The first was a minor story. The curator of “I f--king love science”, a widely-followed Facebook page on things scientific and otherwise, happened to reveal that they were Elise Andrew--a female. While this seemed to be a non-event, apparently young men everywhere (i.e. on the internet) were shocked that their mental picture of a male scientist was untrue. Many comments fell along the lines of “you’re a girl?!” and “all that time picturing a man!”. Even more frustrating was that commenters also mentioned Elise’s appearance – attractive and female and a scientist--apparently this was so surprising as to be worthy of comment. And while I wanted to dismiss this as being limited to problems with Internet culture and hardly indicative of larger societal trends, something else happened – Yvonne Brill, a brilliant American rocket scientist passed away. Her work on propulsion systems now helps keep communications satellites in orbit, and she was a successful engineer with an interesting career. She clearly deserved a national obituary, and she got one in the New York Times. It started:
“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.
But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”
By way of comparison, not one of Steve Jobs’ obituaries started with a mention of his hobbies or personal accomplishments, or his status as a father. The only other recently (2012) deceased female scientist I could think of, astronaut Sally Ride, similarly received an obituary in the NYT that emphasized her gender - "American Woman Who Shattered Space Ceiling".
The need of society, reporters, and popular culture to reconcile a female scientist’s gender with their occupation appears to still be common. So much so that the one science writer came up with the Finkbeiner Test (Columbia Journalism Review) to point out articles which rely on the “she’s a woman AND a scientist” trope. Such articles tend to mention:
- The fact that she’s a woman
- Her husband’s job
- Her child-care arrangements
- How she nurtures her underlings
- How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
- How she’s such a role model for other women
- How she’s the “first woman to…”
Note: while problems with gendered assumptions is a very general societal issue, academia isn't totally blameless. Having served on a number of lecture organizing committees, I've noticed that if the email for speaker nominations doesn't explicitly say that we wish to nominate male and female scientists at the top of their careers, female scientists are rarely nominated. Students' mental image of a top scientist tends to skew male. If that simple note is included though, nominations begin to approach gender ratios for professors at that career stage.