I was at a science symposium, or so I thought. It was a symposium where I was presenting my work in a poster. It was organized by our funding body. Most talks…well, all but one, were about science. Although not closely related to what I did, some biological problem was being addressed. Until…a historian walked onto the stage to give her talk.
Hattie Lloyd is a PhD student from UCL and studies Humphry Davy’s audience. Her talk was interesting to me for 2 reasons. First, she reminded me of the chemist I had forgotten about – Davy- and second, she chooses to study his audience and not his work or his lectures. Interesting.
She narrates the genesis of her study in an anecdotal fashion, saying she found many references suggesting that his lectures were attended by many women. Of course, in his time women were excluded from Universities. Therefore, Hattie took an interest in why women attended his lectures and went on to show us her findings that many affluent women who had inherited lands, used to attend his lectures to understand the latest theories and discoveries in chemistry at the time to try and implement these theories (many related to heat transfers) in their day to day lives, of which the kitchen was a big part. She further told us about the Scottish female mathematicians who had attended Davy’s lectures.
Hattie discussed with us her impression of the time, which is that there weren’t many women pursuing careers in science. In fact, women weren’t allowed to. But she tells us how her findings show that women were, in fact, scientifically oriented and many of these disobeyed the rules of the time. She tells us how Davy said in public that he’d rather not have women in laboratories but did not discourage them from attending his lectures. On the contrary, Hattie presented some evidence of him having supported a certain patroness of the Royal Institution in conducting experiments at her high estate.
Hattie is a confident speaker, very much in control of herself and her audience. And I thoroughly enjoyed her talk. She has identified ~860 women who went to Davy’s chemistry lectures. I found her work very stimulating.
There were many questions from the audience…an audience full of scientists, mind you! And that’s a great compliment to Hattie.
One particular question was interesting…and as Hattie answered it, she said what I would have said. Since I didn’t record her talk, I can’t exactly tell you what she said, but here’s what I remember and I am quite certain this is very close to what was being said…
Q: Given there are more women in this room today than men, do you still think gender equality is a problem in science?
A: I think it still is. Although there are many more women here today than men, as you climb up the ranks, you see fewer and fewer women holding important positions. So yes, I think it still is. But I have to admit that it is worse in history.
Do you think gender equality is still a problem?
Do you know of women who many have contributed significantly to your fields of work at a time when they were not allowed to?
Leave your comments below…