it proffers, and the interest others show in it, so that one can do more as a role model for young women, and as an advocate for science itself.  I mentioned Desert Island Discs, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a fool of oneself to a very large audience (though like my Cambridge colleague Mary Beard I only have a rather dim memory of what I actually said). But what struck me most were the delightful emails I got as a result of the programme from complete strangers saying positive things such as how my words had touched a chord, given them a chance to talk to their daughter about a career in science or made them reconsider their own career choices. This was outreach in a way I had never anticipated, but which certainly makes its way into my Pathways to Impact statements for the Research Councils.  There have been many similar, if smaller scale opportunities to stand up and be counted as a scientist who happens to be female, but clearly it has led to my profile becoming sufficient that I get random emails from schoolchildren seeking advice: about life as a scientist (and even to be their friend on Facebook, though these I decline), career choices and optimum A level combinations; and I get a fair number of invitations to talk to schools.  These are events of a sort I am sure would not have come my way without the media exposure I got last year, and I am pleased to be able build on this platform to broaden people’s appreciation of science, scientists and the scientific way of life.

Now L’Oreal, no doubt like Orange, have a wonderful PR machine, so that they make sure the initial prize announcement makes its way into the correct media channels. But, due to that impetus I feel the knock-on effects have been entirely helpful for the work I do around gender in science. The media attention for getting a ‘standard’ prize such as the recent IOP Faraday Medal is essentially zero. So, rather than seeing this woman-only prize as sexist,  I pay tribute to the innovation that the For Women in Science award was and is, and the opportunity it has offered me to further my own goals in supporting young women wanting to enter the sciences. Its underlying premise ‘The world needs science and science needs women’ is an important one. Consequently, I do not agree with AS Byatt’s take on things, however much, in a purely literal sense, these prizes are indeed sexist by being closed to men.

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