Why Can't Women Do Anything Great?

Yeah, I should be asleep, restoring strength for spending another day with mom. But I'm catching up on email and blogs and preparing for the upcoming Diversity in Science Carnival WHICH YOU SHOULD TOTALLY BE WRITING SOMETHING FOR - GET BUSY, NOW!

And in the course of all that I read this post by Stephanie Z which led me to Sheril Kirshenbaum's post (Goodbye, Sheril, we will totally miss you here at Scienceblogs) Where Are The Women With BIG Ideas?

I'd like to point readers to a recent piece from The Guardian asking 'Where are the books by women with big ideas?'

Books like Freakonomics, defining significant cultural or economic trends with a punchy title, never seem to be produced by women. But why?

Gah! Are we STILL talking about this????? Do people have no memories? Are they not able to do research?

Linda Nochlin. 1971. Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

It's the tiresomely enduring repetitive nature of this stupid crap that makes me a cranky humorless feminazi.

And in case you missed it, here's where I wrote about the application of Nochlin's brilliant work to the world of science.

Now goddammit, can we please stop having the same fucking conversation we've been having for the past half century (or more)?????

(oh hell, I just reproduced my old post here after the jump)

Andrew Franks had a lot to say about my post on Columbia's $15 M diversity initiative (see his comments on that post). Disclaimer #1: We are related. Disclaimer #2: His comments are his opinions, not mine.

One of the things he said is the following:

...I am back to the question of just how many stars can one institution produce in one year? What do I do if the Physics department generates just three stars in the next decade - but those three stars essentially rewrite modern physics and all happen to be White males whose names end in -ich, -ger, and -ein?

This certainly sounds like a troublesome issue, but Zuska is the Empress of Engineering, and any good engineer can recognize a problem that has already been solved. Andrew Franks's question is yet one more version of the oft-heard lament, Why Are There No Great Women Scientists?

Here, it is posed as its inverse, "What do I do if all the great scientists just happen to be white males?" We multiply by negative one to get the woman scientist question, because this is certainly one negative question, and then we immediately recognize this as a problem that has been solved, in Linda Nochlin's classic essay "Why Are There No Great Women Artists?" (All quotes here are drawn from the version of Nochlin's essay printed in the 1971 Basic Books edition of "Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness" ed. V. Gornick & B. K. Moran.)

As we proceed, just think "scientist" wherever you see "artist" and "science" for "art". Let us consider the opening paragraph of Nochlin's tour de force:

"Why are there no great women artists?" This question tolls reproachfully in the background of discussions of the so-called woman problem, causing men to shake their heads regretfully and women to grind their teeth in frustration. Like so many other questions involved in the red-hot feminist controversy, it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: "There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness." The assumptions lying behind such a question are varied in range and sophistication, running anywhere from "scientifically" proven demonstrations of the inability of human beings with wombs rather than penises to create anything significant, to relatively openminded wonderment that women, despite so many years of near-equality - and after all, a lot of men have had their disadvantages too - have still not achieved anything of major significance in the visual arts.

So then, the response: re-discovering neglected heroines of the past; staking a claim for women's different approach to the subject at hand; and then, the next, more interesting stage. Nochlin says this is when we begin to realize "to what extent our very consciousness of how things are in the world has been conditioned - and too often falsified - by the way the most important questions are posed." Who is formulating these questions, she asks. The woman problem is too uncomfortably similar in formulation for her to the Nazi phrasing "Jewish problem". She opines:

Obviously, for wolves, be they in sheep's clothing or in mufti, it is always best to refer to the lamb problem in the interests of public relations, as well as for the good of the lupine conscience. Indeed, in our time of instant communication, "problems" are rapidly formulated to rationalize the bad conscience of those with power.

Oh my, she does have a way with words. Finally, she says:

...the Great Artist is conceived of as one who has genius; genius, in turn, is thought to be an atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded in the person of the Great Artist...It is no accident that the whole crucial question of the conditions generally productive of great art has so rarely been investigated, or that attempts to investigate such general problems have, until fairly recently, been dismissed as unscholarly, too broad, or the province of some other discipline like sociology.

So relevant for us today, as we are just beginning to explore what conditions are necessary to the production of a diverse science and engineering workforce! Now all this is old hat to the PoMo humanities folks who have moved way beyond and would laugh that we are even discussing this. But I have been trying to tell my friends over on the other side of the university for a long time that science and engineering are 30 years behind in the feminist revolution.

