12–18 November 2018

Throwing stones at the glass ceiling

5 Nov 2013

When glamorous Laurel van der Wal received her Award there was already a Society of Women Engineers. This was in 1961. This was the year I started at University. Laurel would surely have been the role model I would have pinned up above my desk! She holds her head high with a pose of quiet confidence. Unlike many other women who receive awards, she doesn’t cast down her eyes showing how surprised she is by it all, and she certainly doesn’t look apologetic. Role models like this subconsciously prime other women to prepare themselves to reach for the top. In this way it becomes a thrilling and not a daunting prospect. Disappointingly, Laurel van der Wal does not (yet) have a Wikipedia entry.

But what if this glamorous woman, who was a pilot in World War II and head of Bioastronautics at Space Technology Laboratories, was a Queen Bee? She looks the part although I have no reason to think that she was. Mrs Thatcher is often mentioned as epitomising the Queen Bee. Having succeeded against the odds in climbing up a ladder to the top, the Queen Bee is keeping out rivals to preserve her singular status. Revered and feared, why should she dilute her exceptional status by encouraging others to follow? In this way the Queen Bee may well bear some responsibility for the slow advancement of women. Yet, she is a beacon that signals that women can be very powerful and can also have a rewarding time at the top. A spirited follower on the ladder might think: If you can do it, so can I, and I don’t need your help because I will do it entirely on merit.

Of course it would be much more satisfying not to have to act as a loner, but be surrounded by like-minded people. We are, after all, eminently social beings. We like to do what others do. One stone that I laughingly like to throw at the glass ceiling is to do with creating solidarity through old girls networks. These networks allow high-flying women to speak out in a trusted forum, where they can be totally frank and be confident of mutual support. Another stone aimed at the glass ceiling is to do with making women more visible, be it in portraits, or be it in Wikipedia. This includes making entries in Wikipedia for outstanding women in STEM subjects who have unjustly been overlooked.

Why have women so long taken a second place in almost all high level intellectual and artistic pursuits? We have learned something about the insidious working of cultural stereotypes. We have too long accepted the supposedly positive image of women as motherly and nurturing creatures. We are slowly becoming aware that these images are eminently designed to hold us back from seeking ambitious achievements. Now it is time to claim other virtues, such as taking risks, being curious, creative and competitive. This does not have to mean becoming a Queen Bee. We can be hard headed while not being hard hearted. I am delighted that, in the Life Sciences at least, women’s progress towards seniority has been significant. Many of us are throwing stones at the glass ceiling.

Uta Frith DBE, FRS, FBA, FmedSci
Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development
UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience

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