Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Gendered assumptions and science: still a problem

Sometimes I feel like covering sexism and science has the potential to trigger a weary response, a feeling that this is well-travelled territory. And generally, academia is fairly self-aware about the causes and consequences of its current gender gap (see the special issue in Nature). But then I hear or read something that disappointingly reminds me that society as a whole still has a ways to go.

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…” 
The point is not that it is always unacceptable to include such things in articles, but that unless the article is about sexism or balancing work-life balance, these facts are irrelevant when reporting on a scientist's professional accomplishments. Gender shouldn't be the default position when we consider scientists who happen to be women. And apparently this message still needs to be repeated. Some people have suggested that one equalizer is to simply to also ask male scientists about their personal lives more often. However writer Finkbeiner notes that these questions rarely improve science journalism: "They’re [scientists] all normal human beings and the thing that makes them so interesting is the science. So, if you want to humanize them, talk about their motivations. Talk about how they got interested in their field. Talk about the part of their life that led them to become such an interesting scientist—because childcare is not interesting."

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.

11 comments:

  1. Yes, I was recently reading about the 1700's entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian and all the little blurbs about her online included as much about her family backstory (husband, father, kids) as about her work. Seem I was always skimming over a bunch of stuff I wasn't interested in to get to her scientific accomplishments. This wasn't too unreasonable because often one of the points of including this aspect of her story was to highlight the extreme sexism of the time and praise her ability to be successful despite the inequality. However, there would likely not be the seeming obligation to include such personal achievement if it was Maynard Sibylla Merian. I am glad the little post I did about her focused on her work and not her personal life.

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  2. Great post Caroline! I think that 10 years ago I might have been equally distressed by the way Yvonne Brill’s obituary started, and the focus on the part of her that was a parent and wife. However, now, 10 years later and with two small children, and a challenging career as a professor at an R1, I think it is reassuring and appropriate to hear that stuff, and even, gasp, helpful to young women. The truth is that once women are parents, most women DO have different priorities than men – there is no getting around the fact that, for most women, parenthood drastically alters their priorities. This happens to men, too, but not to the same extent. So, to me, it is positive to hear that she was an awesome mom, while also being a brilliant scientist. Somehow, she managed to do both and still be really, really good at her job, without sacrificing the central place of her family (phew, family was important to her, too, and she still managed to do something really significant in her career). I have my dream job. But to be honest, I am a bit ambivalent about it now that my kids are on the scene. They are SO much more important to me.

    I teach a gigantic undergraduate class and I continually get comments that perhaps the most important thing that I do in that class is talk (in a general way) about my kids. So many young women, at that life stage, think that it is not possible to be a scientist and have a family so they rule out being a scientist as a career option.

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  3. Hi - thanks for your thoughtful comment! It's obviously not a straightforward issue and there are a wide range of opinions even among women about what is and isn't appropriate, but you've provided some interesting input.

    The recent outcry about Barak Obama calling Kamala Harris "the best-looking attorney general in the country" and mixed response is a pretty relevant illustration of similar issues elsewhere in public life.
    http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-obama-calling-kamala-harris-best-looking-divides-even-liberals-20130406,0,1197769.story

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  4. But not pointed out is the fact that there were numerous news stories about Obama with his shirt off and how good looking he is.

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  5. I totally agree with you Marc, although this sort of comment is still more frequently made about women.
    And we've discussed how men also can face stereotypes about being less involved in home life. It may be assumed that men applying for faculty positions are less interested in information about school districts or daycare or work life balance, for example.
    In general, i think this sort of tit-for-tat, 'look at how the same unfair standard was applied to a man', isn't an especially productive way to approach the topic though. But it's definitely important to recognize that there are structural inequalities faced by men and women.

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  6. No not tit for tat (I don't care if people want to comment on what people look like) but rather the response. The media say "Obama looks great with his shirt off" and then says "How dare he comment on someone else's appearance".

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  7. Men are easily just as worried about all of those thing...work life balance, living in a good school district, etc. It is just that, as a generality, things seems to change MORE for women after kids than men. I don't know of any men who have considered throwing in their very loved jobs after there kids were born but other women professors I know do talk and think about it.

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  8. It feels so nice to find somebody with some original thoughts on Childcare. Really thank full to you for starting this

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