From 5 - 11 June, School of Biological and Chemical Sciences (SBCS) postdoctoral researcher Sarah Harpenslager will be exhibiting a photographic journey of inspiring female scientists at the Brick Lane Art Gallery.
Sarah Harpenslager (left centre)
Sarah works on a large NERC-funded research project, studying the effects of global warming on Arctic streams, for which she had to travel to different locations around the Arctic Circle as part of a team of scientists. The photo exhibition will focus on women working in the field and the stories of their research and travels in some of the most remote and challenging locations in the world. We spoke to Sarah to learn more about the exhibition.
What was your inspiration for the exhibition?
In the summer of 2017, we were on a boat in Svalbard with 4 women, 1 man and a male captain. The whole time, the captain would only let the man help and not the rest of us, which got us talking about gender issues. So here we were in this beautiful environment, talking about our experiences. We realised then that it is quite special to be in such an amazing location with a team almost exclusively made up of women. Apparently this isn’t considered normal by everybody, that women can do this kind of work in harsh conditions. Some still see men as doing most of the work and we aim to change that unconscious bias while also showing the beauty of the Arctic. We have all experienced some form of gender discrimination throughout our fieldwork, whether it was the captain, people not letting us carry our heavy equipment or asking us why we were wearing waders rather than dresses and heels. These remarks came from all over the world, incorporating many different cultures. The comments were not intended to discriminate, but clearly what we were doing wasn’t considered normal, so the exhibition helps to educate and spread awareness of this issue.
Is gender discrimination a problem in science?
There is still an imbalance in science and most topics remain dominated by men. This is highlighted particularly in higher positions. In the media, there are more men invited to be speakers on television. If a scientific publication is covered, they are more likely to invite a man than a woman. It’s also in the higher positions in academia, with professors and heads of department positions generally being filled by men, so it gives an idea to girls that they can’t reach that high level position. In our exhibition, we hope to provide a number of role models in different stages of their career, to show children of different gender and backgrounds that this career is available to them. This is why there will be school visits to the exhibition.
What do you hope people will learn from the exhibition?
There will be different researchers from different universities, countries and with different areas of expertise each day. So one day, a scientist can tell you all about fish, another day you might learn about about microbes. If we have younger girls, teenagers and students at our exhibition, they have a diverse group of role models to learn from, who do this kind of work and will help to make it more normal for girls to consider this as a career option. We want to share the issues we have experienced but also our work on climate change in the Arctic, to give a better idea of what a biologist does. It’s not just lab based or going around catching butterflies in nets. It’s travelling, hiking with heavy gear, camping, rifle training to prepare for potential polar bear attacks, all these things the public probably doesn’t associate with a biologist.
This event, funded by the Centre for Public Engagement at Queen Mary University of London and the British Ecological Society, is being held at the Brick Lane Gallery in East London from 5 - 11 June. Entry to the exhibition is free. For more information about the exhibition, please visit the event page.