Anyway: so, why no great women scientists? why do all the great scientists happen to be white males? You are asking the wrong questions, dudes.

And if you still can't resist obnoxiously wagging Albert Einstein under our noses (as if his life should be reduced to an example), then may I offer for your consideration Marie Curie and her two Nobel Prizes? When you can show me some guy who spent his days out in a shed stirring two tons of pitchblende in a cauldron over an open fire to isolate a tiny little dot of radium, and was at the same time completely responsible for the care and raising of two children, one of whom grew up to be a scientist and win her own Nobel Prize, then we'll talk.


More like this

I saw the headline on the front page and my first thought was the Curies (the daughter got a Nobel too), second Ada Lovelace and Third Sinousi (co-discoverer of HIV).

By Who Cares (not verified) on 24 Mar 2009 #permalink

Hi Zuska,

thanks for the interesting post which gave me the opportunity to read the nice Nochlin essay.
Having a bit of an Engineering bend myself (although not quite an Emperor ;-) I am trying to be concrete about these issues and remove from my daughter's environment as many as possible of the obstacles that could prevent her from fully developing into what she wants to be. I also recognize that I am only a small part of her environment, so that my efforts (and, hopefully success) might be limited to that part. Given that this is the Engineering task at hand (and that my daughter is 12) what would be your top three recommendations to me?

In peace,


By Stefano Bertolo (not verified) on 24 Mar 2009 #permalink

The one good thing in the Guardian piece is the comments, which are not at all what one would have found in 1971 (had we been able to comment then). The commenters instantly say, "Why, they're here and here and here. Where are you looking and why aren't you asking what role the publishers are playing in all this?" The author comes back with a comment that really points up how narrowly she had to define her question in order to be able to ask it.

Thank you. I'm not a scientist, but I see this question asked far too much in my own field, journalism. Journalism, too, is far behind the curve on feminist issues. Of course, we've had some amazing women journalists but when men in power (and they are predominantly men)assign women to "women's issues" and deny them access to the "hard beats" like crime, politics and science, there aren't many ways for women to become "great journalists."

Here's to hoping you're not screaming into the void between their ears. Good luck.

Comments are turned off on Sheril's post, so I'm going to leave my cranky observations here:

1) My four-year-old could have thought of Freakonomics. Seriously, I've been thinking and writing along those lines ever since my first econ course years ago. So does every economics major, for better or worse. The Freakonomics guy just had the skills and connections to turn it into a book and a column.

2) Tom Friedman = muddled snake oil peddler. My big ideas could eat his big ideas for lunch, but my big ideas aren't what people want to hear so nobody pays me the big bucks for them.

I don't know the other thinkers referred to in that article so I can't comment on them, but based on the ones I do know all I can say is that maybe women are a little more bashful about recognizing when their ideas are not that special and so refraining from peddling them in the media.

Um, if Freakonomics is considered great, how about Atlas Shrugged? The artists Frida Kahlo, Bev Doolittle, Georgia O'Keefe come to mind. Another scientists: Rachel Carson - she certainly influenced the public's awareness of science. So, I'm sorry, what was the question?

I'm another one who read Freakonomics and didn't really understand what all the fuss was about. I thought the ideas were mildly intriguing but didn't find the author's arguments convincing.

One thing about being a librarian, especially an academic one, is that I get to see just how much research never gets any attention outside of its own narrow band. A lot of the time, there's a reason for that.

But--and this is true of so many things--what it often highlights for me is how little correlation there is between how much attention something gets and its inherent importance. Which, as I tell the students at my institution, is why the first ten Google hits does not constitute a successful literature-search strategy.

Given that this is the Engineering task at hand (and that my daughter is 12) what would be your top three recommendations to me?

Since this is a topic of my own daughter's research, I may have a bit of an answer:

1) Your daughter at 12 is at a key point, where a lot of girls are turned off from STEM.
2) Science camp-type interventions seem to be the one thing that makes the biggest identifiable difference.
3) Summer is just around the corner.

The literature is out there; if it's of sufficient interest I can ping $DAUGHTER for precise references.

Still in recovery from wanting to commit various felonies against the primary-grade teacher who responded to $DAUGHTER's "an engineer when I grow up" with "you can't be an engineer, that's a boy's job."

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 24 Mar 2009 #permalink

Ah, so Marie Curie's life is to be reduced to an example then?

