Friday 14 August 2015

On being a boy

I was reading a piece on the blogosphere a few days ago (I'll never be able to back track a proper citation - sorry) about an ophthalmic surgeon who was examining a child with retinitis pigmentosa.  Suspecting that he might be dealing with Laurence-Moon or Bardet-Biedl syndrome [nobody call it Laurence-Moon-Bardet-Biedl Syndrome LMBBS anymore - so yesterday and clearly contradicted by the genomic data], wrote in his notes " . . . polydactyly might be present".  This elicited a tetchy comment like "Jaysus, how specialised do these consultants get?  Could he not look at the child's hands and count fingers?"  Errm, quite so.

I was reminded of this when I read a recent interview with Ursula le Guin at home in Portland OR.  Last year she won the National Book Award and was presented with her medal by the much younger Neil Gaiman. I covered that in April.  I like the idea that they arranged for Gaiman to make the award. He too started off marginalised as a fantasy writer and that genre is generally not reviewed in the Arts pages of the national broadsheet newspapers because it is not read by the Oxbridge Ivy League of Gentlemen insiders who edit the newspapers of record. Doris Lessing hacked these people off when she started writing science fiction in mid-career.  Le Guin has garnered all sorts of awards - Hugo, Nebula - for fantasy but last year was the first time her talent as a writer (unqualified) was properly recognised.

We can talk about the sniffy and judgmental attitude to what these colossal authors write about.  At her acceptance speech last year Le Guin lashed out a broadside at these hangers-on to the coat-tails of creative genius having the temerity to dictate how, and about what, writers should write. Writing is not about writing a best-seller to make a load of cash for your agent, writing is what writers do because they can do no other. As Neil Gaiman has elsewhere advised, part of becoming a great writer is the process of finding your own authentic voice. As he says, he's the person in the World who writes best in the style of Neil Gaiman.  Unless you have something truly original to say; something that nobody else could articulate in the same way you might as well say nothing and leave the trees standing in their Northern forests.  If that's true for the Arts Block, it is even more true for Science where half the scientific papers ever published are so slight and derivative that nobody, not even their authors, will ever refer to them again. What a waste of trees!

But the invisible background of the success of Lessing and Le Guin is that they have made it despite being women. Lessing famously exposed the sorry pretensions of the publishing world to recognise talent by submitting her next novel Diary of a Good Neighbor under the pseudonym Jane Somers and getting it rejected.  Catherine Nichols, who is a woman and an author, has got some data on the fact that gender matters to these drones who affect to manage what gets published. She sent out identical e-packages [cover-letter, biog, first few pages, telephone and e-contacts] to 100 agents, the gate-keepers of access to publishers.  50 of these packages went out from Catherine Nichols and 50 from George Leyer.  The differential response was wearyingly predictable: 2 bites for Catherine while George got 17.  That, my enumerate friends, is statistically significant. As sassy Caitlin Moran says, that such unconscious bias is unfair, regrettable . . . and STUPID. If your career as an agent or publisher depends on landing the next JK Rowling, you're stacking the odds against having a future at all if you ignore the contribution of half the people on the planet.

I had the honour last week to fly-on-wall a mentor/mentee meeting with a smart young Master of Imm, whom I taught briefly two years ago. He has landed a really nifty project at the interface between immunology and development which I shall write about when it is published in Nature next year.  He has also landed two supervisors, both established women-in-science, so he'll have a rare and interesting experience of the process of learning to science.  In the settle-down chat, one of these women admitted that she had recently had her gender equality cards, quite rightly, marked.  Along with all other Faculty, she had been asked to submit a list of potential key-note speakers for next year's academic seminar series. She thought about this briefly - she's ever busy - and sent in a short list of people in her field she'd like the students to hear.  The list manager came back by return - all the people on her list were men; this was bad for equality and could she think again. She had fished for the most visible in her field and come up blokes.  Whatever the reasons, that's the regrettable reality.

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