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Lindsey Kuper

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Women in science: still alive [May. 29th, 2011|06:00 pm]
Lindsey Kuper

A few things have happened on the women-in-science-actually-being-alive front since I wrote about it a few weeks ago. The Geek Feminism blog republished the post, with my permission. Then, BlogHer did a "spotlight" on it without my permission; I got an email telling me that they were going to feature my post, rather than asking, as Geek Feminism did. I don't mind the publicity from BlogHer, and they probably would have respected my wishes if I'd actually asked them not to post it, but it still feels weird to be put in the position of having to take action if I don't want my writing to be used. It also feels weird to be referred to on Twitter as "BlogHer's Lindsey Kuper" when I have nothing to do with BlogHer. But, anyway, back to the topic at hand.

The Geek Feminism post started some interesting conversations. In particular, I thought Amos made an excellent first comment:

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.

I responded by quoting Gene Wallingford's blog post "A Well-Meaning Headline Sends an Unfortunate Signal" in its entirety. I want to quote Wallingford's post in its entirety again, because it's that relevant:

Last week, the local newspaper ran an above-the-fold front-page story about the regional Physics Olympics competition. This is a wonderful public-service piece. It extols young local students who spend their extracurricular time doing math and physics, and it includes a color photo showing two students who are having fun. If you would like to see the profile of science and math raised among the general public, you could hardly ask for more.

Unless you read the headline:

Young Einsteins

I don't want to disparage the newspaper's effort to help the STEM cause, but the article's headline undermines the very message it is trying to send. Science isn't fun; it isn't for everyone; it is for brains. We're looking for smart kids. Regular people need not apply.

Am I being too sensitive? No. The headline sends a subtle message to students and parents. It sends an especially dangerous signal to young women and minorities. When they see a message that says, "Science kids are brainiacs", they are more likely than other kids to think, "They don't mean me. I don't belong."

I don't want anyone to mislead people about the study of science, math, and CS. They are not the easiest subjects to study. Most of us can't sleep through class, skip homework, and succeed in these courses. But discipline and persistence are more important ingredients to success than native intelligence, especially over the long term. Sometimes, when science and math come too easily to students early in their studies, they encounter difficulties later. Some come to count on "getting it" quickly and, when it no longer comes easily, they lose heart or interest. Others skate by for a while because they don't have to practice and, when it no longer comes easily, they haven't developed the work habits needed to get over the hump.

If you like science and math enough to work at them, you will succeed, whether you are an Einstein or not. You might even do work that is important enough to earn a Nobel Prize.

These two quotations speak for themselves. But I have one more thing to add. Clearly, the language we use to talk about science and scientists matters, and by "language" I mean the language of images as well as that of newspaper headlines like the one Wallingford describes. That's why I think Photos of Mathematicians is so great: a lot of the photos look like people I see every day. They could easily be people in this coffee shop I'm in. They could be me. I want people to see pictures like that because I want them to see that scientists are regular, ordinary people, and that regular, ordinary people, such as the woman sitting next to them in the coffee shop, can be scientists. And I think that the way BlogHer chose to illustrate my post, with a picture of stock photo models in lab coats, is not really doing a lot to help matters in that regard. So I started a Flickr group for people who identify as women and as members of my scientific subfield.1 I mentioned it offhand in the comments of the original Geek Feminism post. Then, Mary at Geek Feminism posted about it and contributed the first photo (she's a computational linguist), and things sort of ballooned from there. The contributions haven't been entirely what I was envisioning (for example, I was hoping for individual photos, and instead some of them are of groups), but I haven't done anything to moderate; for now, I'm going to let the group go in whatever direction the community chooses to take it. So, here, have some photos of computer scientists!

  1. To be honest, most of the time I identify professionally as about two-thirds mathematician and one-third engineer, but hey, as long as my field is putting "science" in its name, I feel more or less justified in calling myself a scientist.

(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-05-30 06:48 am (UTC)
You make good points, Wren. I don't actually lie awake at night worrying about whether I count as a scientist (I lie awake worrying about other career-related issues), but maybe someone is reading this who does, and you might have just reassured them, so, thanks!

Which new disciplines would you say are the ones that "no one's quite sure what to do with"? Network science and friends, perhaps?
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[User Picture]From: lyceum_arabica
2011-05-30 06:58 pm (UTC)
mrph... honestly, when i was in high school I didn't look like a regular person. I looked like an omega-nerd, literally the girl that the band geeks all picked on. But I knew the geekdom of science was a waiting haven for me, and that was helpful. And I remember when I started out as a physics major at OSU (where roughly a third of us were women, and of course the ratio was about 50/50 among the top 10% of the class)... although I was a lot more aware of what current fashion was, I was careful not to follow it too closely at risk of sending the wrong message to my nerdy friends. When we had finally control of the social circles, we wanted to rebel against the part of the population which had made our lives difficult in the previous years. That's still a trend in physics departments, from what I've seen... no shortage of confident women (at least nothing compared to what we see in CS), but nearly mandatory geekdom.

So... maybe it's not all the media's fault? Maybe what's really needed here, rather than an image overhaul, is a peace agreement. Pictures of 'regular people', *and* omega nerd 'einsteins', all happily working together. :-)
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-05-31 04:29 am (UTC)
Well, my reaction to Photos of Mathematicians isn't quite "hey, they look like regular people instead of looking like nerds". It's more like "hey, they look like me and the people I know". I expect that "regular people" means something different for everyone, but I definitely didn't mean "non-nerds" by "regular people".

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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2013-02-12 09:42 pm (UTC)
Reading this again a couple of years later, I want to point out one thing.

In their comment, Amos wrote, "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." That makes it sound as though the reason women (or non-Ivy-Leaguers, et cetera) might not succeed at a pursuit is because they've allowed men (or Ivy Leaguers, and so on) to intimidate them out of doing so. Phrasing it like that disregards the evidence that we've seen that women are held to a higher standard than men are; they have to do better work to be perceived as doing work of equal quality.

Yes, intimidation is real. Yes, we should fight it. But to say "You can do it; don't let yourself be intimidated!" to women who are confronting a double standard, without doing anything about that double standard, is a subtle and insidious form of victim-blaming. It says that if they don't succeed, then it's their own fault for allowing themselves to be intimidated, rather than the fault of the society that imposes the double standard.

Edited at 2013-02-12 09:43 pm (UTC)
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