After writing my post yesterday about some aspects of a science engagement talk that I found problematic I emailed the speaker about my concerns. He replied and we had a fascinating conversation which he has given me permission to reproduce here. I've omitted his name and a couple of paragraphs that were specific to the content of his talk rather than relevant to the general discussion.
" Thanks for the feedback and also for giving me the chance to reply.
I admit that your post has caused me concern and I will look into what I can do. There are some of the things I can address straight away though.
I really hope that I am not sexist or racist and am alarmed that I could even appear to be so.
I did that talk 3 times today and the volunteer ratio averages out. Today I had 15 volunteers, 8 boys, 7 girls. Perhaps I shouldn't have gone for a group of friends, that was laziness of my part.
First off the werewolf, is simply because he is currently the most famous werewolf I could find. I am, I admit unaware of any female werewolves in cinema. Similarly JoJo the dogfaced boy is I think the most famous person with werewolf syndrome. Superman was chosen because it is supermale syndrome, it was just the best access I had to a chromosomal mutation. I don't know of any other superheroes I could have used to make that work. Maybe there is a problem with superheroes as a topic as a whole. I don't know of any transgenic female heroes, and Spiderman is the best known even if there are ones I have not heard off. I don't know of any. Similarly, the Hulk is the only radiated superhero I know of. That is the simple reason why there were no female superheroes- there are so few in general and I don't know of any that would have worked with the genetics I was talking about.
For infecting the volunteer with a virus- I have 3 pegs, I have always put two on the shoulders area and the final one in the hair, just because it gets a laugh. I do this regardless of the volunteers age, sex, ethnicity. I have no idea why this could be thought of as racist.
Regards Beyonce- I will be more careful here. Maybe I should just end on the cats. It was not intended as anything more than a joke, I was struggling to find an ending. I will alter it.
That is the reason why Dolly the sheep is called Dolly the sheep. It is a fact, but I think you are right, maybe not one worth sharing. I slipped that slide in last minute bearing in mind that I was talking about the names of clones and thought that I should mention Dolly somewhere given that she is the most famous clone in the world. I will remove it.
I think where I have to be careful was saying bacteria are slags. I hadn't considered that it is considered a gender specific term, and it really is isn't it. I wanted to communicate that they are not even fussy what species they get their DNA from this is a very difficult concept for pupil, but fundamental to genetically engineering bacteria. I will need to use a better word. Promiscuous would be wrong, its too formal and the kids would not get it, tomorrow I will say that "bacteria are a bit loose".
There is no such thing as a lowly volunteer. I talk to anybody who talks to me and would gladly have had a chat.
I hope that my replying has been useful and thanks for pointing these things up as I would hate to be misconstrued.
All the best."
"Thanks very much for getting back to me. I'm sure you're not sexist or racist but I'm sure you hold unconcious biases, just like we all do including myself. I think it's much like using blinding in scientific experiments; just like when we know we're more likely to judge ambiguous results in a way that favours our hypothesis we put a system in place to prevent that from happening, the important thing is to be aware of these biases. Thanks for letting me know about how volunteer selection averaged out through the day - I'm glad it was approximately 50/50, but as kids would only have gone to one talk I think maybe it's important that it balances out in each?
I do appreciate that there are fewer widely recognised female superheroes, but I do think it's important that girls should have at least one active character in the talk they can empathise with, otherwise the only females being shown are just there for passive attributes like their appearance.
I guess Mystique would probably be the best known female superhero - chameleons can change their skin colour and octopuses can change both colour and texture, but I do appreciate this is hard to link to human genetics. There are plenty of female characters with superhuman strength - Wonder Woman, Ms Marvel, Rogue from the comic book version of the X-men - and maybe this could be linked to mutations in the myostatin gene? http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myostatin#section_3 I realise I'm getting even more obscure but maybe Elastigirl from The Incredibles could be linked to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ehlers%E2%80%93Danlos_syndrome#section_2?
The hair thing is because often Black peoples' hair being touched is a bit of an issue - I know it sounds bizarre that enough people would just walk up and mess with a stranger's hair for it to be a common experience, but it certainly seems to have been for the majority of my Black friends, white people feeling they have the right to just stick their hands in or stroke or pull their hair. In part because of this many Black people feel that having their hair interfered with is a bit of an insult to their bodily autonomy. On top of this hair has quite a lot of meaning in Black culture, as it was used as a marker for discrimination and as natural Black hair became something that had to be straightened or modified to look European to fit into society, so now hair is an assertion of identity. Because of all this I tend to avoid touching anyone's hair unless I have their express invitation.
Thanks again for getting back to me and for taking what I said on board."
[Incidentally I'm very aware that I'm a white person explaining Black people's feelings about hair here, if anyone can link me to a better explanation or feels like writing something let me know and I'll stick it in a new post]
" Yeah I do try and balance volunteers not only regards their sex but regarding what school they come from, position in the auditorium etc too, sometimes I just fail.
Elasto girl is in- I simply had not heard of her. It will take me a few days to incorporate her, but sounds like a great one.
Maybe this is a general problem that male role models are heroes while female ones are pop stars. But just because Hollywood and the worlds of pop music are sexist does not mean that I should be. I simply aimed to engage with popular culture and use it to explain some hard stuff, but I must have let it impact my talk negatively. That was never my intention. I have never wanted to offend or alienate anyone. I will take more care in future. Thanks.
I am going to give my volunteer a hat now. That way I can avoid any issues.
All the best."
Edited to add: anyone interested in more inclusive superheroes or comic books could do well to start here.