The XX Factor


Saturday’s Times Magazine featured an article by Janice Turner, about Prof Alison Wolf’s new ‘controversial’ book, “The XX Factor”. I must make a confession, I haven’t read the book. I don’t think I need to, judging by what Janice’s article did to my blood pressure.

According to Alison, there is a new, elite class of women – XX women – who make up 15-20% of the female population. These women are highly educated, marry their peers then have babies late (if at all), work throughout their children’s infancy and primarily because they want to rather than needing the money, employ domestic staff and spend a fair bit of their money on their kids’ education. They also have less sex than their peers.

Reading the rest of the article, it’s clear that XX women also tend to have an unhealthy disdain for the other 80-85% of those with the eponymous chromosomes. The article praises the 15-20% as an elite, driven, striving, tenacious, high profile supergroup (Janice’s words, not mine). According to them, bonding with other women – and particularly other mothers – is a waste of time, being a stay-at-home mother isn’t a full-time job but a waste of education and talent, as is setting up a ‘girlie’ (cupcake-making) business. For them, their joy and satisfaction is in a job well done, and home and motherhood are additional items on the ‘to do’ list. The majority of womankind lacks drive and ambition, and are milkily content with serene enjoyment of the nuturing years of domesticity, child-rearing and housework (yes, she really did say that).

I groaned. Now, everyone who’s read that article or the book will think, “Ah, that’s Heather”. Alison has now defined me as an XX woman. Thanks for that, Alison. For starters, they’re going to think I have a chip on my shoulder about graduates who make cupcakes for a living. Just because I’ve spent 10 years of my life collecting 3 degrees, married someone bright, got married before I had kids, work primarily because I love my job, and employ a cleaner, part-time nanny and a string of occasional babysitters so that my leisure time isn’t crammed full of housework.

I appreciate I’m very very fortunate to have this, and all by the age of 35. But for the record, I also love being with my children, an enjoyment that truly began as soon as I realised, whilst still on maternity leave with my first, that they are fascinating little individuals and not projects I can manage. I like being at home and making it a comfortable place for my family, and some of my happiest working days are spent with my laptop at the dining room table. I enjoy the company of women and men from a wide range of backgrounds – including the mothers of my children’s friends. And as for my sex life… well, we won’t talk about that.

There is a lot of this about, this filing people under headings and categories. Yummy Mummy, Chav, Socialite, Fashionista, Earth Mother, WAG, Domestic Goddess, Career Woman, Sloane Ranger, Hockey Mom…just a few, to which we now add XX Woman (and, presumably, non-XX Woman). Janice seems to feel liberated by the thought that she fits into the XX category, that she is not alone in needing something more than motherhood as an outlet for her energy, intellect and creativity. I feel restricted by any single label; as soon as it is applied I feel it contracting around me like a tubigrip bandage. Reducing me to an XX Woman denies the other aspects of my personality, character and chosen lifestyle that don’t fit Alison’s 8 ‘signs of an XX woman’. It feels no less limiting than measuring me against the antiquated stereotypes of successful womanhood my mother and grandmothers grew up with.

I reckon Alanis Morrisette was on to something when she sang “I’m a little bit of everything all rolled into one…I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

How much more liberating would it be if we were to resist these labels and celebrate the diversity of our individuality? How about we just get on and make the best of our lives, and be able to make the decisions that optimise the happiness of our families (including ourselves) without being burdened with one badge or another, and all the expectations that come with them?

And really, honestly, no-one needs to know how much sex anyone else is having.


Grow up!


Over Christmas, my cello teacher invited me to come over and talk to a friend of hers, who’d been brought up a Christian but was now struggling to reconcile his faith with the science he had studied at University. She promised me home-made mince-pies, so I was definitely in. I ended up chatting to this young man for over 2 hours. I was expecting a detailed argument against the existence of God, allegedly supported by a whole host of scientific research that I knew little about; but what I actually got was something much simpler but no less difficult.

He had been brought up in a church that dismissed the theory of evolution as a work of the Devil, designed to distract Christians from God’s work of creation, as described literally in the Biblical account. His church expected him to just ‘have faith’ and ignore the conclusions he came to by applying his rational, scientific mind. He was growing up and, it seemed, growing out of his faith.

