There’s so much pressure on white male scientists these days. It’s not enough to be a successful researcher and teacher; now your average scientist feels pressure to share his research impact with the public, be an attentive husband and motivated father – and all the while look the part. It’s no surprise that men have such a low profile in STEM industries (in 2012, only 32% of people employed as scientists and engineers in the EU were men, and only 26% of those enrolled as PhDs in construction, manufacturing and engineering were male).
But on a bright July afternoon I’m waiting to talk to two men who are part of a new, vibrant scientific community. Peter Broks and Chad Orzel are faces of modern science: as well as teaching and researching, they are enthusiastically involved in public engagement, both writing for mainstream audiences.
Peter Broks is the first to arrive. The author of two successful books (Borderlands: Where Science Meets Everything Else and Inventing the Scientist), he writes about the ways that science is defined through its interaction with the social, cultural and political world around it. In a crisp white Oxford shirt and Marks and Spencer slacks, he looks younger than his fifty-seven years. I’m surprised to learn he has two grown up daughters, and I ask what his secret is. He laughing says “it would be a struggle to keep in shape if I ever took up the struggle”, but admits that he’s cut out biscuits. Job and family have to come first, he says firmly; keeping in shape gets squeezed out. Does that mean men can’t have it all? They can – “but only if ‘all’ is not too big”, he says wryly, pushing back his mane of silver hair.
While we’ve been chatting, Chad Orzel arrives. A statuesque 6’6”, Chad is an unmistakeable figure as he moves confidently through the crowds to meet us. It’s easy to believe that he used to play college rugby; it’s more surprising that nowadays this giant in a polo shirt is a successful physicist, even if he laughingly says that he dresses like a scientist. But a success he is – the author of several popular science books (the latest, Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist, considers how many of the things non-scientists do for fun and relaxation use the same mental processes that scientists use to explore the universe), and has a devoted following for his twitter feed, which is made up of science jokes and charmingly homespun anecdotes about his children and dog. Chad’s wife is a successful attorney, and like many career men, he finds himself taking on a good portion of household management – he tells me he does most of the cooking for their family. Despite his hectic schedule, Chad finds time to go to the gym, or else he feels “fat and sluggish”, the handsome forty-four-year-old admits with a self-deprecating smile. When I ask him if other men feel jealous of his success, he shrugs and says anyone with a tenured job is probably an object of envy. “But, you know, I can’t spend a lot of time thinking about that – I have to get on with my work,” he continues pragmatically.
I ask Peter if he feels the same way. “I would need more success for anyone to be jealous!” he declares modestly, though after some coaxing admits that “I have had a profound effect on the lives of some students”. “I don’t know that I’m all that inspirational,” Chad agrees, “but I hope I’ve shown a few people that science in general, and specifically physics, is a lot more approachable than they might’ve thought. If I’ve managed to inspire anyone to give physics a try, well, I think that’s a pretty good legacy.” Leaving their company, I’m left with the spark of confidence that maybe men really can have it all, if they are willing to lean in and work for it.
The idea for this post came from reading a Mail on Sunday interview with the Labour leadership candidate Liz Kendall, where we’re informed that the “slinky brunette” (who, we’re repeatedly reminded, is unmarried and childless) “maintains her lithe figure by jogging 20 miles a week”. When asked by the reporter how much she weighed, Kendall reportedly told him to “fuck off”, which the Mail reported as a “raucous” response, as if she and the journalist were sharing a joke. Kendall’s angry account of the conversation on BBC Radio 5 Live, however, suggests a less rosy picture. “I cannot wait for a world when women are judged the same as men and not by those kinds of questions,” said the MP for Leicester West.
That may be a long time coming. It’s clear from reading interviews with successful career women that not only are they asked different questions from their male peers, but the language used to frame their interviews is entirely different. Would Simon Walters – who, by the way, isn’t some freelance hack, but is the political editor for the Mail on Sunday – have focused on a male leadership candidate’s figure, exercise routine and shopping habits? It’s easy to check, as he also recently carried out an interview with Andy Burnham. That interview does contain a heartwrenching story about his Liverpudlian grandmother, and establishes his street credibility by reporting on how he’s taken his teenage children to see The Strokes and Taylor Swift. But the only comment on his appearance is at the very end, where Walters asks him to address the rumour that he wears mascara for TV appearances to enhance his “matinee idol” looks. Burnham laughs and denies it, saying he’d be happy to get rid of his eyelashes tomorrow, establishing his credibility as an appropriately masculine candidate for leadership. Some people might say women should, like Burnham, laugh off questions about their appearance; but that’s easier to do when your public value isn’t linked to whether you weigh the same as the Duchess of Cambridge, or where interviewers don’t try to coax you into admitting that it’s miserable being a single childless woman.
My thanks to Peter Broks and Chad Orzel for taking part in this “interview”. Questions were, in fact, conducted via email, not in person, and as far as I know, Peter and Chad have never met. They were aware that I would be using their words with some degree of tabloid creative licence. The statistics on men in STEM are accurate – for women, according to the EU Commission’s She Figures 2012: Gender in Research and Innovation. In my own field, the Royal Historical Society reports that only 20.8% of historians at the professorial level in the UK are women and that overall women make up only 38.5% of academic staff employed in history, even though at undergraduate level men and women are roughly equal, and concludes that “Anyone committed to improving gender balance therefore has to think more radically to develop policies that can help to overcome invisible or unconscious bias and the resulting experiences of stereotype threat and the silencing of women.” Most academics, male and female, are not subject to the kind of public scrutiny faced by politicians. But as I discussed in my most popular blog post to date, for women in academia and other professions, our bodies – and the different standards to which those bodies are held – can still make career advancement a far from straightforward objective.