On Sunday, I noticed a Facebook update from I F*cking Love Science which was based around a 'your mom' joke. I'm going to completely sidestep the issue of whether it's a funny joke; that's not important. You might laugh, you might not. Either way, it's interesting, because this image was nestled among a slew of scientific memes which are distinctly aimed at men.
Facebook is undoubtedly a platform for crude memes, and women are unfortunately used to seeing sexist examples pop up in social networking timelines. Women who challenge the posts are often chastised for failing to have a sense of humour. But writing off sexism as 'banter' has repercussions beyond social media bickering.
Sexism in science reinforces an outdated message. It stirs up conflict between those who object (male and female) and those who see complaints as a chance to wheel out tired jokes about women's role in society. It also underlines the fact that, for young women, sexist attitudes are a barrier to their involvement in science and technology. I have first hand experience, having been bullied (by men and women) for my interest in computing, both as a child and an adult. I know how these attitudes trickle down and dissuade women from getting involved.
The owners of the aforementioned Facebook page have an audience of 1.5 million. To put that in perspective, Professor Brian Cox has 850,000 followers on Twitter and Jodrell Bank observatory attracts 100,000 visitors a year. The Facebook page trumps both comfortably. With such a huge audience comes responsibility, particularly when posts made on a social network have the potential to spread virally in minutes.
According to research from the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC), men are six times more likely to enter scientific careers than women. The Royal Artillery Centre for Personal Development (RADCP) says that women, who make up 49% of the British workforce, hold just 17% of IT and telecommunications jobs. That number is falling, and nobody has yet figured out how to do anything about it. But one thing is for sure: as women's presence in science declines, linking either of these subjects with sexism or stereotypes is the last thing anyone should be doing.
Even organisations promoting science put an odd twist on women's involvement: Jodrell Bank's recent 'Ladies Night' event promised to "banish fear" about science with free cupcakes and cocktails. The event's organisers called for "astronettes, star-lettes and cosmic girls" to attend. Many critics saw it gender stereotyping. Some thought it was a great idea. Whatever your point of view, it still seems strange that a scientific event was promoted with images of make-up and high heels. Many of the young girls interested in science and tech arguably wouldn't identify with either.
Each of these examples reveals a pernicious assumption that science is male, which isn't just incorrect - it's damaging. Women may well have been discouraged from getting involved in science throughout history; women weren't allowed scientific degrees from Cambridge until the 1940s, for a start. But in 2012, science shouldn't be seen as anything but genderless.
Schools, media outlets and social networks should be promoting science and technology as fascinating, challenging subjects that transcend boundaries based on arbitrary factors like gender. Only then will we have the chance of convincing young girls that these careers are right for them.