The Sciences

Singled Out

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumMar 25, 2009 6:24 PM


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2003: I'm a budding marine scientist on my first fishing boat. "How old are you?" asks the captain. "Twenty-three." He grimaces and blows smoke from his pipe into my face. "My niece's younger'n you and she got three kids. You got no business here, what's wrong with you?"  2008: Now a science writer, I've just returned from a conference, ecstatic to have met one of my--and everyone else's--science heroes. He somehow tracks down my number and calls the following week. How would I feel about being "his next mistress?" I remind him I have a popular science blog and warn never to call back. * * * * * * * * * * * * Now folks, I'm not naive. I recognize everyone forms preconceived notions based on visual and nonverbal cues. As it happens, my next book deals with science and sexuality, so this is a topic I've been thinking about a lot lately off the blog. Naturally, attention to physical appearance has been hardwired into our neural circuitry over a few millenia, however, you better believe it's never acceptable judge anyone based on appearances and number of X chromosomes. And of course I've noticed the science blogosphereisbuzzing over some neanderthal comments from Monday about my photo. After Phil was kind enough to welcome Chris and I to Discover Blogs, I was disappointed to read several of the responses. For example:

as a living breathing male of the species, I look forward to any article with Sherils picture attached.

Or even less articulate:

mmmmmmmm……….. wo-man

Needless to say, it wasn't the most welcoming reaction and I missed the allies I had at our old site. Any whiff of misogyny and Isis, PhysioProf, and Drugmonkey will smack you down, Abel, Bora, Grrl will set the record straight, ScienceWoman and SciCurious will embarrass you, and Zuska might just vomit on your shoes. But then I remembered, this troubling mentality is not limited to any network. I encountered equally unenlightened nonsense at both Wired and ScienceBlogs too. Furthermore, it's pervasive well beyond the blogosphere. For example, when Chris and I recently gave a joint talk, a Nobel laureate commended my co-blogger on his words followed by grabbing for my left hand and uttering, "why aren't you married my dear?" I doubt any of the aforementioned anecdotes--or the now infamous comments--were intended to be insulting, but they each highlight a broader social issue. Several female colleagues have similar stories of receiving sexually explicit emails and poetry, while I've yet to hear the fellows complain of unwanted advances (though surely that happens occasionally too). This is not an isolated problem, nor is it specific to me as an individual, rather it demonstrates that no matter how much the nature of science has changed, it continues to be very much a 'boys club.' As David Kroll pointed out on Phil's thread:

What the hell is wrong with you people? Is your life so pitiful that [appearances are] the first thing you choose to comment upon regarding an experienced scientist, author, and public policy expert?

a response read:

The problem is not that Electro and I compliment Sheril’s appearance. The problem is that people like you take issue with it, as if somehow that compliment is “lesser” than a compliment on someone’s intelligence. Remove stick from rear end, move on. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I disagree, so let's not 'move on' immediately. You see, all of this does matter. Surely it contributes to the reason so many of us wonder about the dramatic gender gap in science, policy, and much of society. Of course, on a personal note, I say don't cry for me academia because while there are undoubtedly hurdles, I'm having a blast and plan to stick around the ivory towers for a while. Still, I strongly suspect the veritable nosedive in XX representation over time is, at least in part, a self-perpetuating cycle resulting from long-standing cultural norms and social expectations. Shortly after entering the blogosphere, there was a period when I stopped posting personal pictures altogether... until I stepped back and thought about why I felt pressure to remain somewhat obscure. These reservations stemmed from wondering whether a woman can really be taken seriously as a writer for her ideas, if on some level she is first perceived as female. Evolutionary psychologists describe subconscious cues and I've encountered more than a few folks from the fishing industry to the Senate with overtly preconceived expectations on gender. I'd like readers here to recognize content before appearances, but I never had the option of anonymity. Eventually I realized that the truth is, by 'hiding,' I'd been undermining myself by unintentionally creating self-imposed constraints based on fear. I'd been feeling the need to censor myself because of the potential for external bias. Thing is, those outside pressures are going to exist no matter what, so the only opinion of real consequence is my own. And in time, I decided it was incredibly important to openly provide an image of a woman in science to the many bright young readers who follow the blog:

Even in the 21st century there's still this ridiculous misconception that gets popularized in middle school suggesting girls in academics are weird, unattractive, or nerdy. 'Beauty and the Geek' anyone? I can't fathom why the negative labels persist. Frankly, I'm having a blast growing up geek exploring the ivory towers and beyond. So what we collectively ought to be doing is finding the means to reinforce reality over 'reality' television! It's past the time we get the simple honest message out in a way that resonates that women can be successful, intelligent, hip, and most importantly--it's our choice how we define ourselves. I suspect that society and culture will catch up...eventually.

While I still feel that way, I've since decided I'd rather not be labeled a 'woman in science' at all. I have far more dimensions than the ones assigned by base pairs and profession. So as for the response at Bad Astronomy, it's a microcosm of a broader cultural issue. Furthermore, in the end, Phil's response was the right one and Carey--one of the original commentors--recognized his error and apologized. With that, I'll end by reiterating I'm glad to be at Discover--obviously there's work to be done! I plan to continue defying expectations of what it means to be a girl and am encouraged knowing I've got several new friends along with the old family who have my back. Prehistoric boneheads be forewarned: We occasionally exhibit a pack mentality and some bloggers bite, so venture down that road at your own risk...

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