The reason most top scientists are males is very simple - there are more males doing research in science than women. And I guess this has more to do with social stereotypes than anything else. The big question is how to change the stereotypes.

Who was the name of the woman who got scammed (essentially) out of a Nobel prize when she was the discoveror (or co-, I think it depends on how you look at it, but still) of how to split the atom? She was an extraordinary woman herself. And Emilie du Chatelet, and Lisa Randall. And Mileva Maric.

If the key word is "important" or similar (great, genius, transformative) then it is already a self-fulfilling prophesy. If something is only important when a man says it then, by definition, no women have said anything important.

Rosemary Franklin is the scientist you're thinking of, Kate.

DC, I'm adding to your honeydo list for your daughter's sake. Go find a woman engineer in your community. It may take some digging, just do it. Ask the woman engineer to give a talk in your daughter's class about what it's like to be an engineer, maybe for career day. There's no better outreach for women in science than a living breathing woman in science to talk to. A felony will not be as effective.

Go find a woman engineer in your community. It may take some digging, just do it.

Not really -- I work with a building full. In fact, my only direct report is a woman with an MSEE. But thanks for the suggestion.

Ask the woman engineer to give a talk in your daughter's class about what it's like to be an engineer, maybe for career day.

I don't think grad schools have that kind of career days, and in any case flying cross-country to visit her university might be a bit much to ask.

A felony will not be as effective.

I suppose I should have been clearer -- the event in question happened in about third grade (call it 15 years ago), and I didn't find out for several years afterwards. $DAUGHTER (perhaps wisely) kept the identity of the perp secret long enough that said perp was out of danger.

Today, perhaps in significant part due to that episode, she's a grad student in social psychology, with a research interest in sociology of gender -- her math geek tendencies are directed towards research methodology.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 24 Mar 2009 #permalink

Kate, Lise Meitner was the co-discoverer of fission who was denied the Nobel prize. Orlando, were you thinking of Rosalind Franklin? She did the crystallography that showed DNA was a double helix but died before the Nobel was awarded.

Your use of Nochlin's essay is spot-on. It's also worth looking at the real shift in attitudes in the visual arts since 1971--essays like Nochlin's can and did effect real change, and no one with knowledge in the field would argue anymore that there are no great woman artists.

Not only did scholars like Nochlin remind us of the contributions of marginalized artists of the past--Kahlo certainly, but also Mary Cassatt (19th century Impressionist), Artemisia Gentileschi (17th century Baroque), and many others--but writers such as Lucy Lippard and theorists like Rosalind Krauss created a critical context insuring contemporary woman artists would be much less marginalized. No doubt, there's still a long way to go, but by the 1990s (when I was doing my BFA and MFA) woman artists were prominently featured in courses covering art history and contemporary art. I've taught in 3 university art departments--all had virtually equal numbers of male and female tenured faculty.

A short list of important living contemporary women artists, just off the top of my head: Tara Donovan, Chakia Booker, Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis, Andrea Zittel, Sarah Sze, Mona Hatoum, Shirin Neshat, Yoko Ono, Elizabeth Peyton, Nan Goldin, Lee Bul. That's an even dozen, I could easily keep going, and I'm not a specialist in women in art (or an art historian). Anyone involved in contemporary art could do the same.

Science can change, if scientists want to, and if concerned scientists keep pushing.

By David Drake (not verified) on 24 Mar 2009 #permalink

Maybe because women have a life?

Virginia Wolfe's essay "A room of her own" essentially says women won't produce great novels until they become independent like men.

I agree. But while men can be nurtured by a good wife at home while spending 80 hours a week obsessing on their latest research, we have to pick the kid up from daycare.

Women who do succeed are often either single or widowed or supporting a dead beat husband or partners with their husband.

Here in the Philippines, women can be successful because of servants and extended families, and the fact that their well behaved kids often go to work with mom or attend meetings with mom and no one thinks anything of it...
I myself did this in the US, but it raised eyebrows...

Why are 99 out of the top 100 chess players in the latest FIDE list men, and the solitary exception the daughter of a man who wrote Bringing Up Genius? What you fail to address is the possibility that women don't thrive in a competitive environment -- maybe because three exceptions in two million notwithstanding, it's just not their thing.

What you fail to address is the possibility that women don't thrive in a competitive environment -- maybe because three exceptions in two million notwithstanding, it's just not their thing.

What makes you think that this possibility hasn't been addressed? The fact that the addressing didn't come back with the answer you wanted to hear?