It won’t surprise you what I told him: that evolution and Christianity are not in opposition; that evolution doesn’t explain what makes us distinct from the animal kingdom, bearers of God’s image; that God had given him his rational, scientific mind and expected him to use it, and not take over-simplistic arguments on trust; that faith is not a static thing we inherit from our parents, but a dynamic relationship with God that grows up with us.

It’s that last point – of what it means for our faith to ‘grow up’ – that has stuck with me over the last few months, and that I expanded on in this sermon at Stockport Family Church today. The audio download will soon be available here.

Growing up is essentially about gaining independence. As soon as you teach a child to walk, you teach them to walk away from you. Good parenting is as much about letting go as holding on, about equipping children for life independent of you. I have great parents, and they did their best to equip me for independence by teaching me a whole load of stuff – a ‘toolkit for life’.

I’d say the tools they’ve given me fall roughly into 2 categories: how to do things (eat, wash, cook, clean, read, write, build flat-pack furniture, tie knots, revise for exams, choose a good partner, stay calm under stress, wire a plug, look after my friends, ride a bike – but not knit, my Mum did try); what to think about things, helping me develop Biblically-based opinions (on money, my own relationships, career choices, the structure and operation of churches, family responsibilities, homosexuality, alcohol consumption, creation, charitable giving, and other things!).

The fact that I am the fine figure of health and sanity that you see before you is largely because I’ve stuck with most of their advice. But not all of it. As you grow up you realise there are other ways of doing things equally well, that suit your personality and circumstances better than the solutions your parents would recommend. You also find yourself in situations and facing problems that your parents could never have predicted – I have never had any advice from them about how best to conduct myself on the internet, because in the days before facebook, Twitter, blogging and being able to comment on newspaper articles online, there really wasn’t anything for them to warn me about. Texting hadn’t even been invented.

The ‘what to think about things’ also has to come under question. Those of you who have children will know what children want when they ask a question. They want a clear, short, answer. They want certainty, something to help them make sense of their lives and the world around them. As we get older, we realise that the world is much more complicated, more grey than black and white; our simple answers can seem naïve and inadequate. The questions also change – the questions we face as adults are often more complex, they involve more people, and delicate situations, unforeseen circumstances. The questions of our adult lives require longer, more involved, answers – if indeed an answer can be found at all.

It’s not surprising that many of us find that a lot of the tools we were given in childhood don’t work for us in adulthood. The question is how to respond to that – do we chuck out everything we were given and, if we were raised by Christian parents, the Bible from which they are derived and the God who gave that Bible as a guide for life? The young man I spoke to over Christmas seemed to think so. He’s not alone in that.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We should expect our faith to grow with us, expect our relationship with God to change as we do. Even if we’ve come into relationship with God later in life, we still need to go through our mental toolbox, turn over the instructions we were given as children and ask how they relate to us now. What was the truth our parents were trying to teach us? Does that agree with the truth God tells us in the Bible? How do I apply that truth to my life now?

This probably sounds terribly introspective and serious, like a DIY therapy session. But it is essential if we are to make the transition from being children to being adults, if we’re to know who we are, what’s important to us and what God is teaching us and doing through us now. This is a transition that our culture resists – taking responsibility for yourself, who you are, what you do and think and why you do and think those things (i.e. growing up) is seen as boring; maturity isn’t esteemed, it’s seen as staid, overly-sensible, old-fashioned and often associated with grey hair and wrinkles rather than a state of mind. It’s much preferred that we stay young, footloose and fancy-free, just having a laugh, it’s much more fun.

The Bible talks about maturity as a natural transition, not only in terms of physical and mental growth, but also in terms of our faith growing up to match. Here are a selection of verses which talk about growth and maturity, which give something of an overview of these two overlapping themes:

Growth – Romans 12v2, 2 Peter 1v5-8, 2 Peter 3v17-18, Romans 5v3-5

Maturity – 1 Corinthians 13v11, Hebrews 5v12-14, Philippians 3v15, 1 Corinthians 14v20

You may already be thinking of your own mental toolbox, going through some of the things you were taught by your parents and wondering what to keep and what to chuck out. Maybe you’re not sure. Not sure is ok. There’s still an awful lot I haven’t made up my mind on, and I don’t know if I ever will. And even if I do, I might change it again.

But where do we stop? What are things that aren’t open for discussion or debate? Is there anything permanent, some ‘ground truth’ that never shifts, no matter what happens in our world or in our own heads?

