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On Nobel Prizes, and why Girls Should eat Cake in History Lessons

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It was with fascination that I listened to Radio 4's profile last week of Jocelyn Bell Burnell - the scientist whose claim to fame is being passed over for the Nobel Prize for physics, despite being the person who discovered pulsars. Rather, it was awarded to her male colleague instead.

She talked about how, when she was young, science just wasn't something that was done by women.

"The problem actually started when I started secondary school," she said in the interview. "[Girls] were sent to the domestic science room and the boys to the science lab."

The problems continued at university where Bell Burnell was the only woman doing physics in her year: the male students would wolf whistle and stamp their feet as she walked into the lecture theatre.

I listened gobsmacked - and overcome with a profound sense of gratitude for my own education. Because where I was at school, being female wasn't a cause for not being able to do something - it wasn't even a cause for being particularly good at something: it just didn't come into the equation at all.

I spent my formative years at one of the country's pushier schools for girls, and whilst that wasn't the school's official name, it might as well have been. 25% of my year were accepted to Oxbridge; and one of the more memorable extra-curricular activities including a contemporary of mine putting on a production of the Bacchae - in the original Greek (she was one of the particularly brainy ones, admittedly).

But that doesn't mean to say I had a terrible time - far from it. I absolutely loved the place - and not only for the fact that Dr Triffitt used to let us eat cake during triple History. Because the one characteristic school instilled in me (other than a lifelong terror of the conjugation of Latin verbs) is a sense of fearlessness about anything I turn my professional hand to, which is something for which I'll be eternally grateful.

If a girl in my year had an aptitude for maths, then she studied maths, regardless of the fact that - as I've only come to realise since - it's seen as a "boys' subject". It was the same across the curricular board: flair for science was met with as much encouragement in an A-level physics class as could possibly be mustered. Whether it was Design and Technology; or Electronics; or IT, it didn't matter - we just went and did what we were good at. And those of us who were better with words, or languages, or music went our way too. Everything was based on aptitude and ability, rather than gender.

It's only since I've left the confines of school that I've realised this isn't how things work in the world at large - and, by God, it's a poorer place for it. I find it baffling that still, now, some fifty years after Jocelyn had to put up with such disgraceful behaviour in order to pursue her career, that we're still putting serious obstacles in the way of our clever girls by making them feel that, by simple fact of being female, they're unable to pursue subjects they love. It's no wonder women are woefully underrepresented in science and engineering if it's insinuated from an early age that these aren't fields for girls to play in.

The programmes available to attract women to careers in science are commendable, and have clearly got their work cut out. But that's not how to solve the problem. Give girls the right attitude from the word go and there'd be no need to roll out special measures later down the line.

Who knows? A little more support in the classroom, and women like Bell Burnell might be more than one in a million.

Around the Web

Jocelyn Bell Burnell - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell | Top 100 women | Science | The Guardian

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