I don't think it has been addressed because I sure can't find it anywhere in the post. All I see is a lot of denial and some feel-good namedropping without any genuine concern to get to the heart of the matter.

Exceptions prove the rule. We have a problem. The sooner we admit it, the sooner we can address it.

On chess:
Bilalic et al, Proc Roy Soc B, 276: 1161-1165.
"This study demonstrates that the great discrepancy in the top performance of male and female chess players can be largely attributed to a simple statistical factâmore extreme values are found in larger populations. Once participation rates of men and women are controlled for, there is little left for biological, environmental, cultural or other factors to explain."

But thanks for your certainly very genuine concern to get to the heart of the matter (provided that said heart of the matter is that women are inherently shit at something or other), SV!

I don't think it has been addressed because I sure can't find it anywhere in the post. All I see is a lot of denial and some feel-good namedropping without any genuine concern to get to the heart of the matter.

Exceptions prove the rule. We have a problem. The sooner we admit it, the sooner we can address it.

Tell me, do you demand that your math textbook show the derivation of all the equations, expressions, relationships, and techniques used in solving a given problem as a separate note next to each individual problem in the exercise sets?

Thanks for the link to the paper. The obvious flaw is self-selection bias (are we to believe that in a sport where men outnumber women 16 to 1, the women who actually persist enough to have recorded games are as representative of the average as the men?), but the authors admit it themselves, and overall it's a study with its head and heart in the right places, so I won't knock it. But surely there is a better answer to the title question of this blog post than the "too many lazybones" suggested by that paper? My own view, for what it is worth, is that success (or recognition at the highest level if you prefer) has a lot to do with obsession, and most women don't seem to think it worthwhile.

I'd prefer if my math textbook didn't say stuff like "as we proceed, just think binomial wherever you see Pythagoras".

I never understand the blanket statements about women's temperaments and talents vs. mens's. We're all so heavily socialized to divide activities up according to inculcated norms. For some of us, the rewards and punishments are so institutionalized and ubituitous that it's really difficult to tell what our "natural" predilections are. Boys and girls are both trapped by traditional gender norms, but the activities relegated to the domain of boys and adult men generally garner higher status than those of girls/women.

I think this is why we have more vigorous discussions about women in male-dominated sciences than about the trials and tribulations of men who take on traditionally female roles (nurses, stay-at-home parents, etc.).

[/rambling $0.02]

SV, it's nothing to do with "lazybones," it's that women are actively discouraged from participating in MAN STUFF like chess and science. If you read this blog at all, you'll have seen dozens of examples of this, from girls being told flat-out told by their maths teachers not to bother trying to learn algebra, to women being expected to work for free in nationally repected laboratories while their male counterparts are paid.

It makes me uncomfortable when the conversation turns toward coming up with ways to coerce young women into "hard" sciences. Yes, encouragement is good. I grew up being told I was good at technology, good at math, good at science. I was miserable in my undergraduate computer science classes, and now that I have I have a bachelor's degree in the subject, I switched to psychology for my PhD because I like it better.

Maybe the message to young women should be "do what makes you happy". It's important to not be held back by societal norms, but it's also important not to do something you hate just to defy them.

Look, I've found this post rather late in the game, but aren't we asking the wrong question? Rather than saying "Why can't women produce something like Freakonomics or Outliers or The World Is Flat?", shouldn't the question be "Why do men keep producing such awful, awful shit?"

Because if those books are the measure of achievement, we're all doomed.

By Der Bruno Stroszek (not verified) on 01 Apr 2009 #permalink

"Books like Freakonomics, defining significant cultural or economic trends with a punchy title, never seem to be produced by women. But why?"

1) Counterexample: "Dead Aid" Dambisa Moyo. Not as popular as Freakonomics, but I think it counts as having a "punchy" (even "aggressive") title, and being about an "economic trend".

2) At least the "why haven't women done X" zone is shrinking. Nochlin asked "why no great artists?" Kirshenbaum is reduced to asking "why no women with books on cultural/economic trends with good sales numbers and a pity title". Next thing you know, they'll be asking why so few great women scientists are named "Albert".

3) From the original article: "whether the intellectual audacity required to sell our hypotheses about the world simply isn't in our genetic makeup." I would think the fact that "the intellectual audacity ... to sell our hypotheses" makes people call men "bold" and women "bitch" might be a better first guess than a Y chromosome deficiency, but hey, what do I know?