Pharyngula

Prompted by the skewed gender representation of a recent survey of science blogs, Zuska asks why there are no great women science bloggers. That’s an ironic question, of course: there are great women science bloggers, but there is a strange blindness to their contributions, just as they are neglected in the greater blogosphere, and in science, and in politics, and in everything other than raising babies and making attractive centerpieces for the family dinner table, etc. It’s a curious phenomenon that we have to try consciously to rise above, an effort hampered by the fact that there seem to be a lot of people who want to argue that you aren’t allowed to make a special effort to avoid gender bias — it’s apparently “unfair” to try to overcome a history of unfairness.

Anyway, something that came up independently: here I am teaching this new freshman biology course, and the last few weeks have been a survey of the history and philosophy of science — basically, Aristotle to Bacon, with the latest lectures on 19th century geology and natural history as a prelude to Darwin. It’s a bit depressing when you look back at it that there are a few thousand years of history there where women don’t seem to be present except for the important business of laundering the togas. I’m conscious of it and a bit uncomfortable about the absence of women in the story so far (there will be a lecture dedicated to women in science this term), and when I was composing the first exam the other day, I had a long section where I was grilling them on a bunch of Dead White Guys, so I tossed in these two questions:

14. Hey! Have you noticed the lack of women scientists so far? Briefly speculate about why they’re missing.

15 (2 pts extra credit). Name a female scientist of any era.

The answers to question 14 so far have been consistent: because women weren’t given opportunities. Because they were told to make babies and cook meals. Because men didn’t give them any respect. (There were several that said that despite past oppression, everything was changing for the better now; I’m going to have to engage in a little disillusionment sometime.)

Question 15 was supposed to be a gimme, a really easy question that they should have answered easily, especially since we’d just had the freshman biology major mixer the night before, where they were introduced to 3 women biology faculty. I have a bunch of students who left question 15 blank, or said they couldn’t think of any! Now that was depressing.

Just to compensate, though, and this is something that might cheer Zuska up a little bit, there were a handful of women students who gave the best answer ever: they named themselves. I’d give them a big gold star, but that kind of self-confidence is its own best reward.

Comments

  1. #1 Despard
    September 20, 2007

    I recently applied for a postdoctoral travel award to attend the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego in November. Still don’t know if I’ve got it, but I don’t think it’s likely – wouldn’t they have told me by now? Anyway.

    One of the things I had to do was write a short essay (~500 words) about a woman in science who had inspired me. I’m ashamed to say I thought of Marie Curie instantly, but then I thought: hang on, that’s the only female scientist I can think of? And besides, she never inspired me.

    Happily I work in a field with lots of famous women. Well, famous in the field, anyway: Sarah-Jane Blakemore, Antonia Hamilton, Susan Greenfield to name but a few. In the end I picked Susan Blackmore because I remember reading The Meme Machine when still an undergraduate physics student and thinking: wow, this is really interesting, the brain is quite cool, maybe I’ll see if I can do some psychology for my postgrad… and the rest is history.

    Endnote: It is interesting though rather sad how many female graduate students I went through my PhD with, and how few continued in academic science.

  2. #2 factlike
    September 20, 2007

    Would Ada Lovelace qualify? She was more of a computer scientist than a physical scientist, but I’m not sure how wide a net we’re casting here…

  3. #3 scott
    September 20, 2007

    The gender bias in science is extreme. Consider how many graduate students are women compared to how few faculty members are women. If women choose to have a life/family (which I know the academy frowns upon), when exactly should this happen? Many aspects of an academic’s life are postponed relative to others of their same age, but biology puts limits on when women can have children. There are known health benefits associated with having children sooner rather than later. Even if you wait until the last possible minute to have kids, you probably don’t have tenure yet. There really is no good time, is there?

    It is a great shame that women cannot often return to tenure-track careers after taking time off to start a family. These women are highly trained and have great potential for contributing to their respective fields and the teaching and research mission of universities, but because there is so little flexibility in the successful academic CV, science loses the female perspective.

    Hopefully, when the guard changes, this will too. It will if I have anything to say about it.

  4. #4 Ebonmuse
    September 20, 2007

    Lynn Margulis is a justifiably famous female scientist, even if she’s sort of gone off the rails lately.

  5. #5 Carlie
    September 20, 2007

    Marie Stopes. Paleobotanist and women’s reproductive rights crusader. My hero.

  6. #6 Ian B Gibson
    September 20, 2007

    Barbara McClintock, of course.