The early church, in the 4th century, wrestled with the same questions in order to set out a list of truths than define what Christianity is really all about. They came up with the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen. 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end. 

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen. 

These are astonishing truths: who God is, who Jesus is, what He did for us and will do for us; who the Holy Spirit is; the work of God through the unity of the church… Notice that the creed is not about us. These truths are all about God, and how he is revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The benefits of faith to us personally are great, our own experiences of God can be very profound and moving, but they aren’t the big story here. They aren’t the core truth, on which we build our lives. That’s God, that is.

The earliest Christian creed, even before this, was very simple: ‘Jesus is Lord’. Being a Christian is acknowledging that is it God that calls the shots, He is the boss. It is all about Him. The pursuit of Him and surrender to His authority is what really matters. As John the Baptist said, when hearing how people were listening to Jesus and flocking to hear Jesus rather than John, “He must increase, I must decrease.” (John 3v30).

Growing to maturity as a Christian is letting God become more and more important in more and more areas of our lives. It isn’t about having lots of clever answers to everyone’s difficult questions. It’s not about turning up to lots of meetings and knowing the words to all the songs. It’s not about being able to quote suitable Bible verses, one for every occasion and situation. It’s not about having lots of powerful, emotional experiences of God. It’s about our perspective on life becoming more and more consistent with God’s perspective on life, our character becoming more and more like His.

I said to that young man, over tea and mince-pies in Rebecca Whettam’s conservatory, that as I get older I get more and more sure about less and less. And at the core of what I’m sure about is that there is a God, He has made me to seek a relationship with Him, and He has revealed who He is in Jesus. In Jesus, He has shown me the right way to live, He calls me to follow Him and as I travel in the right direction, He gives me the power to do so.

Working that out will take the rest of our lives, but as God gets hold of more of us, and we gain more of His perspective and increasingly see the world as He does, we will in turn be able to make more sense of our world and our place in it, and how we should live our lives in a way that honours Him as Lord.

This prevailing focus on Him as our Lord is at the centre of this re-telling of Ecclesiastes 3, which I’d like to leave you with. It’s by my favourite Bible storyteller, Bob Hartman:

Yeah, everything keeps on changing
And everything has it’s place.
And everything keeps on changing,
Everything but you.

We greet our newborn children
And say goodbye to our dying parents;
We settle into the new neighbourhood
And move away from our old friends.

And everything keeps on changing
Everything but you.

We kill off our rivals and our passions and our dreams
And try to put a plaster on the pain.
We wreck the ones we care for
And erect a monument to our ambition on the ruins.

And everything keeps on changing
Everything but you.

We weep like drunks for the love we have lost
And laugh like drunks for the love we have found.
We weep and we mourn,
we laugh and we dance.

And everything keeps on changing,
Everything but you.

And we throw away what we later stoop to gather;
Embracing the sacred stones of wisdom that dropped from our hands in youth.

And everything keeps on changing
Everything but you.

And we look and we look and we look and we look
For purpose and value and meaning
Until we’re too weary and and worn out and wasted
To want to look any more.

And everything keeps on changing
Everything but you.

And we keep what’s precious
And dispose of what’s not,
Except for those of us
With big attics or garages or sheds,
Because surely we’ll find a use for it someday,
Mending what’s torn up and broken.

And everything keeps on changing
Everything but you.

And sometimes we just have to be silent
And stare
At the face of a lover
At the place of wonder
At the grave of the one who is gone.

And sometimes we just have to speak
And say
I love you.
I praise you.
I miss you.

And everything keeps on changing
Everything but you.

And we love and we hate
And we fight and make peace
With our friends
And our neighbours
And our husbands
And our wives
And our parents
And our children
And our churches.

Because everything has its time
And everything has its place,
And everything keeps on changing, Lord,
Everything but you.

The things you wish you didn’t have to say


image from

Last weekend, amongst the wonderful events of ScienceGrrl’s celebration of International Women’s Day, something happened that broke my heart. I’m a fairly resilient soul, so I don’t say that lightly, but it’s a long time since I’ve felt such gut-wrenching pain and anger.

