Women in science: contrary to popular belief, some of us are actually alive!

This is a guest post by Lindsey Kuper. Lindsey Kuper does math and code and music and splatters it unceremoniously all over the Internet.

This post originally appeared at her blog and was linked from Restructure!’s comments.

I’m happy to see that the 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.

15 thoughts on “Women in science: contrary to popular belief, some of us are actually alive!

  1. Amos

    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.

    1. Lindsey Kuper

      There’s a pervasive feeling that research is specifically for the other–in this case, the otherworldly talented, the touched-by-the-gods other.

      Yes — thanks for bringing this up. I loved what Gene Wallingford had to say about this. I’m actually going to quote his blog post in full because the whole thing is 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.

  2. Alice

    “Photos of Mathematicians” website is so full of win.
    I still bristle when I think of the conversation in the play/film “Proof” about the rarity of female mathematicians.
    On Smithsonian’s series, it looks like they were trying to use female scientists to tie in (or at least imply) historical miscellanea regarding the suffragists movement/sexual revolution.
    Either way, the Smithsonian is around the corner from the NAS and the DOE, if they want to see female scientists in action it wouldn’t kill them to take a walk…

  3. Anon

    A fun coincidence — I’ve met Weber! (the first woman mathematician linked)

    In fact, I almost took a class with her, and I know people who have and are.

    I don’t actually take issue with the Smithsonian’s set, although perhaps it is disconcerting that it appeared so weighted in search results. Although, I wasn’t able to duplicate that when searching on flickr’s website: I see mostly modern color photos (though mostly of colored paper?). What were your specific search criteria?

    My perspective comes from some studying of the history of science, which ends up being disproportionately dead (white) guys, as the saying goes. It’s refreshing to be reminded that, no, there are also dead (white) women — and if they could overcome even larger social issues than I face, then by golly what’s stopping me?

    Not to say that it isn’t equally refreshing to be reminded that I’m not alone. Especially when I recognize a face!

    1. Lindsey Kuper

      Here’s the search I did — I’m seeing slightly different results now than I did five days ago. Then, 15 of the 40 images on the first page of results were from the Smithsonian set, including the first five in the top row. Now, only 11 of the 40 are from the Smithsonian set, and the first five now include some color photos. But it’s still the case that a search for “women scientists” turns up many more black-and-white, old-timey photos than a search for simply “scientists” does, and that strikes me as odd.

      (To be clear, my issue isn’t with the existence of the Smithsonian photo set. The set is great; I just think that “Women in Science” is too general of a name for a set with a historical focus.)

  4. Nikki

    A very good post! I’m troubled by one detail, though: four photos of white women? Googling “contemporary female scientists” eliminates the Smithsonian photoset for me, and the plausible resulting images are far less exclusively white as your choices from the mathematician-photos. Having looked through your source, it only took me a few minutes to find four people of colour whose gender presentation suggests that they identify as female. I guess maybe it’s harder to recognise Ning or Takako or Homeira as a female name and maybe “names I recognise” was the criteria you were searching that document by, but it’s sad to see an attempt to make today’s women scientists visible present a set of them so biased towards white people. I liked this post, but I’d like it more if I didn’t think it was making already more completely marginalised group than those of white university-educated women in a male-dominated career even more invisible.

    1. Lindsey Kuper

      I did, indeed, pick out the first few names that jumped out on a cursory skim-through as “probably female” to me, a white person from the Anglosphere. Thanks for calling me out on that. Here are some more mathematicians.

      making already more completely marginalised group than those of white university-educated women in a male-dominated career even more invisible.

      As far as I can tell, there’s a paucity of data on how race and ethnicity intersect with gender in the science and math workforce. Of course, this is somewhat tangential to your point, which is about women of color being more marginalized than white women, and being more marginalized is a different thing than being fewer in number. But it might still be of interest to talk about numbers.

      In my field, the gold standard seems to be the Taulbee Survey, which publishes data about gender and ethnicity of computer science students in the US and Canada, but it doesn’t have gender breakdowns by ethnicity. I bring this up because I think it’s the case that there are more women of color than there are white women at the graduate level in CS — but without data to back it up, I’m just speculating based on my own experience. (The closest thing I can find is an article saying that (warning: PDF) “the gender gap is greater among white women than it is among women from underrepresented minorities” with regard to CS bachelor’s students.)

      I would love to see Geek Feminism do some posts on how race and ethnicity intersect with gender in scientific fields.

      1. Nikki

        I’m glad that calling-out is welcome on here, and wasn’t taken as a HORRIBLE ATTACK ON YOU PERSONALLY! I thought it was worth doing, because by noticing and celebrating only the white women in such fields, I’d guess you’re alienating a pretty high proportion of readers to whom those examples matter.

        It’s interesting read what you’ve noticed about such things; the things I’m most geeky about are Linux and books, so I’ve got no first-hand evidence for how race and gender interact in scientific fields. The urge to talk numbers was one I shared too, but for a different reason: I’m studying at one of those two famous UK universities, & the sciences subjects are likely to contain far more international students than lectures than any of my Humanities courses. In a selection of motivational images of, say, state school kids who’d got offers from Oxbridge to study defunct forms of European languages, I’d not be surprised by the majority being white. Research in the sciences is different, though, both because it’s a career instead of an undergraduate education, and because those fields are self-evidently of global interest.

        With regards to the gender gap being less pronounced against “underrepresented minorities” than white women: I don’t know if you’d have any intention of saying, and I’ll hope you’re not, that they don’t need encouragement to enter the field of Computer Science. Social pressures on with regards to Getting A Degree are different for people from different cultures, and as a white British lady I’m not going to presume to speak for any of them, but I’d point out that people who’ve come to the US or Canada or the UK to study such stuff end up facing both the misogyny of geek cultures and the endemic racism of those societies, albeit within the relative liberalism of university environments.

        (Um… I’m a bit perplexed as to why you’ve created nicely labelled links to the three specific people whose personal names I quoted at you – wouldn’t it be reasonable to guess that I’d already noticed them?)

        1. Lindsey Kuper

          (Um… I’m a bit perplexed as to why you’ve created nicely labelled links to the three specific people whose personal names I quoted at you – wouldn’t it be reasonable to guess that I’d already noticed them?)

          Yes, of course. The links are there for the benefit of other readers. They could have easily just searched for the names you mentioned if they were so inclined, but I thought I might save them a few seconds this way.

  5. AMM

    Would it make sense to create at geekfeminism.org with pictures of currently active women mathematicians/physicists/computer scientists/whatever? I could contribute 3 or 4 people I worked in my previous life as an aspiring mathematician.

    1. Mary

      The Geek Feminism wiki is likely the best place to do that, not least because the software is more suited to a large number of editors than WordPress is. Currently the “women in science” lists over there are very famous women, but I think that’s through lack of a good maintainer (the “women in FOSS” list contains many non-famous women, the GF wiki doesn’t observe Wikipedia’s notability rules).

      1. Lindsey Kuper

        I just tried to collect all the “List of women in…” articles into a category. I didn’t see any “women in science” lists aside from the “women in computer science” one. Are there others I’m overlooking?

        I also just started a Flickr photo pool.

        1. Mary

          Also if Lindsey or anyone else wants to help out, many of the Wednesday Geek Woman profiles are licenced CC BY-SA and thus could be copied into the wiki.

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