Some thoughts on science, sports, and spending time in male-dominated spaces. 💭
When I was ten, my family moved to a village in the middle of nowhere in rural Warwickshire. Having spent the rest of my childhood somewhere which was a city in all but name, Warwickshire was a pretty big disappointment. If you do not care about Shakespeare, there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. My parents dealt with this by taking up geocaching. I dealt with this by asking if I could join the village Guide group. My parents said “no, you won’t like it – but you can join the Scouts if you want to”. I did.
At the risk of making myself sound about 30 years older than I am, Scouts when I joined it was not the same organisation as it is today. While Scout groups were allowed to admit girls from the early 1990s, it was not compulsory for them to do so until 2007. And so when I joined, in 2008, there were still thousands of Scout groups across the country which were, and had always been, all male. My Scout group was one of them.
Now I was very lucky that the year I joined we had a new Scout leader take over too. Unlike a lot of girls who joined in the late 2000s, all the adults made it very clear to me (and to the boys) that I belonged there as much as they did. But, at first, whenever we had to split ourselves into teams for something physical and/or a bit rough, I was very aware that I was always one of the last to be chosen.
I thought this was deeply unfair. I knew there was no difference between me and the boys. I was pretty quick, and strong for my size too. And so I embarked on a mission to prove to the boys that I was, in fact, as tough as them. This largely involved joining in with all the gross/scary things they seemed to respect each other for doing. I quickly learnt that you can do most things that disgust/terrify you (eat a spider, run through an overgrown graveyard at night…) as long as you just get on with it and do them, without giving yourself any time to actually think about it. Anyway, it didn’t take long at all for the boys to properly accept me, and by the time I was 12 I was voted in by my peers as Senior Patrol Leader, ranking above boys three years older than me and double my size.
A few years later I’d have to choose my A levels. My favourite subjects for most of secondary school had been Art, English Literature and Music, but I’d done some Maths Olympiads during my GCSE years and they were really fun so (to many people’s surprise) I ended up settling on mostly science subjects. Across the two years I’d take Maths, Further Maths and Additional Further Maths (the holy trinity), alongside Physics and Chemistry, and also German (I wanted Art, but my school couldn’t/wouldn’t timetable it with Physics).
The difference in gender balance across those subjects was really obvious. German was a tiny class, but maybe three-quarters female. Chemistry was half-and-half. Further Maths was maybe one-quarter female. But in Physics, I was the only girl. And while I was, by then, very used to being “the only girl” at Scouts, it felt so strange to experience that at school. Nobody ever said anything terrible, but there were a lot of mild things that made me feel uncomfortable. I was good at physics, so I was invited by my teacher to go on some Olympiads and an Ogden Trust summer school – but then there were murmurings that my gender had contributed to me being chosen. And again, when we were all sending off our UCAS applications, many people complained that it was unfair – that I was more likely to get into a good university, because I was female and applying to study Physics, and “physics departments want more women”. I’d love to be able to say that I had the confidence to shake these comments off. The truth, though, is that by the age of 16 I just couldn’t see it in that simple way I did when I was 10. I did know that I was good at physics. I got straight A*s in my A levels. But there was always a voice in the back of my mind thinking: what if they’re right? What if people have given me extra chances because I am female?
And throughout all my years at university, that voice never really went away. At undergrad I was the only girl on my degree scheme (Theoretical Physics), and over the course of the four years would only have two female lecturers, and whenever I won a prize, or a scholarship, or got a place on an internship, or successfully applied for a job, I always really wanted to know: did my gender play any part in that? I ended up graduating top of my department, which meant a huge deal to me for many reasons, but a significant one of those was that it was an objective measure. Our exam scripts were completely anonymised. Nobody marking my answers knew anything about me.
Post-university I’d go on to work for the Met Office – remotely for a year, and then from the office as soon as we were allowed. And as soon as I started coming into the office I realised that, for the first time since I was 16, I was in an environment where I wasn’t the odd one out. There were a lot of female scientists around, and they were cool, and they were smart, and they were confident, and they were funny – and for the first time I had people I would look at and think “I’d love to be like that one day”. I started realising things about myself that I’d never consciously registered before – like the fact that I had been deliberately “dressing down” my femininity at university, almost exclusively wearing dark jeans and plain jumpers, because I didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to accuse me of using my gender to “win” internship/scholarship opportunities. I still have the same drive to improve, but that’s now because I genuinely want to be better, rather than because I feel like I have something to prove. It feels different: like climbing, rather than being chased.
Now, if Science was all I did with my life, this is where I’d put the conclusion. I’d probably spin it into an uplifting piece about the importance of role models and representation. But Science is not all I do, and so it is, again, not quite that simple. Alongside my job, I also spend over 20 hours a week cycling / cross-training for cycling. I call this a hobby (because I have no aspirations to make any kind of career out of it), but I’m not sure hobby is quite the right word. It is something I pour a lot of time, energy and focus into. I race (this season, Open TTs and an ultra-endurance race) and I tend to do pretty well. Despite a distinct lack of equipment (I don’t own a TT bike, so have been time-trialling on a road bike… entry-level public sector salaries and cycling are an interesting combination) I’ve podium-ed in every TT I’ve entered so far. I turned up to a race the other day and got described as “a big name in the South West”. I even have a couple of course records to my name. And I say this just to show that what I’m going to say next is ridiculous:
I don’t feel fast.
Because every race where I’ve been the fastest woman, if you compare my time to the whole field, it is incredibly mediocre. I will come back home with a prize money envelope, and I’ll feel proud, but I’ll also feel a bit like a fraud. People will tell me “well done”, and I will think: you don’t know that the fastest person was a whole 10% quicker than me. One weekend I can win an Open TT, and the next weekend I’ll be on a club ride where I am very much middle of the pack in terms of ability. I almost feel like I have somehow gamed the system. I know this is ridiculous. I know that separate gender categories exist precisely because it is not a level playing field. But I don’t want to be “fast, for a woman”. I just want to be fast.
At the moment I am trying really hard to change that attitude. I realised one day that I was prouder of an arbitrary club ride last winter where we raced up a hill for fun and I beat all the men, than I was of my CTT District Champion medal – and that is not right. It is not fair on me, and it is also not fair on the women I race against. But after years of scouts and of physics and of reassuring myself that, while I might be outnumbered, there’s no reason why I can’t be as good as everyone else, that is a very difficult thing to get my head around. I often think about how much simpler my life would be if I was (cis) male. It would feel so wonderfully straightforward to always be able to think about my ability (in both science and in sport) in terms of absolutes. But, as a woman, it sometimes feels like there’s always an asterisk hanging over my achievements.
So, where does all this lead? I honestly don’t know. I wish I had a nice neat conclusion to wrap it all up, but the truth is, it’s still something I’m trying to figure out myself. But for now, I’m going to keep getting involved in science outreach where I can, with the hope that maybe one teenage girl will see a bit of herself in me and know that there’s a place for her in physics too, if she wants it. And I’m going to keep showing up to races, and I’m going to keep sticking my prize money envelopes next to my mirror, and if I look at them enough times hopefully I will start to feel fast, too.