We Let Down Lieutenant Uhura

What's deeply depressing for most women, and perhaps particularly for those of us who work in science, is how little progress we seem to have made in the world outside Starfleet Academy.
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"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future". So said the great physicist Niels Bohr. Yet future forecasting is a big trend, in everything from fashion to technology. But I would argue that most people, including those who claim to specialize in this area, are incapable of genuinely inventive thought. Most people are incremental, visualising the future as like today but bigger, shinier and usually cheaper and this is true in multiple fields. Truly creative scientists leapfrog the prevailing orthodoxies and scientific trends and see not just bigger questions, but completely different ones, with the potential to change our world view forever. Genuine innovators in the world of technology do the same. They don't spend much time asking consumers what we want, because the reality is that we don't know until we see it. From the Swiffer that I should use far more often, to the iPad on which I am typing this blog, transformational technologies arise when the teams working on them ignore what they already know and address a problem from scratch.

It's often fun to look back at how our cultural forbears have predicted the future and how far off they have been. It's a classic example of hindsight allowing us to feel smug, as if we are somehow smarter and making better predictions ourselves. We're almost certainly not any better at it, of course, but by definition we don't have the data yet with which to humble ourselves.

Rather more interesting are the cases where the predictions of the past have actually altered the direction of the future. Think back to the original Star Trek series, first broadcast in 1966. Were the subsequent popularity of sliding doors, hands-free earpieces and the flip top cell phones that were such a big seller for Motorola in the pre-iPhone days a coincidence? I suspect not. Star Trek told us what the future should look like, and we liked what saw.

It's tempting to look back at that original Star Trek series and view it as hopelessly reactionary in one way however. The only significant female character is Lieutenant Uhura, and frustratingly her major role in many episodes was to sit in profile and repeat instructions into or from a computer. It wasn't until Star Trek Voyager in 1995 that the International Federation of Planets appointed women to the roles of Captain and Chief Engineer.

What's deeply depressing for most women, and perhaps particularly for those of us who work in science, is how little progress we seem to have made in the world outside Starfleet Academy. Women remain under-represented in multiple sectors, from senior levels in academia to representation on the Scientific Advisory Boards of companies. Of the 44 new fellows appointed by The Royal Society in 2012, just 2 were women. The under-representation is made even worse by a huge visibility problem for those women who are around. At the most recent scientific conference that I attended, in a field which has always contained a relatively large percentage of high profile female researchers, only 3 of the 20 speakers were women, and a grand total of zero amongst the participants in the panel discussions.

It was no better at a recent workshop on breaking down barriers between academia, small businesses and large companies. It wouldn't have been quite so excruciating if the chair, the editor of a high profile trade journal, hadn't insisted on congratulating himself and the organisers on the diversity of the discussion panel. He seemed to see no irony at all in drawing attention to features such as geographical origin or amount of head hair, whilst apparently not noticing that every panel member possessed a Y chromosome.

Encountering this, and so many other examples every day in the 21st century, should make us rather less superior in our assessment of Gene Roddenberry's original series. Star Trek was not being reactionary with its presentation of Lieutenant Uhura. Quite the opposite in fact -- casting an African-American woman as an officer on a sci-fi series was extraordinarily progressive for the time, and had a significant impact on many girls' and womens' views of their roles. By contrast, if most futurologists find it difficult to think in a truly innovative way about science and technology, they seem to find it almost impossible to do so in sociology.

This is where the poor visibility of women in science and other fields is so potentially dangerous. It gives the futurologists nothing to pattern. Star Trek was, in this respect, far ahead of its time. I recently attended a UK conference where a big name from the industrial sector who nows works for the state presented his vision of the future. Apparently it's going to be great. Clean power, green transport, robotic devices, sensors embedded in clothing that can warn the elderly if they are becoming dehydrated. All very shiny and lovely. But you know what hadn't changed? The men will still leave the house and travel to work and the women will stay at home and look after the children. Although in the future this will be with the aid of a robot, in case the poor dears can't cope with working out where the kids have got to in the garden.

How we imagine the future will influence the future we create. It's not enough to try to change current practise, we need to have a greater vision of the kinds of opportunities and society we want to create. And more importantly, we need to start being much more assertive about disseminating these ideas. Captain Janeway would expect nothing less, and we owe it to Lieutenant Uhura.

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