On Friday night, I found myself sitting around the dinner table with three very good friends after the end of a long day, one that had been productive and tiring-in-a-positive-way. The mood was incongruously subdued. We were talking, with some difficulty, about the other girls’ experiences of sexual assault. Michelle had been violently assaulted only the day before, and had just returned from reporting the attack to the police. She was exhausted and still somewhat in shock. Ellie had been accosted by a frotteur on the Tube back in August 2011, but two days previously had returned to the very same train carriage to dance in protest against the casual sexual abuse she and so many women suffer on the Tube. She was worn out after a week of publicly protesting and dealing with the media attention and the comments of supporters and idiots alike on-line. Anna opened up about men touching her inappropriately as she travelled on the Tube, and whilst standing at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial (of all places!) when she was just 14.

I was inspired that these women felt able to speak, and had also done so publicly through social media. Toooften women feel shamed into silence when such things happen, but speaking out not only highlights the problem and rallies support for those who have suffered abuse (and against their abusers) but also puts the power back in the hands of the woman, who now feels able to share her experience rather than feeling it is a guilty, dirty secret she must take to the grave. Project Unbreakable is achieving similar things for victims of rape.

Yet I had nothing to say. No experience to draw on to summon the right words, the necessary empathy. I should have felt grateful that I’ve never experienced sexual abuse, instead I felt so deeply saddened that this is such a common occurrence. Three quarters of the women at the table that night had.

Society may look at us, look at them, and look at me, and draw its own conclusions. I’m older, less attractive, less jovial, married, Northern. But that would infer that these beautiful women are somehow at fault, have somehow encouraged this invasion of privacy, this theft of intimacy; that they somehow deserve what they have suffered and there is a set of circumstances that would justify their abuse. I stand solidly against that, and shoulder-to-shoulder with my friends.

The worst thing is that not only does society often blame women for abuse and rape, but the criminal justice system often fails to side with the victim. Too few abuse and rape cases ever lead to conviction, and the process of taking these cases to court can often leave the woman feeling like they have been abused and raped all over again, with nothing to show for it. Whilst I appreciate it is often difficult to prove these offences in a court of law, it is of no comfort to know that your country’s legal system cannot (or perhaps, will not) leap to your aid if you suffer in this way.

It could just as easily have been me. Pondering their experience, I couldn’t help but look back on all the times I’d walked home by myself, travelled solo, or chosen to trust a man enough to spent time alone with him. All the times I’d made myself vulnerable. I looked again at these freedoms, so innocently embraced and accepted, with suspicion and fear, and a feeling of intense vulnerability. I recalled the chapters from The Women’s Room (the feminist classic by Marilyn French) which tell of Chris’s rape, how the police and courts responded, and the reaction of her mother, Val – from fury, to detachment, to misandry and self-imposed exile from patriarchal society in an attempt rediscover her sanity. I realised the deep, raging sadness I felt for Michelle, Anna and Ellie that night could so easily poison me too, I could so easily descend into a paranoid half-life, avoiding any situation that could be considered risky, and looking upon all the men in my life as would-be abusers, would-be rapists.

Fortunately for me (and my friendships with those wonderful men), I didn’t spend too long in that dark place. You can’t afford to when you have sons. You have to believe that there are a lot of good men out there, and that your boys will grow up to join them. I can testify that there are plenty – those who have walked me home, shepherded me to train stations and into cabs, and kept a respectful distance when they so easily couldn’t have done. I will raise Lars and Bryn to do the same. Every boy should be brought up knowing that no matter how short her skirt is, how drunk she is, what you’ve already said and done, wherever she finds herself alone – a woman’s body is her own and no-one else has any right to it without her express permission.

Words of wisdom?

I have taken much inspiration in recent years from words attributed to Gandi:


It speaks of being proactive, of not waiting for everyone and everything to somehow become the way you want, but getting on and living out what you want to see happen, embodying the desired way of life and demonstrating to others what is possible.

It turns out, though, that he never said it.

But he did say this, which is much more subtle but a thousand times more meaningful for it:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him…. We need not wait to see what others do.”

It turns out the words of Thoreau have been similarly mangled into a catchy slogan – and the glib positivities of a self-help guru attributed to Mandela.

The lesson? Don’t believe every quote you see written on a coffee mug.

Who do you think you are?

When you meet a great number of new people – and very cool new people – in a short period of time, it presents an opportunity for reinvention. You can be someone new because you are someone new. No-one knows what you were like before, there is no prior knowledge accumulated through years of acquaintance. You can choose to break free from past attitudes, ways of engaging with the world, turns of phrase, habits of dressing… all without freaking out the people who knew the ‘old’ you so very well and are quite content with her and like what they have come to expect from her.

This is how it has been with my new network of contacts and friends, brought to me through ScienceGrrl. Setting up ScienceGrrl has been a rollercoaster ride, which I’ve described in blogs here, here and here. It sometimes feels like I have two parallel lives: one where I work for the NHS, manage a home and am Mum to two small boys; another where I am interviewed by Pallab Ghosh for Radio4, get e-mail from Liz Bonnin and organise swanky launch parties in central London. The real difficulty is that these lives don’t exist in isolation; they constantly interleave, so I have had to mentally resolve how it is that I am the person that does both sets of things…that in fact, there are just things, and just one life to do them in.

The trick to staying sane in the middle of all this is to be essentially the same person in both settings. I was talking this through with a colleague who knows me well, and he wisely remarked ‘Of course, you present yourself differently in different situations, but it’s still you’. The key is to know who you are, what is fundamental, what is the essence of (in this case) Heather Williams and give that appropriate expression in different contexts. The role, theatre, presentation, and communication of yourself can’t be allowed to take on a life of its own. That way lies madness.

This authenticity and integrity at the heart of life, this allegiance to the truth about yourself, in turn leads to truth-telling in all your dealings. As Shakespeare wrote: ‘To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man’…which is particularly helpful as I’m no good at lying, and wouldn’t want to be – my life is complicated enough without having to cover my tracks as well.

So, who am I? What are the essential, defining facts about me?

I’m a disciple of Jesus, and I believe in dealing fairly, giving generously, taking the initiative, enabling others, loving sacrificially, being responsible… in short, I’m here to push myself as far as I can go so I can give all God has put in me to the world and leave it a better place, taking care of my physical and mental health so I can get there, and encouraging others to do so. I express that as a Mum, friend, daughter, wife, STEM ambassador, sister, physicist, preacher, lecturer, secretary to the UK PET Physics Group, colleague, cellist, social media chatterbox, ordinary member of the Institute of Physics’ Women in Physics Committee, piano teacher… and now, Director of ScienceGrrl.

Aspiring or becoming?

I stumbled across this interesting blog entry by Lea Woodward the other day, which comments on how we describe ourselves in those 160 characters of ‘Bio’ information on Twitter profiles. Apparently, there is a tendency towards describing ourselves as ‘aspiring X’, indicating who we would like to become (X), rather than who we are. Such statements are reminiscent of the lady in the photo above; they use the Twitter Bio as viewpoint from which to gaze wistfully into the far distance. A popular one is ‘aspiring location independent’, indicating the desire to be able to roam the world unfettered and do our thing wherever, which seems very romantic… in principle.

I haven’t noticed this, but I am new to Twitter and am there as a professional scientist, relating to others in a similar line of work or the relevant professional bodies. The people I’m connected to are more than happy to list their actual credentials and – on the whole – wouldn’t dare blag it. In many cases, myself included, we tweet as a form of personal marketing. I can’t speak for everyone in my corner of the Twittersphere, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of false advertising.

It did get me thinking, though, about how we over-inflate ourselves in these settings to look bigger than we are… like a territorial cat with its fur on end. Does our present condition and status look so mean and small compared to the other occupants of Twitter’s celebrity-studded sphere that we are coerced into defining ourselves by some distant pipe-dream? Surely, if you get to doing that, you have to ask… what’s so wrong with being who you are and doing what you do?

If you don’t like it – please, please, get working towards changing it. Life’s too short not to. At least then, when you tell the world about where you are, you can also tell us about the journey you are on and the destination you are heading for. Tell me who you are, and who you are becoming; but don’t tell me you’re an empty wish – someone you’re not.

How to Dismantle an Argument

This is a quick unpick, a nifty tool for dismantling dodgy stitching, thus allowing one to reassemble needlework in the correct order. I am very familiar with it, as my stitching skills have always left something to be desired.

This is, a nifty tool for dismantling dodgy logic, thus allowing one to reassemble facts and opinions into a coherent line of thought… or, perhaps, dismantle another’s dodgy logic into an incoherent heap of its component fallacies, thus winning an argument. I look forward to making good use of it, as my debating skills need a little refinement… although not as much as my stitching…