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Women in science: contrary to popular belief, some of us are actually alive - Lindsey Kuper [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
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: 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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