    Once again into the assumed silence of the homogametic sex

    Yes, male moths are pretty quiet, aren’t they?

  7. #7 SEF
    September 20, 2007

    but that’s another sign that we have a problem: that most people think of just one name.

    But you added to that problem, by leaving Rosalind Franklin off your course notes when pretending Watson and Crick did the DNA work.

  8. #8 Ginger Yellow
    September 20, 2007

    I’d have gone with Tara, Blakemore, or one of my mates at Oxford (although I suppose if I were sitting the test they wouldn’t have been my mates).

  9. #9 Caledonian
    September 20, 2007

    there seem to be a lot of people who want to argue that you aren’t allowed to make a special effort to avoid gender bias — it’s apparently “unfair” to try to overcome a history of unfairness.

    Foul! Blatant misrepresentation.

    Making a special effort to avoid gender bias != making a special effort to create gender bias that you approve of.

    We want a level playing field, not one handicapped in favor of those discriminated against in the past.

  10. #10 Euan
    September 20, 2007

    I would have written Beatrix Potter. She was one of the first to suggest that lichens were a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae but she was ignored as a scientist because of her gender.

  11. #11 Fred Mim
    September 20, 2007

    Vera Rubin, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Lisa Randall,
    Melissa Franklin, Jill Tarter, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Henrietta Leavitt.

  12. #12 Tatarize
    September 20, 2007

    I personally think Mary Leakey was fantastic. I also think her husband was a coat-riding troll.

    There is a significant lack of female bloggers. Of the science blogs I commonly read only 2/5 are written by women (ERV, Aetiology). Although to be fair I am assuming (perhaps wrongly, that Afarensis and Angry Toxicologist are male).

    I’m not counting Intersection (though half-female team is a guilty pleasure and not very sciencey). Or Scientia Natura, Pandagon, Skepchick, Possummomma, for being more atheism/skepticism blogs.

    What conclusion were we suppose to draw. I forgot.

  13. #13 windy
    September 20, 2007

    Tomoko Ohta. Deborah Charlesworth. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Kristen Hawkes. Virpi Lummaa.

    (Are we spoiling PZ’s students with this thread?)

  14. #14 Jared
    September 20, 2007

    I would have went with Marie Curie or Ada Lovelace. I find this topic interesting since I’d never heard of Rosalind Franklin until she was mentioned here.

  15. #15 Beth
    September 20, 2007

    I helped found a Women in Science House on my campus last year and we talked about this all the time. Even now, there is a problem with getting more women into higher positions especially in physics and engineering. Add into that the fact that when women bloggers get hate emails it tends to be more violent. Man, thats depressing…

    I’m naming my first daughter Rosalind after Franklin, there is no talking me out now.

  16. #16 Sarah Messer
    September 20, 2007

    Someone asked for statistics. I did a talk about a year ago, and before I started the research, I thought the numbers weren’t very tight. Now I know better:

    see the Social Psychology Network for general background on prejudices of all stripes, and

    #17 Sea Creature
    September 20, 2007

    What about Tsuneko Okazaki? She & her husband found the Okazaki fragments together (as far as I know) but in classes I’ve heard instructers refer to Okazaki as “he” only.

  17. #18 katie
    September 20, 2007

    At our school we have three autoclaves in the genetics unit. Two have been named with little tags: “Watson” and “Crick”.

    Is it any surprise some of us female grad students are quietly planning to name the third one “Franklin”?

  18. #19 Ribozyme
    September 20, 2007

    Yep, Hypatia of Alexandria comes to mind as the most ancient example (3rd century, A.D.) although she ended up being tortured and slaughtered by Christians. Another good example was Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican, a poet and something of a polymath (the wikipedia article doesn’t make her justice) in the 17th century. She also ran into trouble with the Church and was forced to stop writing. More recently, Lise Meitner, the co-discoverer of nuclear fission with Otto Hahn. In contrast with him, she didn’t receive the Nobel prize for that. Maybe being a woman and a Jew was too much for the Nobel commitee in 1944.

  19. #20 Reason
    September 20, 2007

    As a young female scientist, I know that not everyone suffers from this form of blindness. Fellow women are often very much aware of the contributions of their own gender (I know this to be true for science and medicine–I can only speculate about other fields). It is clear that the contributions of women are routinely neglected, but it is important to continue that sentence with the following modifer: “mainly, by men” (of course, not all men).

