gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Women's History Month: Patty Jansen

Gillian asked me to write this post, and I said yes before I had fully appreciated that it would involve me talking about myself, about being female. I have to admit that this is not a subject I like talking about.

Yet, I realise that in the (too many) years since I finished high school, a lot has changed. That year, when I and my class mates applied for whatever course took our fancy, I was informed that I couldn't apply for the commercial airline pilot course, since they didn't accept girls. That changed the next year, but by that time I had moved on.

Beer-guzzling jackeroos, mooing cattle penned up in groups of 25, barking dogs and an auctioneer blaring through a megaphone at a sea of hats. Dust, leery jokes, and utes.

What in her right mind would a young female student from the city do in such a place? Yet, there I was in the mid-eighties, at the Eidsvold cattle sale, with the contingent from the nearby CSIRO research station about 70k out of Mundubbera (which has since been sold). We were selling cattle, well, the technicians were. I came along for the ride and I was one of the very few women not behind a food stall of some sort.

Likewise, there have been many times in my life when I've been a woman in a man's world, the only girl in my physics class, one of the few female students in my agriculture course. Out of a staff of 300, I was one of the two only female scientists. Now I write hard SF. I suppose it's fair to say that I've spent a lot of time working at the frontier of female expansion.

Not that I've ever thought about it that much. I tend to view myself as scientist, writer, or parent way before I'll classify myself as 'woman'. For the sake of this post, I will make an exemption.

When I first walked into the CSIRO technician's labs in the 1980's, there were still pin-up girls on the walls in the odd office. I thought it was disgusting, but what could I do? The owners of the pictures were much older than me. I was a student and they weren't obliged to do anything for me. So I glared at the pictures a few times and otherwise ignored them. I tried to fit in. Talk the talk and walk the walk. Over the space of a few months, I found that, regardless of the pictures, the men were very accepting and they were fun to be with. To them, I was a new phenomenon, and while no doubt it took them time to get used to me, they never made a point of it. When I came back to work there later, the pin-ups were gone.

As several scientists have concluded before me, the integration of women in science is continuing apace, silently, and without many words spoken. You do your work and discuss the science, rather than a personal agenda.

Yet, there are two things in particular that have made an impression on me:

Firstly, these men are your colleagues and your friends. Your treatment of them reflects in their treatment of you. I've never made a point of being different in any way, and, apart from a few isolated incidences, have not felt that anyone has treated me differently, or should I say, has treated me in a way in which I didn't want to be treated. Stepping on every slight transgression hurts your relationship with them. Snapping at the gentle old fellow insisting to open the door for you does not make you any friends, never mind you think it's a tad patronising.

At the same time, it would be foolish to suggest differences don't exist.

I remember sitting in the tea room of the Agriculture Department in Sydney University (where I was doing my PhD) with an older scientist (male, of course—there was no other variety at the time). He recounted the names of all the female postgraduate students he remembered, and could not, a few years later, give me a single name of one who still worked in research. I don't remember him as being accusing, but I can easily see how statistics like this can be interpreted that way. What happens in exact science research, and other such workplaces, that makes so many women give up?

When I was discussing this with him, I guess I already knew I was going to be one of those women, albeit for different reasons than those that eventually made me leave. It was always my aim to do something more creative. Ultimately, like many before me, I found that work in science is something you do either 60 hours a week or not at all. You could go on and on about whether it should be the woman cutting back hours when children come onto the scene, but a few things won't change: the biological fact that it's the woman who gets pregnant and can get quite knocked-about, health-wise, by this experience. The fact that most people resent fully outsourcing childcare. The fact that the partner who scales back work commitment will be the one who has a job that can accommodate scaling back. Other things may change in the future, but haven't changed yet: the fact that the professional Australian job market is as inflexible as hell about people wanting to work less.

In answering the question: what makes these women give up, I wonder if they really have given up, something I very much doubt.

Yes, many have given up on corporate science, but not on science per se. I chose to vote with my feet and started a home business selling and publishing popular science books, where I still had plenty of opportunity to do science. I also maintained contact with the scientific community by continuing to work as reviewer and editor. Twelve years later, I am still in science, writing hard SF, and not regretting any of the decisions I made.

That said, I frequently encounter women deliberately turning away from anything that smells of science. They will shrug and throw up their hands and say it's too hard for them or that they're not interested. I get frustrated that young women reinforce the expectations of society not in becoming caring mothers and scaling back their work, but in primping and preening and wasting time and money on what they look like and declaring a self-imposed disinterest in the numbers, the facts, the dollars and the policies that make society tick.

If you know how the engine works, you will be much better at driving it, whether you do that in the cabin, in the office or from the sidelines.

Patty is a writer and reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy. She is a coop member, editor and slush reader at Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and member of SFWA. Patty has a professional background in science (agriculture and ecology). She has a postgraduate degree from the University of Sydney and worked for CSIRO (North Queensland). Other interests include natural history, marine biology and astronomy. She is married to an IT professional and now lives in Sydney. She has three teenage children. Patty blogs about science and writing at

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