Great Women Behind Wonderful Science

It’s time to get inspirational

Gender bias in the scientific world is incontestable. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence showing that discrimination against women is likely, and that male scientists not only occupy more academic positions, but also have higher salaries than their female peers. The way both genders perceive contributions of women in science plays a major role on how such biases have always existed, and still persist nowadays. In 2012, researchers from the Department of Psychology at Yale University published striking empirical data on gender-biased perception in academy. When the same job application was randomly assigned as coming from a person from either sex, science faculty judged female applicants as less competent, offered them a lower starting salary, and less frequently showed proneness for academic mentoring female candidates. After reading this paper, I felt a sort of comforting sensation to see scientific proof for subtle gender bias being published on a high impact journal such as PNAS. However, I found disturbing the evidence for sex-bias from both male and female scientists. I won’t deny, as PhD student just starting to debut in the academic world, I felt frightened realizing the mentality that I ought to face in order to succeed in my career. But wait, before I tell you how I have been dealing with my gender-bias associated fear, I want you to know three facts that might explain why female scientists aren’t perceived they should be.

1. The nauseating effect of stereotypes.  Standardized concepts about a group of people limit and oversimplify the complexity of human personalities and capabilities. Female researchers have been classified in one generic group of stereotypes – they are different from what is considered as a stereotypical female. Dr Patricia Fara, a historian of science at the University of Cambridge, underlines how biographies frequently highlight the out of ordinary side of female scientists, perpetuating the idea that a woman that does outstanding and relevant research has to be an outlier. One of Rosalind Franklin biographies received the subtitle of “The dark lady of the DNA”, Dian Fossey got the nickname of ‘gorilla-lady’, and Marie Curie is famous for her serious and authoritarian personality. Popular culture also has it’s negative influence – as an example, the TV show The Big Bang Theory, portrays women in science as socially inept, ugly and weird. The vlogger for the Chicago Field Museum, Emily Graslie, has shared with the public some of the most sexist comments on her work, suggesting that, for some people, her appearance is more relevant than the content she offers.

         2. It’s hard to be a woman in science. Marie Curie isn’t the first or will be the last outstanding woman scientists to have the severe and authoritarian aspect of her personality highlighted. I bet that you, my dear reader, can point out at least one successful woman you have crossed paths with throughout your career that receives the same reputation as Marie Curie. This point of view can be either the outcome of one of the nauseating stereotypes of woman in science, and/or the product from the fact that most successful female scientists do have traces of an authoritarian personality, as if austerity is a must-have trait to be a successful woman in academia. Either way, the existence of such stereotype imposes a constraint on the type of personality a woman has to have in order to thrive in the academic world. On the other hand, all this makes me wonder how academic life works for women who fit in the opposite type of an austere personality.

Official picture of the Solvay conference for Physics and Chemistry, in 1927. Dr Curie was the only woman to participate.

Official picture of the Solvay conference for Physics and Chemistry, in 1927. Dr Curie was the only woman to participate.

A while ago I encountered a blog post about an article by Dr Toril Moi, a professor at Duke University, which drove me to understand a lot about my own behaviors and what I experience in grad school. Dr Moi writes the following in her article:

“Every year some female graduate students tell me that they feel overlooked, marginalized, silenced in some seminars. They paint a picture of classrooms where the alpha males—so-called “theory boys”—are encouraged to hold forth in impossibly obscure language, but where their own interventions elicit no response. These women, in short, say that they are not listened to, that they are not taken seriously, and that they get the impression that their perceptions of the matter at hand are of no interest to anyone else. […] Sometimes I have a conversation with someone who has been described to me as a theory boy. Then I invariably discover that the theory boy doesn’t at all sound like an intellectual terrorist. He is, simply, profoundly and passionately interested in ideas. He loves theory and precisely because he loves it, he has strong theoretical views. But this is exactly what graduate students should be like, for intellectual passions are the very fuel of intellectual life. The problem, then, is not the intellectual passions of the theory boys, but the women’s sense that they are not given the same freedom and the same encouragement as the theory boys to express their intellectual passions”.

The point Dr Moi makes with her story, which I believe is a familiar situation to many of us, is that most women don’t feel as comfortable to put their opinion ‘on the table’ as often as men do.  She also states that   professors have the role of guiding students towards efficiently expressing their ideas, dealing with criticism in a constructive way and minimizing any scenario of gender inequality. But, in the lack of such environment, I feel like, more frequently, females need to improve their pro-active behavior and adjust themselves towards a more aggressive attitude in academia. If you are an introvert like I am, you know how hard that can be.

3. We are still in denial. It took me many years and lots of reading, and ‘staring a the ceiling’ thinking moments to finally convince myself of becoming a feminist, or lets say, a sci-feminist. Denial is the reason why it took me so much energy to convince myself that gender-bias and discrimination are real in the academic world, and that I could face it at any moment of my career. As pointed by Dr Jennifer Raymond, a neurobiologist at the Stanford University, most people deny their bias against women in science, even though 70% of hundreds of thousands of people still associate science as a male-related activity. Dr Raymond suggests that the first way to end gender assumptions is to raise awareness of its existence. So, the ugliest and saddest as it sounds, it’s out there, we all need to admit it, and start being pro-active towards conquering it.

Now, back to how I have decided to deal with my fear of facing the reality of gender-biased assumptions. Well, I decided that it’s time to ‘blog it up’, and be proactive towards inspiring myself, other ladies starting their academic careers, and our male peers out there, as well as promoting the work of female scientists. In my column, ‘Great Women Behind Wonderful Science’, updated monthly in The Naked Darwin, I’ll post about women in science that overcame any limitation imposed by sexism in academia, and are contributing or have contributed with outstanding scientific knowledge. I hope my science divas inspire you as they inspire me.