Keep on keeping on

Women in STEM have kept on keeping on during the pandemic, but now, it is time to step back? In this post I look at song, poetry and memes to explore this.

The pandemic has not been easy for women.  I tried to juggle home schooling, work, and keeping a brave face, as we meandered through lockdown, sickness, and sadness.  We keep on keeping on.   Those words from Curtis Mayfield's iconic mowtown song echoed in my brain some days and I never had the time to stop and think about a time to breathe.  These words were also famously used in a civil rights speech delivered by Dr Martin Luther King in 1964, and it is said he was influenced by the song of the same title sung by African American singer-song writer Len Chandler.   The use and repurposing of this phrase in song and word illustrates the memetic qualities of the phrase.  That is a piece of cultural information which is used, re-used and repurposed to convey social information. 

I've been looking at the interlinkages between the triple nexus of teaching/research and public engagement in STEM subjects (Stevenson and McArthur, 2015).  Nearly 60 years on from an era when racial inequality in Higher Education was highlighted and challenged by the civil rights movement in the USA, there still remain echoes of inequality within academia, particularly in STEM, according to Seron et al. (2018).  I looked at the power privilege wheel developed by educator and changemaker Sylvia Duckworth.   The wheel enabled me to visualise where I sit as a white, straight, able bodied, wealthy, cisgender, neurotypical, postgraduate woman.  

Power privilege wheel

In STEM things are not easy if you are disabled, gay, a woman, a woman of colour, or neuro-divergent.  This is explored in depth by Canfield et al. (2020) in their paper which explores the notion of intersectionality and stemmed from discussion at the inaugural inclusive science communication symposium InclusiveSciCom, which was held in Rhode Island, USA, in 2018.  They highlight aspects of intersectionality and point to recommendations to break down systemic barriers to foster inclusivity in the fields of science communication and public engagement.

I have been conducting research with STEM academics in Scotland.  Interview particpants were selected from a range of institutions and departments, but I struggled to speak to women.  Often they did not have enough time, were overstretched with caring commitments during the pandemic, and not unsurprisingly women are not as numerous as men in their disciplinary departments.  However, I got some great support from the Scottish Public Engagement Network (ScotPEN) to link in with women in STEM.  Interviews indicate that child care, elderly care, neighbour care, colleague care, student care, and a duty of care, have meant that many tasks have fallen on broad shoulders and women kept on keeping on.

Sadly, it has meant these women have had to put the brakes on their research.  Something had to give, and their stories echo my own.  I took on a vast family responsibility aged 21 and gave up all hope of an MSc at UCL, and here I am in my mid-forties making a go of it again.  At times I have had to stop, and deal with the here-and-now of family response-abilities.  Moreover, the COVID19 pandemic has affected women's capacities to link in to research funding.  But women academics are resolute, and there is a critical mass of gendered support for women in STEM:  for example, STEMinists, Tigers in STEM, as well as departmental communities of practice that support women in STEM.  I developed this meme as an output from the interviews.  It echoes the seemingly carefree lyrics of Cyndi Lauper - "Girls just wanna have fun."

Girls just wanna have FUN ding for their scientific research

Photo CC by ThisisEngineering on

Meme is a term that originates from Ancient Greek, but was formalised by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who coined the term from the Greek mimeme as a way of describing a unit of cultural information spread by imitation, similar to genetics. Dawkins argued that cultural transmission creates a pathway to evolution thorough imitation, variation, selection and retention. This connects to constructs of identity in terms of adaptation and self-enhancement, which is appealing to me as a qualitative researcher, in terms of the ways memes can aid dialogic rapport building with research participants.  

The image above illustrates how the use of memes as a transformative dialogical tool can explore gendered discourse within this field concerning the barriers that female academics face. The findings from my study indicate that memetic images, or memes, can support dialogue i.e. to share a meaning; which echoes the commonality of communication that can be embedded into public engagement practice in STEM.  During the last two decades the complex relationship between science and society has reconfigured and my research shows that memetics can be developed as a simple tool for communication that can be interdisciplinary and accessible to a wider audience beyond academia.

Returning to the memetic qualities of Keep on Keeping On.  As the world shifts from the grip of the pandemic to "living with COVID" are we "back to normal"?  I hope not, because I realise that as a woman in "normal" times I kept on keeping on.  

That needs to change.  

Any thoughts? Please share...

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Lucy Beattie

Lucy Beattie

Hi I'm Lucy, a PhD Candidate with the UWS Academy. I'm looking at the role of public engagement in connecting teaching and research in Higher Education

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