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Lindsey Kuper

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Women in science: contrary to popular belief, some of us are actually alive [May. 10th, 2011|03:22 am]
Lindsey Kuper

Update, May 11: I was asked to contribute this post to the Geek Feminism blog as a guest post. Thanks to all those who "Like"d it, or who simply liked it!

I'm happy to see that today's xkcd about "Zombie Marie Curie" has been making the rounds, because the "I make a sorry role model if girls just see me over and over as the one token lady scientist" bit gives voice to my long-held frustration about the predictable and repetitive trotting-out of the same handful of historical women as the go-to examples of women in science.

Those women were amazing and groundbreaking, but to always focus the discussion around them to the exclusion of actual, living, breathing female scientists is to make actual, living, breathing female scientists feel even more invisible than we already sometimes do.

Here's an example of what I mean: the first page of Flickr search results for "women scientists" is top-heavy with results from the Smithsonian's "Women in Science" photo set, which consists entirely of black-and-white photos of women, most of whom died in the middle of the twentieth century sometime. Why not call that photo set "Pioneering Women in Science" -- or, uh, maybe just "Women Scientists from the Age of Black-and-White Film Photography", since there were women in science before that, too? To not show any contemporary scientists under the heading "Women in Science" is to pathologize and exoticize the idea of simultaneously being a woman and being a scientist, and that's about the last thing scientists need.

I like Photos of Mathematicians. It's exactly what it says on the tin -- one person's collection of photos of living, working mathematicians, many of whom are actual regular human beings who you might run into on the street. Some of the photos are of women. I wish that, instead of seeing Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace over and over, we saw them sometimes, or their counterparts in physics or CS. A color photo of a living person1 feels more immediately relevant than a painting or a black-and-white photo of an (un)dead person, even if the (un)dead person has more Nobel Prizes.

  1. There's nothing special about the four photos I chose, aside from the fact that they are, as far as I can tell, of women. I hesitated about picking particular photos to link to, but I decided that sharing some photos of modern women mathematicians who are probably actually alive is important enough to me that I'm willing to risk being wrong about someone's gender identification in the attempt.

[User Picture]From: jcreed
2011-05-10 11:15 am (UTC)
The only unfortunate thing is the maintainer of the archive, himself a mathematician, took unfair advantage of his curatorial role to make himself look extra dignified.

(but srsly: andrej is the awesomest)
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[User Picture]From: bubblingbeebles
2011-05-10 12:24 pm (UTC)
haha that is great.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-05-10 04:37 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: _tove
2011-05-10 02:30 pm (UTC)
Agree, and:
I think there's something to be said about the "[women/POC/whatever] who had to really struggle to get recognition" trope, in that it conflates various parts of the story. Marie Curie was really awesome at perseverance, but she was also really awesome at science, and these are different things. I'm not saying that one can be a good scientist[/mathematician/politician/artist] without any perseverance, but I think the trope puts undue onus on the creator and not on the societal norms that require some subsets of humanity that have to work twice as hard for half the recognition (or ten for one-tenth, or...). It makes it too easy to dismiss minority creatives who aren't quite Marie Curie: "well, if you really cared about your project, you'd be attending illegal night schools (potentially physically and monetarily endangering yourself and your family), etc." One interesting definition of true equality that I've heard is that "equality will be when a mediocre woman gets the same recognition as a mediocre man."

Internet synchronicity is such that I read this comic within a few days of reading about the death of Joanna Russ (and therefore about her book, How to Suppress Women's Writing), and also about this.
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From: simrob
2011-05-10 03:10 pm (UTC)
Wow. Somehow I can't even intellectually engage with the fact that the second link is real enough to be outraged about it.
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[User Picture]From: gwillen
2011-05-10 03:43 pm (UTC)
Those silly Jews.

(No, I don't have any particular point to make; I'm just sort of shaking my head and tsk'ing at the insane backwardness.)
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[User Picture]From: _tove
2011-05-10 04:17 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the actual newspaper is, as one of those comments points out, essentially the Jewish equivalent of Westboro Baptist Church. What I find more interesting is how many other people (that is, people probably not affiliated with the paper) seem to waffle in whether or not it's an outrageous thing to have done. It seems to me that it's obviously over-the-top (and of course founded on some really unsavory beliefs about women) -- even cropping the photo in half would have had some plausible deniability -- and the fact that "we do not show women out of respect for those women" is considered maybe a reasonable explanation is what causes me to shake my head.
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2011-05-10 03:28 pm (UTC)
One thing I realized last week is that the supply of famous scientists of either sex may not be a renewable resource. I'd quipped about Caltech milking zombie Feynman for all the books and videos he could sell, and got challenged as to who the next Feynman is. Feynman had a Personality. Hawking is probably famous entirely because he's in a wheelchair and speaks through a machine. Watson and Crick are from the 1960s, and DNA was pretty big. But who discovered the cosmic microwave background? I should know but can't recall. Who found dark matter, dark energy, the accelerating universe? I dunno, I don't pay attention to who, just the what.

Most of the famous female scientists are dead, but so are most of the famous male ones. Either because the big discoveries aren't coming in so far, or because we don't do scientist celebrity as much without some other hook, or both.

Jane Goodall (and friends) just popped into my mind as a famous living woman, though I suspect there's bias against thinking of her as a full scientist.
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[User Picture]From: _tove
2011-05-10 04:05 pm (UTC)
Watson and Crick

...I think you mean Franklin, Watson, and Crick.
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From: (Anonymous)
2011-05-10 05:18 pm (UTC)
Or really just Franklin. The other two were thieves.
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[User Picture]From: ostraya
2011-05-10 09:58 pm (UTC)
(Hi! Popping in from geek feminism.)

I went to see Jane Goodall speak on her latest book tour, and she went out of her way to avoid calling herself a scientist, preferring to say that she's a naturalist (who later went on to get scientific credentials so others would recognize her work). She was quite clear in saying that her insights were in great contradiction to established scientific thought at the time, which claimed that animals had no emotions.

So it might actually be by her choice that she's rarely referred to as a scientist.

Regardless, as a naturalist myself, I found her talk enchanting!
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[User Picture]From: sonetka
2011-05-11 04:40 am (UTC)
I think today's scientist celebrities won't really be celebrities until tomorrow - after all, they probably haven't finished the work/won the prizes that will make them really famous yet :). I can only think of one currently-living, non-Hawking male scientist off the top of my head (Mario Capecchi - that's only because I was living five minutes away from the U of U when he got the Nobel and it was hard not to know about him after that! And I couldn't tell you on a bet what he DID, just that it was, uh, something biological). Oh well. At least I'd heard of Emmy Noether and Lise Meitner before reading xkcd, that's got to count for something!
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-05-11 07:07 am (UTC)
Well, part of my point is that role models don't have to be famous scientists. I'd rather people see that science is everywhere and scientists are everywhere.
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From: (Anonymous)
2011-05-12 06:48 pm (UTC)

Well put

Posted this on Geek Feminism before seeing the link to your blog:

Very well said. I’m also glad that this post was not a criticism of the delightful XKCD strip, but an important point the strip evoked.

There’s also an important point to be made about the “other” mentality and how it applies to these things. Normally, feeling like the other means you’re not invited. The inverse is often true in these fields. There’s a pervasive feeling that research is specifically for the other–in this case, the otherworldly talented, the touched-by-the-gods other.

My mother has been a professor of biochemistry and microbiology for four decades, obviously running a lab as well, and she’s very quick to call herself “no kind of genius.” She just attributes it to hard work, follow-through, and above all, a huge appetite to do it in the first place and to keep doing it. It takes a lot of passion to keep going through the grant application process once you have grandchildren you could be playing with.

Anyway, it’s easier to throw the ladder down when you make it clear that not only are these fields not only for men, but also not only for Ivy Leaguers or any other group you would let intimidate you out of striving.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-05-16 02:43 am (UTC)

Re: Well put

Thanks for stopping by! I responded to this comment on GF.
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From: (Anonymous)
2011-05-20 06:58 pm (UTC)

Show the Role Models!

Great topic for discussion - if girls can see current day women scientists on a regular basis, maybe we would have an easier time encouraging women to pursue careers in the science and technical fields!
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