When some of our members proposed a campaign in response to Paul Henry’s comments sexualising and trivialising the work of a guest scientist on his TV3 show, we were tempted to let it pass. After all, New Zealand is facing some really big challenges right now, like climate change and child poverty. Puerile sexism masquerading as humour on television seems like an insignificant problem. Except it’s not, is it?
Henry’s question, like our impulse to dismiss it as trivial, is a symptom of a bigger problem. Covert persistent sexualisation of women is a bigger problem for our whole society. Trivialisation of the work of women scientists is a bigger problem for our innovation and technology industries.
We spoke with Dr Dickinson before running the campaign, and she was very supportive. Although she wasn't personally offended, she has since written about what the incident highlights about sexism towards women in science, which is why we focused on that in our campaign.
Here is what Dr Dickinson says in her blog:
"It made me think about sexism in science and the conversations that I’ve had with many female colleagues about how difficult it can be to gain respect as a female scientist and how we seem to have to jump through many different hoops including how our appearance and personality affects our profile much more it would a male scientists."
We focused of our campaign on the hero of the situation - Dr Dickinson and all the other brilliant women in science in New Zealand. We also based our campaign on Dr Dickinson's own response in her blog, which included the following:
Until we can get funding for a prime time dedicated science program accessible to all, scientists like me will keep having to throw in our 5 minutes wherever we can because we feel its important to talk about science. How about we use this momentum to address the issues we have with the content of the national TV shows that we fund in this country and push towards funding some more smart science ones?
You can watch the episode here (incident starts at 4.47 mins):
Dr Dickinson's response here:
And read other responses here:
Q: What difference does one episode make to combating sexism in science, or furthering science in the media?
Dr Dickinson herself talks about the almost complete void of science communication in popular media, and she spends her time and own money taking the few opportunities available to her because she feels so strongly that any airtime for science is an important step. Here’s what she says in her blog:
Because we do not have dedicated science TV shows on our national channels, it’s quite difficult to get any airtime for the subject... Until we can get funding for a prime time dedicated science program accessible to all, scientists like me will keep having to throw in our 5 minutes wherever we can because we feel its important to talk about science.
So yes, I’ll likely go onto the Paul Henry show again, because it’s one of the few shows that includes science. How about we use this momentum to address the issues we have with the content of the national TV shows that we fund in this country and push towards funding some more smart science ones?
Prof Shaun Hendy, researcher with the MacDiarmid Institute and winner of the New Zealand Association of Scientists Research Medal stands with Dr Dickinson and the campaign. Here’s what he wrote to us in support:
"I find it deeply depressing to witness the ongoing harassment that many of my fellow scientists face just because they are women. Some of it can be unconscious - many still subscribe to the stereotype of the male scientist. Sometimes it amounts to outright hostility that can sap a scientist's love for their job. At its worst, I have seen women systematically undermined, behind their backs, by their colleagues. It's long past time that we put a stop to this."
See more about what Prof Hendy says about misogyny in science in his blog ‘A Measure of Science’: