Me and the violin

I took up the violin at age 9. By the time I was 14 it was a major part of my life – but I hated it, and was miserable.

It started with me being a shy, self-conscious child; the one-on-one nature of violin lessons was uncomfortable for me. I was secretly mortified at being under such close scrutiny, learning, trying. My teacher would try to draw me out of my shell; would sometimes take hold of my bowing hand and forcibly animate me, pushing and pulling in big dramatic motions, which only made me feel even less ‘safe’.

On top of this, it turned out that some aspects of music came quite naturally to me – to the excitement of several family members, who made a fuss of my supposed talent. How could this be a negative? I think the attention this generated felt nice, but it also felt seriously undeserved. Every harmless little test of my supposed ‘perfect pitch’ was an opportunity to fail, to disappoint, and I had no control over it: I guess it seemed that talent was what mattered, not effort. The prospect of failing to live up to what was expected thus held more than just embarrassment for me; it would mean that I didn’t ‘have it’ after all, and the approval would end along with the discomfort. This was very inhibiting for me.

My mathematical brain easily picked up musical notation; learned where the notes were on the violin; and could translate a desired interval into a position on a string from a given starting point, so that I could play by ear. I was sensitive enough to tuning and timing errors to be able to keep those aspects fairly accurate. Because of all this, I got through the lessons quite easily without a lot of practice effort. It was embarrassing; at one point I was sharing lessons with another girl, and when she was berated for not practising enough, for holding me back… I felt awful.

While my technique languished at beginner level, these other abilities carried me through the pieces I had to play. I even won a regional competition, beating two significantly better competitors from my own school: although it was noted that my technique was inferior, the musicality made up for it in the adjudicator’s eyes. It agonised me to win; I hadn’t wished for anything more than to not fuck up in front of a room full of people, and now here I was robbing two people of a prize that was clearly expected to go to one of them. And I didn’t understand it.

My shyness, my self-consciousness about having my learning observed, kept me from putting in the work to develop more advanced skills. As did the bad taste of undeserved success in my mouth, and the fear, either of being ‘found out’ or of generating yet more uncomfortable hype. And with such success, there was clearly no incentive, no urgency, to work hard or to improve my technique. It just didn’t seem to matter that much. What did seem to matter was this nebulous ‘talent’ thing that felt like the emperor’s new clothes. I was a fraud, constantly hiding my musical nakedness. All of the ingredients were in place for hating the whole business with a passion by the time I was in my teens, and being thoroughly confused as to why.

I’m fully aware that these are very much problems of a privileged childhood, and I feel a bit ashamed of the indulgence in writing this post. But I’ve recently been reading some old diaries from that period, and have been taken aback by how desperate and, well, depressed I sound in those writings. I’m honestly not sure how to reconcile that.

I was eventually permitted to give it all up. And I basically didn’t touch the instrument again until 2013. By then, one of its seams had opened a crack and a trip to the violin doctor was in order, but it came out of its surgery sounding gorgeous.

The first time I played it in public again was at the launch of the Sunday Assembly, on “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves, and “Life of Riley” by the Lightning Seeds. It felt awkward, stilted, a little reminiscent of school orchestra. But over the course of a year of playing occasional parts in pop songs in this way, I have shed a lot of the emotional baggage associated with it. I still get more reliable enjoyment, and feel more like myself, playing guitar (an instrument I took up for fun at 17) – but I am gradually learning to have fun with the violin, too. My technique is still shit. Occasionally, horse hair, steel string, finger flesh and neurons all connect and fireworks happen in my head. I’m in another little band where I write my own parts to my band-mate’s reflective and moody songs. That is the most freeing of all, as what I’m doing there is no-one’s but mine.

Posted in personal reflection, self-improvement | Leave a comment

Thoughts on gender identity

There have been a number of ‘Skeptics on the Fringe’ talks in recent years about the science of sex differences, mostly in the vein of debunking common myths. But one of the few things that stuck in my memory from these talks was a question from a parent in the audience who had conscientiously avoided gender-specific influences, trying to impart a sceptical view of gender stereotypes – only to find that their daughter was crazy for all things pink and girly by the age of 7. Where did that come from?

Obviously, associating the colour pink with girls is cultural; it’s socialisation, not genes or hormones. And clearly, children are exposed to many influences beyond their parents. I’ve started to see many examples in my own life of my unconscious conformity to arbitrary gender norms: one trivial example is the fact that I play the acoustic guitar, and am pretty motivated to learn more techniques on it, and yet, although I love listening to electric lead guitar, I can muster no real interest at all in playing that. It’s not that it seems beyond me; more that it doesn’t feel like “me”. I cannot think of any explanation for this other than the fact that there are many female role models for me who play acoustic guitar and sing, and a complete dearth of female lead guitarists by contrast.

But the confusing thing is, we don’t all respond to the gender socialisation in the same way. On one hand, there is the 7-year-old girl who defies her parents’ stereotype-free ideals by being super girly; on the other, there are people who turn out not to have a strong gender identification either way, or who identify as the opposite gender from that assigned to them at birth. What causes these differences?

Certain sections of the feminist movement struggle to accept the existence of transgender people. I understand that for at least some of these feminists, gender is an arbitrary binary that is socially constructed around biological sex – in much the same way that tribal identities are constructed, perhaps. In its current implementation, it unfortunately privileges one group over the other. The act of changing one’s gender is seen as reinforcing this binary, or at least, is seen as a tragic symptom of it – the fact that a man with “feminine” traits feels compelled to adopt a female identity and change his body accordingly, when there would simply be no need if traits were not seen as gendered. In other words, what they seem to believe is: your gender identity is a product of the overlap between the traits, interests, and abilities that you possess, and those traits, interests, and abilities that are associated with one gender or the other. And in their ideal world, there would perhaps be no such associations with gender – and thus no real personal gender identity at all.

I can see why this anti-gender view of things (which I admit I may not have understood fully) might appeal to women who are keenly aware of their lesser privilege as females. But it seems to leave a lot of unanswered questions (not to mention unfairly discrediting the testimony of transgender people). Why is there such a large range of responses to the gender binary: what makes someone – male or female – like the colour pink, or dresses, or electric guitar, or science for that matter? Why do some men like to wear dresses but still identify strongly as male? Where does sexual orientation fit into this – is it also just an artifact of the arbitrary concept of gender, and therefore, equally arbitrary? In that case why are the vast majority of people not indifferent to gender when it comes to partners? (Nearly twice as many people in this country identify as gay compared to bisexual. I would expect more bisexuals if socialisation was a big factor, because nearly everyone has been socialised into a default assumption of straightness.)

It’s possible that some aspects of our lives pertaining to gender are truly innate and immutable, whether due to genes, hormonal environment, very early conditioning or whatever. Sexual orientation is likely one of these aspects, in my view. Another possibly innate aspect is whereabouts on the gender ‘spectrum’ (it’s not a binary!) a person will identify themselves; while the details that comprise that spectrum are to some extent cultural. I guess what I mean is that a gender spectrum could well be a natural thing that would always arise in any population, just like language – although its details, in terms of the traits and attributes associated with the genders, might differ from place to place. It could be that our gender identity is instinctual, just as we have an instinct for verbal language – but we have to learn the language of masculinity and femininity through our culture, the same way we have to learn our mother tongue. This is the way I’m inclined to think of it at the moment. I don’t think it could be easily proved one way or the other, but it just seems to answer more of the questions for me.

What does this hunch mean for my budding feminism? It doesn’t lead me to believe that patriarchy or male privilege is inevitable; I can be ‘anti’ those things. Just as we can learn a new language, we can probably rid ourselves of the problematic aspects of gender, if we want to and work hard enough. I’m not convinced by hand-waving evolutionary arguments about certain gendered traits – like “nurturing” or “competitiveness” – being biologically innate; no-one can prove they are really any more than a cultural relic of our recent history; but even if there were some truth to these arguments, we can certainly choose to structure our social world in ways that neither exaggerate these differences nor over-value and over-reward some traits compared to others. Easier said than done, of course. Plenty of work for feminism to do.

Posted in feminism, gender, personal reflection, science, social justice | 5 Comments

My journey into feminism… and out of science

There is a general awareness of the lingering gender disparity in academic science – the pay gap, the ‘leaky pipeline’ whereby more women than men are lost at every point along the career path. There are workshops for women; discussions about the problem; support fellowships designed to help address the incompatibilities of the career with motherhood; and research to answer the questions. I’ve been to, and read, a lot of these interventions, in hopes of hearing something validating.

I know about unconscious bias against women (and other minorities), and I’ve been instructed in ways to challenge and overturn the stereotypes, promote myself more effectively and so on. The message often seems to be that women scientists generally are capable of thriving in the current environment, if we can just improve their poor self-confidence, do something about the unconscious prejudice, and figure out how to ensure that giving birth does not entail a disadvantage. And yes, some certainly do succeed; perhaps their numbers can be increased in these ways, even if many will still feel it just isn’t for them.

On the other hand, it’s occurred to me that perhaps the effects, on science, of ‘super-masculine’ traits – like excessive ego, over-confidence, status-driven careerism, and a lack of genuine listening and self-reflection – can be negative. But these thoughts have never been much comfort to me. Struggling socially in an environment that seems to reward and nurture super-masculine traits has compounded my already abundant fears and self-doubt. The shame, over my low confidence and limited ability to present myself in a way that people are compelled to take seriously, has dominated my emotional climate.

Somewhere along the way, after the fantasy of escaping it all had finally dissipated, I did develop the inevitable desire to fix my situation. I enlisted help. I started learning to see my own quiet strength; started to ‘grow into’ the PhD I’d received without so much as a celebratory drink with anyone, let alone gone to receive it at the graduation ceremony; started to embrace the ‘doctor’ title, at first so alien and wrong-looking next to my name. I started to realise that my struggle towards an effective, affirming participation in something meaningful, is meaningful in itself. And I started to have the desire to do better.

I’m not sure exactly what prompted an interest in feminism. But for some reason last year I waded my way through Germaine Greer’s ‘The Female Eunuch’. I was surprised to find she does acknowledge – even draw attention to – differences in typical male and female behaviours, unlike most feminist writings I’ve come across on the web which seem to deny there are any; and unlike the women-in-science workshops and other interventions which provide women with ‘solutions’ to problems that they never dare to spell out (much to my infuriation). Greer acknowledges these behavioural differences in order to point to their causes in social norms, such as traditional role segregation and male privilege. They are not innate, immutable, or inevitable in her view of things. The more I reflected on my own life history, the more I started to think she might be right.

I started to reflect on how the observations in, for example, the classic Mars and Venus books about gender differences, are not presented in such a way as to invite people to ponder the forces in society which contribute to the situation they describe. They are instead simply meant to be axioms to work with and work around. As such, of course, they are self-reinforcing.

I probably used to hold similar views to those Sam Harris expresses about gender disparities (in atheism/science/whatever): the biology can’t be ignored. He may think he has thought more deeply about it than his critics, but for me, thinking and learning more has led me another way. And it’s not that biological origins are somehow disproved by thinking more deeply about the social factors. It’s as Neil deGrasse Tyson says: “Before we start talking about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity – then we can have that conversation.”

Whatever the means by which gender differences in behaviour arise, stereotyping and role segregation both seem to cause exaggeration of the differences into problematic territory. And there are problematic aspects in both femininity and masculinity as conceived in the context of patriarchy (see this recent article about suicide risk for males as one example).

It’s tricky, though, because denying differences altogether can be just as problematic. In ‘Killing Rage’ (which is primarily about racism, actually), bell hooks points out that the denial of difference is often really just another, more subtle form of oppression by the dominant entity, whose norms can then become the only norms. This can perhaps be seen in the initiatives to increase women’s self-promotion and other traits needed to thrive in academic science. Why are there are no parallel workshops for men in science, to help those who need to become more self-critical or better listeners?

Let’s be clear, the motivation in such initiatives is not about what’s best for science, it’s about “improving diversity” by getting more women into top jobs. Much like Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ advice, this implementation of feminism arguably does little to challenge the dominance of a particular type of masculinity. It seems satisfied instead to assimilate women into it. And which women benefit from this? – here’s a clue, it’s not those in research support or technician roles. “Women in science” apparently does not include them.

I am leaving academic science for a new job, a new career, next Monday. I’ve been very fortunate to have had a seven-year spell in it. I have had some amazing times in these seven years, and met some wonderful people, both locally and around the world in my conference travels. I’ve also experienced the most intense loneliness of my life, and the women’s bathroom on the ground floor has seen far too many of my tears. I am not the person either to really thrive here or to work for change. I am just a work in progress myself.

Posted in feminism, gender, personal reflection, science, self-improvement, social justice | 4 Comments


Marriage is one of those long-standing cultural concepts that’s become part of the furniture, so to speak. Its cultural meaning and legal meaning have both changed over time though. What does it mean now, and what might its future be?

Google dictionary isn’t very enlightening on this:

the formal union of a man and a woman, typically as recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife.

After some research and pondering, and trying to be as culturally diverse in my thinking as I can be, the one common meaning that I think seems to underlie all marriage is this: it represents a “next of kin” status between two adults, who are (or are going to be) in a sexual relationship. For some cultural backgrounds or religious traditions, this status is created by the act of getting married. In my own cultural context, marriage merely reflects or formalises the fact that it has already happened; that a romantic relationship has progressed to a point where the couple feel they are “family” to each other, and envisage their lives as a shared one. (Whether or not they “have a family” in the usual sense – with children.) And it’s perfectly possible for a relationship to be like that without marriage.

Is marriage a “commitment”? There is usually the intention of permanence, certainly, just as there is in our relationships with our family members – and we won’t easily let these relationships break down. But in all honesty, we accept there is a chance they could. In the Christian tradition, couples promise to stay together “for better or for worse”; divorce then means breaking a promise. In a civil marriage there is no requirement to promise anything – the formal wording simply indicates acceptance of the other person as husband or wife, and declares that there are no impediments. I don’t think any vows are made in the Islamic tradition, either. Growing up in the Christian tradition it’s easy to assume vows are a fundamental component of marriage, but this is not the case.

In the UK, legal marriage may be a convenient way of getting the rest of the world to treat the two of you as “kin”.* Cohabiting couples who are not married may need to be more pro-active to achieve the same thing, for example writing a will if they want to ensure inheritance. But I guess some people would rather engage actively, and not have all this decided (or assumed) for them anyway.

Legal marriage is also designed to offer protection from the risks associated with relying on a partner – risks such as giving up an income to be financially supported by them, or allowing the home to be put in their name only.** There do seem to be other ways to gain some protection, though, such as a Living Together Agreement or “no-nup”, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before all legal protections that are beneficial for spouses will be rolled out to long-term cohabitors.

Interestingly, while there are few requirements for getting married and attaining this legal “next of kin” status, the same is not true of the divorce procedure. Justification is required, which either means demonstrating that unreasonable behaviour or adultery has taken place, or simply undergoing a lengthy separation period*** and using that as grounds instead. I guess this means that a couple cannot end their legal marriage status while remaining together – not that many would want to, I suppose, but it could happen that a couple undergo an ideological shift in regard to marriage and want to come out of it, in which case – too bad!

This disparity between the entry and exit points to marriage, in terms of the amount of legal interference and hurdles, may be a reflection of the UK’s Christian tradition. It’s interesting that adultery isn’t included under ‘unreasonable behaviour’ (which is a pretty mild name for a collection of things that includes domestic abuse) but has its own separate category. This seems odd, unless you’re aware that adultery is the one and only justification Jesus is quoted as permitting for divorce in the Bible.

Legally and culturally, marriage is becoming less and less important. Feminist thinking clashes with much of the associated cultural baggage – the engagement ring, the fancy white dress, the father giving the bride away, the woman’s name (and title) change. A lot of us these days are wondering what relevance these traditional relics have to our lives and relationships.

On the other hand, the introduction of same-sex marriage is one good example of marriage adapting to the modern reality and the values we hold, and it seems to offer a welcome opportunity for the development of alternatives to traditional patriarchal rituals. Getting married has always been a rite of passage with symbolic and personal meaning, aside from entering into a legal institution. We embrace ritual, ceremony and celebration at key points in our lives, and “tying the knot” with a partner is one of them. It will probably remain so for many people, even if many others decide it isn’t for them.

* The list I’ve gathered is:

  • some organisations, such as pension providers or hospitals, use marriage as the criterion for regarding a partner as next of kin
  • marriage gives the husband automatic fatherhood status of any children the wife gives birth to
  • it allows one spouse to make National Insurance contributions on behalf of the other
  • it entitles each to inherit from the other’s estate (there may also be less of a tax burden, I’m not sure)
  • it gives certain immigration rights

** Spouses each have the right to live in their partner’s home while married – they cannot be kicked out. Spouses can be ordered to give money to their ex after divorce, in recognition of contributions they made unofficially. As I understand it, these don’t apply to cohabiting; Scotland differs from the rest of the UK in some things, though – this may be one of them

*** 1 year – used to be even longer

(most of my information came from this page)

Posted in gender, is religion good or bad for you? | Leave a comment

Why aren’t more women in science?

As I mentioned a while back, I came across a compilation of essays by researchers in the field debating the question: “Why Aren’t More Women in Science?” I saw it by chance in the library at work, and grabbed it.

It wasn’t a particularly easy read. I quickly became entangled in a spaghetti bowl of different strands of questions and answers as I read my way through the essays. As is the way with research! But I’ll do my best to organise what I learned and explain what I’ve concluded.

Much of the book focused on the question of whether there are any cognitive or aptitude-related barriers to women succeeding in science careers. Do men just make better scientists?

One obvious place to look for clues of any ability discrepancy between the genders is in school test results. Apparently, girls tend to outperform boys in maths exams up to high school level; but on the other hand, boys do better in the SAT-M. I gather that the latter is intended to test raw ability, rather than being a test on learned material that can be prepared for. So, this is seen by some researchers to indicate that girls aren’t as good at independent problem-solving. However, the author of chapter 4 points out another way of looking at it: the SAT-M underpredicts girls’ success in school and college maths exams, and thus may not be a good test of maths aptitude at all. (After all, who’s to say what is a good test?) Also, differences in maths and science ability through time and across geography are generally bigger than any gender differences, so there must at least be other factors involved.

An intriguing study described in chapter 3 revealed that bright girls don’t cope well with confusion; the brighter the girl, the more readily she would tend to become despondent and give up on the confusing tasks set in the experiments. This turns out to be due to these girls having a belief in the importance of innate talent (or lack thereof), and the relative unimportance of learning. With this belief, finding things confusing or hard made them conclude they just didn’t have the natural ability and that was that. It wasn’t clear to me why this should be the case, when the reverse seemed to be true in boys. The author suggested it may come from a different way that bright girls are praised for their ability as they are growing up. I don’t know if that is the case, but certainly one factor in the time-and-geography variation could be whether the culture emphasises learning or talent.

Another common approach is to look at tests of more basic cognitive abilities that perhaps provide the building blocks for higher-level skills such as maths or science. These do seem to differ by gender – males perform better on some spatial visualisation tasks, although this is a skill that responds well to training, and it’s suggested the difference may be to do with boys getting to play outside more as children. Conversely girls perform better at tests of verbal fluency.

Whether looking at school subjects, IQ, or basic abilities, male populations often show a broader distribution of abilities – boys’ abilities range a bit more widely from very poor to excellent, while girls’ tend to be a bit less extreme. The result being that there may be more males at the gifted end of the ability spectrum than females, even if the average ability in the two populations is the same. This seems to me a rather narrow, fatalistic view of career destination (not to mention a self-congratulatory one, coming from scientists!): you have to be the top of your class at school to make it as a scientist?! Try telling that to Einstein…

Other researchers recognise that a science career can draw on many different basic cognitive abilities, verbal communication actually being one of them, and it would be hard to identify any particular set that is critical for success – different scientists may well be talented in quite different ways. A science education equips people with skills in science, but the underlying ways that different people are implementing those skills in their brains may well be different (and harmlessly so). Chapter 8 discusses some structural and functional differences in male and female brains.

It begins to seem as if differences in patterns of interest may explain the dearth of women in science better than differences in ability. Chapter 6 reports that women tend to be more interested in people than in ‘things’. Chapter 12 characterises males as systemisers and females as empathisers. Interest, abilities, and experience clearly are not independent, though – they go round in a kind of feedback loop, and we become “cultured into” our careers, as chapter 9 puts it.

Could it just be that fewer women are drawn to the male-dominated culture of academic science*? If this culture changed, I think we would see more women going into science and sticking with it. Science would be done a bit differently but it would still be done, and done well.

This still begs the question of how the ‘yang’ culture in sciences such as physics and maths has remained well-established long after women’s liberation, while much more of a ‘yin’ presence has grown in sciences like biology. I think in the end I can’t get away from the notion that innate differences – probably in average interests and personality more than ability – do play a role. But I think their role is greatly amplified by stereotypes, gendered socialisation from childhood onwards, and cultural ideas about professions. If it were possible to remove those (which of course it isn’t), I think the ‘yin’-ification of physics would have happened much more quickly.

It was a relief to come to this understanding – I’ve never been able to accept either that all gender differences are innate, or that they are all socially conditioned. It seems obvious to say it’s a mixture of the two but this idea of amplification was a “lightbulb” moment for me.

Stereotypes are usually a coarse reflection of some view of reality that contains partial truth. They don’t come from nowhere. It’s unfortunate that they don’t just reflect, but also feed back into, and define, the world they describe. If girls tend to believe in the importance of innate abilities, they will be particularly susceptible to negative stereotypes around women’s goodness of fit in various fields of work.

I recently read about the Chinese concepts of yin and yang (in a book about economics, of all things) – and it was another lightbulb moment. I really like these terms as a way of grouping together a bunch of traits; male and female are in the lists of traits, but aren’t defined by them. Yin and yang might be a good simple way to describe things like a working culture, as they satisfy our need for reduction and classification, without making gender the focus of it – yin and yang are merely associated with gender. Perhaps we could benefit from thinking more like that. I know I will try to, from now on.

(* Several essays also discussed discrimination, and the work-life balance problem in academic science, but to me, these are just another aspect of the fact that science has a ‘yang’-dominated culture.)

Posted in gender, personal reflection, science | 5 Comments


One of the things that really gets my goat is when the word “honesty” is hijacked to justify what is really just plain unkindness (or worse). Dumping out onto other people the worst contents of your mind about them is not an automatically constructive thing to do, just because it is “honest”. And I don’t buy it when I see indulgence and arrogance being packaged up as virtuous, even courageous behaviour by wrapping the word “honesty” around it like a shiny ribbon.

Come on people! A world in which there was 100% disclosure, for example if our thoughts could be read by others, would not be a better world! The pain and offence caused by our prematurely formed or biased judgements would nip in the bud many a friendship that could otherwise grow and thrive. There is a reason we don’t generally tell people exactly what we think of them, but choose instead to vent to others privately as a way of processing our feelings – and the reason is not cowardice. Nor is it dishonesty, unless we are being completely false towards the person. It’s that our human social world would simply not work if we told everybody every single negative thought we had about them.

That’s not to say that everything negative should be kept hidden, of course. There are times when it’s necessary to confront someone, and there are times when a frank conversation can help clear things up. There are also times when venting behind someone’s back turns into malicious back-biting; where avoiding talking to the person merely allows a fortress of negative judgements to be built up, going unchecked by reality.

I’m not sure there are any easy answers. All I know is that goodwill, kindness, and a willingness to work with the good in others seem to go a long way. Where these are not present, no amount of “honesty” is likely to get you anywhere.

Posted in moral issues, personal reflection | 1 Comment

2013 highlights and 2014 goals

Highlights of my 2013

  • Got a flat with my partner (I still feel so grateful every day)
  • Finally began driving, 2.5 years after passing the test – took refresher lessons, joined City Car Club, and eventually hired a car for a week over the holiday for visiting family – think I have actually become a reasonably competent driver now! Never thought that day would come…
  • Began playing music again – wish I hadn’t left it so long.
  • Helped set up an Edinburgh Sunday Assembly, particularly the band
  • Threw the Hogmanay party I’d first dreamed of a year ago, hoping that by 2013’s end we’d have a home to throw one in :)

Goals for 2014

  • Get a new job, or at least get clear on the direction and take what steps are needed
  • Exercise more
  • Try writing songs again
  • Play more violin and piano
  • Fix up the flat a bit more (various DIY jobs, bits of furniture to get etc.)
  • Reach out more at work; surrender to the discomfort and make myself heard
  • Become more mindful of my biases towards various bleak ways of thinking, and try to get better at gently nudging myself out of them.

Happy New Year!

Posted in personal reflection | 2 Comments