Syfy Insider Exclusive

Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, sweepstakes, and more!

Sign Up For Free to View
SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Lady Science

By Phil Plait

This may come as a shock to you, but science has something of an issue with sexism.

I’ve written about this many times, and you can probably find a few hundred thousand more words about it elsewhere. The problems run a broad spectrum of issues, including pay, hiring practices, treatment of women in the lab/field/academic setting, publishing, the “leaky pipeline,” and more.

Worse, these issues have a long, entrenched, historical precedent. Even when we talk about them we run into problems, like highlighting exceptional women who break barriers, instead of all the women who came before them and paved the way.

That’s why I’m happy that Lady Science exists. As they say on their page, they are:

a multifaceted collaborative writing project focused on women in science, technology, and medicine. Our purpose is to highlight women's lives and contributions to scientific fields, to critique representations of women in history and popular culture, and to provide an accessible and inclusive platform for writing about women on the web. 

I’m all for that. The editors, Anna Reser and Leila McNeill, have collected many of the essays written and put them together into a new anthology called, of course, Lady Science, available for free at Smashwords. The essays are thoughtful and interesting, and anyone interested in the stories behind science will enjoy them.

I’m also pleased to note that McNeill and Reser asked me to write the foreword to the anthology. That may strike some as odd; I’m a middle-aged bearded white man, pretty much the archetype stereotypical portrayal of a scientist. But sexism isn’t a women’s problem, it’s a problem for everyone. Also it helps if men speak up, because men who might be a part of the problem will tend to listen to other men more than women. Ironic, but once this idea gets traction with them that problem itself might diminish.

So I wrote the foreword, and Reser and McNeill have graciously allowed me to reproduce it here (I added a few links for further info). Please give it a read, then go download the book.

Lady Science Foreword

When I was in grad school, we had a woman on our faculty.

Note the singular. A woman, out of roughly 15 or more full-time professors. The thing is, within statistical uncertainty this was about the average for astronomy departments at the time; until very recently the typical university astronomy department faculty ratio was about 9 men for every woman.

The reasons for this are legion; historically fewer women stay in astronomy, for example. But that just leads to the next question: Why do women leave the field? The reasons for that are legion as well; One study showed a lack of role models led to retaining fewer women over time. Other factors include bias in hiring women, bias in salaries, and the traditional gender roles played out in family life (women who are parents tend to leave science careers at a far higher rate than men).

When you read the essays in Lady Science, the historical roots of these problems become clear. Environmental sexism, stemming from entrenched male scientific authority, was pretty terrible a century ago, and still a huge problem today. I’ll let the men and women who have done the research and written those essays speak for themselves. There are ample examples.

But a point I see brought up in some of the essays is worth noting, and that’s the idea of celebrating “firsts.” It seems like a good thing, a way of acknowledging women who broke through barriers. Marie Curie, first female Nobel prize winner; Valentina Tereshkova, first female astronaut; Sally Ride, first American female astronaut; and so on.

While it’s important to acknowledge these women and their accomplishments, there’s a series of subtle problems with doing that as well: It spends a lot of energy and effort on only a select few women, it pushes aside the accomplishments of other women in that field who may not have received the spotlight, it implies that there were few or no women before the one woman who “made it,” and it still categorizes women into a subset of history that could be labeled “other.”

I’m guilty of highlighting “firsts” myself, and reading the essays in Lady Science really made me think about the pitfalls of doing that; it seems obvious in retrospect but completely invisible to me at the time.

That’s an especially pernicious aspect of sexism: You sometimes need an outside viewpoint to discover it, and even then it’s not a lock. You have to absorb the ideas, internalize them. That’s why I write about women’s issues in science. When I was younger I really was totally insulated and blind to the problems women face in life, let alone in pursuing scientific fields. Over the years, many of the wonderful women and men I’ve known have helped me better understand these issues. I’m still walking down that road, but I’m glad I know I’m on that road.

But even after all this time I sometimes stumble, or at least walk right into a pothole I didn’t know was there. The “Women’s Firsts” is only the most recent one. I think it’s still good to point out women who break barriers, but we have to be careful not to do so at the risk of minimizing anyone else.

Many of the women in the Lady Science articles are people I had never heard of, and this is a good opportunity to get to know them. If we focus only on the firsts we lose many of their stories. As time goes on we then lose the details on the inner workings of how women as a group, as members of a team, participated in and critically supported the greatest scientific achievements of our species.

Incidentally, I just checked: As I write this, my old astronomy department now has 30 faculty, and four women. That’s better than before, a trend in the right direction. It’s a long ways from parity, but as you’ll read in these articles, and as history has taught us, change rarely happens overnight. We have a long way to go, but increasing awareness may be the most powerful tool we have to help clear the path.

Read more about: