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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.

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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