The Sciencing of Whoa-men

Posted on May 14, 2012 by


Author: Skylar Bayer

So, first things first:

One. I am a woman.  Turns out, anyway – I’ve got a uterus, eggs, mammary glands, alleged child-bearing hips – the whole womanly shebang (no pun intended). It’s a biological fact.

Two. I identify as a woman by gender. I do not feel that I am a man. I do not identify with them the way I do with my fellow woman. Sure, I am aggressive sometimes, wasn’t so into the Barbie thing as a little girl, but I feel like a woman. On occasion I wonder if some of my personality quirks are “masculine” by traditional Western society, but I think I’m a woman and therefore I am one.

Three. I research sex, specifically marine invertebrate sex. I suppose we could use the phrase “fertilization ecology” but let’s just be blunt about it – I study sex.  Sex, sex, sex. And, on occasion, I’ve been known to call myself an “invertebrate sexpert,” and pat myself on the back about how clever I am.

Four. I am a scientist and because of the aforementioned list, I do find myself wondering about how my gender (and anyone else’s for that matter) plays a role in the science world.

Let’s back up to the origins of science and ask who were the first scientists? I think I can state that some Egyptians, Arabs and Greeks were some of the first and then a lot of old white dudes in Europe shortly thereafter. They weren’t just scientists, they were philosophers, doctors, artists, lawyers – anything that now sounds intellectual and what we would call “academic.”

What about the first female scientists? I realized that if there were female scientists from centuries ago, I haven’t heard much about them unless I accidentally studied them while reading The Iliad. So, I decided to enlighten myself a little and did a search on Wikipedia. It gave me this list.

The first one that caught my eye was Agamede, a potentially mythical physician.

Who came after that? Well, there were quite a few, which surprised me (and why should I be so surprised, I wondered), and most were Italian.  I noticed some trends (as any scientist might) – they were predominantly doctors before the 15th century, astronomers over the next century, and inventors and chemists  around the 17th and 18th centuries. I also found a list of mathematicians here.

But the second woman who caught my eye is the first PhD (naturally) — Elena Cornaro Piscopia (Here and Here). She was thirty-two when she received her PhD from the University of Padua on June 25, 1678. Wow, I thought, this makes me feel pretty good about my age and where I am in my career path. Then I read some more. According to one page (Here), she did not want a degree, she just wanted to continue her education, but her father insisted that his daughter be recognized for her great achievements. Not only did she get a degree after passing her exams but she got some sweet swag – a “Doctor’s Ring,” a “Teacher’s Ermine cape,” and a “Poet’s Laurel Crown.”

But did Elena go on to have a life filled with children, marriage, financial bliss or anything we might associate by “having it all” nowadays? No, she devoted her life to charity, abdicated her seat on the high court, rejected all marriage proposals and died at the age of 38 from TB.

To me, this seems like a common story of the female scientists I’ve read about. I would love to hear otherwise – I don’t want to be proven right, believe me — but devoting oneself to research, academics and a “higher calling” seems to always tell a sad tale of an early death and a relentless struggle to prove oneself in a male dominated profession. Three centuries later, Rosalind Franklin died in 1958 (age 37) during her quest in determining the structure of DNA. It took 25 years for her to get only some of the credit she deserved, posthumously. Any searches on her love life yield essentially nothing.

I had to wonder if this is still the expectation of women who join the ranks of science? I know many women that are trying to balance it all nowadays, but there is still a significant drop in gender ratio between graduate school and post-doc and faculty positions. It’s staggering. It’s even more staggering when you see that the majority of students in the last decade or more have been female and that the ratio of male to female quickly reverses above the student level.

What is going on? Is the definition of a scientist so inherently masculine in gender that often only those women that go on to be faculty are the ones that act like traditional male scientists? What bothers me when reading about these famous female scientists is not that they were reclusive, nerdy, geeky, or stubborn  — it’s that it seemed that in order to prove themselves professionally they often ended up alone. Even Einstein, as strange and nasty as he was to his first wife, managed to have children and go through two wives.

Einstein’s first wife, Mileva, was very intelligent and scientifically-minded, but she was still expected to run a house and raise the children, despite these qualities. And that was standard then and that standard, of women raising children and managing the “softer” side of things in a traditional marriage, still persists today, even as things change. That’s where we run into trouble sometimes, I think – if we, as professional academic female scientists, want to have a partner that can mold well with our tumultuous and incredibly intense career paths, it seems like we need to find partners that can fulfill that traditional “wife” role since the expectations of our career field have not changed considerably. And that’s not always fair nor always easy to find nor necessarily what everyone wants. There are some universities, some institutions that are more accommodating to being a full-time spouse, parent and scientist, but it’s not really as progressive as it could be nationwide. And why would it be? – it’s only been about a century since Einstein developed the theory of relativity.

I wish not to end this post on a negative note. I think that as our culture changes, expectations of men and women change, these kinds of roles in science can change, too, albeit slowly. I have to admit, I think it’s very hard being a young man these days. It used to be pretty insistently clear where men and women were expected to stand in regards to their relationships, duties and responsibilities. Now, however, with the rise of feminism (which is fabulous), women are taught that their power to achieve in their life comes from within themselves. But what about the guys? Sure there’s a cultural framework, thousands of years old, that can guide them, but parts of it are considered broken down and wrong now, and it can be confusing and unclear which cultural beams a man can still walk on. It can be especially difficult for males when the other gender has modern feminism to stand on. At the same token, men still have the upper hand in a lot of careers, not just science.

I sat in a very traditional catholic wedding ceremony this weekend thinking about these issues, all dressed up with makeup on, looking like a lady, and staring up at the spandrels of the cathedral. I couldn’t help but think of the spandrels of San Marco and how spandrels may exist in the profession of science. The traits and qualities we think we need in order to become successful scientists may not always be part of the necessary structure – they may just be spandrel murals like those in San Marco. But how do we separate the structure from the murals? I don’t know the answer, but there’s one thing that I do know, as a woman, and happened to share with my advisor last week, talking about these same issues , and that is ‘well-behaved women rarely make history.*’

He nodded at me and said, that’s true, that’s definitely true.

*This quote is often misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt and it’s true form, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” More here on her and her book.