    Stating (and lamenting) that the contributions of women scientists are neglected, period, appears to require taking the viewpoint that those whose opinions and attentions are most important are male.

  20. #21 Sailor
    September 20, 2007

    “That’s 3 hours of talking. Rosalind Franklin will be prominently mentioned, don’t worry.”

    Delighted to hear it PZ, I will happily go off now and eat some humble pie…

  21. #22 Keith Harwood
    September 20, 2007

    IIRC the first woman in Asimov’s Biographical Dictionary of Science is Hypatia, a librarian of Alexandria just before the library was burnt down by the Christians. (As distinct from when it was burned down by the Romans.)

    First woman mathematician I can recall is Julia? Bernoulli, sister and cousin to the Bernoulli brothers. Not long after was the woman (whose name I forget, but should be easy to find on Google) who translated Newton’s Principia into French and the translation was used for the next couple of centuries.

    First woman astronomer I can recall is Caroline Hershel, sister to William. Later ones include Celia Payne, Priscilla Bok, Er um… (Sorry if I’m getting the spelling wrong, these are people from my distant past.) Oh yes, Ann Savage, whom I have actually met.

    Marie Curie was a chemist, her daughter was a physicist and they were the first mother-daughter pair to get Nobel Prizes.

    Then there’s Dorothy Hodgkin, Rosemary Franklin (who should have got a Nobel, but didn’t; swizz) and here my memory gives out. I’m sure I know of many more women scientists, but I’m having a `senior moment’.

  22. #23 Ian B Gibson
    September 20, 2007

    “Yes, male moths are pretty quiet, aren’t they?”

    Male birds, too.

    Erm, only extinct ones.

  23. #24 Carlie
    September 20, 2007

    Don’t forget the scientist who changed genders. He had people commenting after the switch how much better his research was than his “sister’s”.

  24. #25 Paul Schofield
    September 20, 2007

    I can only speculate about other fields

    Well, I have to say that physics has an annoying lack of women in the history of the subject. Going into my third year I can count the number of women mentioned as prominent figures on my thumbs. Strange seeing as we have had three very memorable female lecturers (all research physicists, one a senior lecturer in the department who is heavily involved in outreach) for no fewer than five different modules over the last two years. I would gladly list at least one of them among any list of women scientists.

    Janna Levin needs some love as well. Read her book when I was working on university applications. Happened to be in Cambridge at the time and sought out one of the parks she mentioned to do some serious reading under a tree. Most definitely a memorable book.

  25. #26 Skeptic8
    September 20, 2007

    What if I mentioned Zo Bell instead of Curie?
    Anyone witness her analyses of hydrocarbons in recent sediments and depths? The name is just right to make the grader hesitate and look up a roster of rock bands.
    If you don’t like it can I enter Dr. Susan Block for fun?

  26. #27 Amanda
    September 20, 2007

    I would try to discourage your students from embracing identities they have no control over (race/gender/sexual orientation, etc.) and instead talk to them as people. It’s pretty much impossible to draw attention to the scarcity of female scientists without simultaneously reinforcing silly ideas about gender. In my experience, the less people worry about their own race/gender the better. Its also completely obvious when a professor suddenly switches into apologetic liberal white male mode and so its usually less than convincing anyway.

  27. #28 bug_girl
    September 20, 2007

    I think Zuska is making the same point that a bunch of women in entomology have been making for >25 years:

    If you are organizing a conference, and you realize that your conference speakers, every single one, is a white dude, it is a good time to examine whether you have missed someone.

    You can, BTW, get a really wonderful series of posters on women in health from the NIH

    http://science.education.nih.gov/women/scientists/index.html

  28. #29 MAJeff
    September 20, 2007

    I would try to discourage your students from embracing identities they have no control over (race/gender/sexual orientation, etc.) and instead talk to them as people.

    Spoken like a privileged, straight white person.

    Fuck that. I’m proud of being gay. I’m proud of being part of a collectivity that has not only survived but thrived and created new cultural values, that developed institutions of care when the state told us to die.

  29. #30 Anton Mates
    September 21, 2007

    How about Hedy Lamarr?

    Oh hell yes. The hottest telecommunications engineer who ever skinny-dipped.

    I’d probably put Emmy Noether first, just because her work was so important in math and physics, which according to our culture are where the Smart People go.

  30. #31 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 21, 2007

    As a swede I would add Sofia Kovalevskaya, of course. Emmy Noether is certainly more important for physics, but Kovalevskaya’s result on partial differential equations (existence and uniqueness of solutions) is important, accessible and AFAIU similar to modern methods on general maps.

    (Actually, when I checked the spelling, I note that Kovalevskaya worked in physics too. She studied a model of tops in gravity, including an analysis of the dynamics of Saturn’s rings. Which btw earned her a prize.)

    Annie Cannon … Jocelyn Bell

    I know that the first generations of women in universities had it hard, but the treatment in astronomy looks on the face of it worse than most. Those two among others deserved a better fate.

  31. #32 thalarctos
    September 21, 2007

    but serious women scientists want to talk about science, not diversity.

    Most serious women scientists I know talk about both.

  32. #33 bug_girl
    September 21, 2007

    tigerhawkvok said:
    “Past misdeeds may be horrible,b utit means that you should fix it by moving to a straight meritocracy, not perpetuating selection criteria.”

    Congrats on repeating the party line. That’s not what I, or several of the other posters, have said here.

    Every goddamn award or job I have EVER gotten, someone said that it was “given” to me because I am a woman. (And, amazingly, I haven’t smacked anyone yet.)

    The fact that I’ve published in Science or other major journals…conveniently ignored. That I have held elected offices of one sort or another in my professional society for >15 yrs…that doesn’t count either apparently.

    Asking for reevaluation of decisions that obviously have a potential for bias isn’t a preference system. you might want to re-read thalactos and other’s posts for what they actually said.

  33. #34 Dan S.
    September 21, 2007

    Now, If Sophia and Tycho were vacationing in the south of France . . . (sorry, was reading that Haidt interview . . .

  34. #35 TheBowerbird
    September 21, 2007

    I hate to break it to Zuska, but she’s not exactly helping. Her blog is rarely informative. There are other, much better female bloggers on scienceblogs, but really, who really cares what the sex of the writer is? It’s all about the content. There are as many high profile female bloggers in the political sphere as male ones, and it’s precisely because they put out good stuff. Maybe Zuska has traffic envy?

  35. #36 Madam Pomfrey
    September 21, 2007

    “The culture of computer science has been built around male preferences,” Fisher said, pointing out how introductory courses in computer science hone in on very technical aspects of the field.”

    What bogus BS. Since when are “technical aspects of the field” male as opposed to female preferences? This does nothing but reinforce stereotypes and carries the odor of so-called “postmodern” nonsense. We female scientists get into these fields because we *like* doing technical work.

  36. I would offer Hypatia of Alexandria as both an example of a woman in science and for discussing why, historically there haven’t been many (Hypatia was skinned alive by a Christian mob in a church).

    However, I agree the woman who named themselves is worthy of not and provides hope for the future.

  37. #38 Jennifurret
    September 21, 2007

    The first to pop into my head was Lynn Margulis, but I’m also a big fan of Rosalind Franklin.

    And of course, myself! Go women scientists <3

  38. #39 thalarctos
    September 21, 2007

    Ed Lazowska of the University of Washington computer science department wrote a very good editorial on the topic in 2002 for Inroads (ACM SIGCSE):

    Pale and Male: 19th Century Design in a 21st Century World

    I’ve been very fortunate to have been associated with a department that takes inclusiveness seriously, and works very actively to attain it. From other women scientists, I hear many horror stories, and it’s clear that there’s still a lot of work to do.

  39. #40 quarkable
    September 21, 2007

    Noether was not only a mathematician, but her self-titled theorem is (to me) one of the most beautiful in physics: for every symmetry, there exists a conservation law. Starting out as a woman in physics, I found her very inspiring!

  40. #41 CortxVortx
    September 21, 2007

    Several names jostled to the fore for #15: Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McClintock, and (yes) Marie Curie.

  41. #42 John McKay
    September 21, 2007

    I didn’t have any trouble naming women scientists, but I didn’t think to name the science bloggers or anyone alive (except Jane Goodall). I wonder why most people seemed to think of this first of all as a historical question.

  42. #43 Sili
    September 25, 2007

    I gave up reading at #60 when my last choice was mentioned (after #42 and #46). My first thought was M. Curie too, I’m afraid.

    I to cheat then and go for my own field: Prof. Judith A.K. Howard, FRS (and CBE, I see now that I went to confirm her initials), Durham. And more ‘personally’ prof. Christine J. McKenzie, Odense quondam Melbourne.

  43. #44 Kseniya
    September 25, 2007

    Let’s not forget marine biologist Dr. Carole Baldwin (as I apparently have done!)