Picture a Scientist

James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel prize in 1962 for their ground-breaking work in discovering the molecular structure and chemical makeup of DNA in 1953. Watson and Crick worked together at Cambridge, while Wilkins was at King’s College London where he worked with a woman named Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was the X-ray crystallographer whose 3D photo of a DNA strand revealed its iconic double-helix structure, thus providing essential information for Watson and Crick’s experiments. Franklin died four years before the prize was awarded, and Nobels are never given posthumously, but she was not even mentioned, let alone credited, in contemporary accounts of the discovery or in any of the three men’s acceptance speeches. It is highly likely that these omissions were due to her sex.

In 1973, a young and eager biology grad student named Nancy Hopkins found herself working in James Watson’s cancer research lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She greatly admired both Watson and Crick for obvious reasons, and was overjoyed to be doing science under Watson’s tutelage. She hadn’t been long in the job when Watson announced that Francis Crick was coming for a visit. Hopkins, like everyone else in the lab, was overjoyed to be meeting the other half of the respected duo. When the day finally arrived, Crick came unannounced into the lab and walked directly over to Hopkins who was looking into a microscope. He leaned over her, casually placed both his hands on her breasts, and said, “So, what are you doing here?” Hopkins was extremely surprised and flustered, and stood up immediately, stammering a reply to Crick’s query. She didn’t mentioned the incident to anyone at the time because, as she put it, she “didn’t want to embarrass Crick.”

These are just two examples of the sort of treatment women have historically endured in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. The PBS program NOVA recently aired an episode entitled “Picture a Scientist” featuring three female scientists, Hopkins included, and concentrating on their struggles to overcome sexism in their professions. Hopkins mentions her uncomfortable introduction to Crick in passing because such unwanted touching was common when she started out. As Hopkins aged and gained status and prestige at MIT, however, she eventually took on its many sexist practices.

In 1999 Hopkins became a tenured professor of biology at the institute. Her cancer research centred on zebra fish, and her new status emboldened her to ask for a larger lab. The facilities manager scoffed at her request, and a male colleague suggested that she wouldn’t be able to manage a bigger lab. Hopkins noticed that all of the tenured male biologists had much more room for their work, so she got a blueprint of the building and went around measuring her colleagues’ labs. When she thereby proved conclusively that her lab was indeed much smaller than those of her male peers, however, the man in charge refused to look at her findings. That was when Hopkins got mad.

The discrimination Hopkins faced took many forms – her laboratory was smaller and she had fewer specimens, her concerns and suggestions were dismissed by her department head, her experiments and findings were sometimes sabotaged or stolen, and not only did her male colleagues make more than her, but they were also much more likely to receive promotions. She wrote a thoughtful and thorough letter enumerating these disparities, and decided to run it by an older female colleague she greatly respected before showing it to MIT’s president. Hopkins’s female colleague so related to the contents of the letter that she insisted on signing it herself, and suggested that they should approach the other women on staff to gain their support as well – an easy task considering that there were only 15 of them at the time. All of these women had added their names to the letter by the time Hopkins took it to administration. She told Charles Vost, the president at the time, that she and her female colleagues would like to do a scientific study of the problem, and he gave them his blessing, confident that the claims made in the letter were either non-existent or largely overblown.

Five years and countless hours later, Hopkins and her team had produced a report which changed the way many American scientific institutions now run. Their exhaustive study conclusively verified all of the disadvantages laid out in Hopkins’s initial letter and also made a good case for the necessity of decent childcare on campus, as many excellent female staff members had left the faculty because it was not offered. Vost was shocked by the study’s conclusions. He truly thought his school was an absolute meritocracy, and was sadden to see irrefutable evidence to the contrary. He considered the report for a few days before responding, and then promptly began to make institutional changes. MIT started admitting equal numbers of male and female students, it upped the pay of female staff and made sure they had equal opportunities for advancement, and opened an onsite daycare facility. Hopkins recently retired after a successful 40 year career, and her only regret is that she had to devote so much time to the study – time she would much rather have spent teaching and doing lab work. She just wanted to be a scientist who could give her full attention to her calling, like her male counterparts.

Jane Willenbring has a Ph.D. in earth sciences and is an associate professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. She was overjoyed as a young grad student some twenty years ago to land a coveted spot on a team researching glaciers in Antarctica led by Dave Marchant, a scientist so respected that there is an Antarctic glacier named after him. Willenbring was enthusiastic and eager to please as the fieldwork began, but it wasn’t long before Marchant’s misogynistic abuse took the wind out of her sails. He started by regularly calling her “slut,” then “whore,” and finally “cunt.” Then the physical assaults began – at one point he pushed her down a pile of loose rocks, and he would regularly throw small stones at her as she was peeing. There are no bushes or trees to hide behind when relieving yourself in Antartica, meaning there was no place for Willenbring to shelter from Marchant’s harassment. It got so bad that she almost completely stopped drinking water altogether, which led her to develop a horrible, bloody urinary tract infection which periodically flares up to this day.

Willenbring silently put up with Marchant’s ill-treatment at the time, and didn’t say a thing about it until 17 years after she returned. On that day she brought her 3-year-old daughter into the lab with her, and her little girl was so impressed with her mommy, all decked out in her lab gear and goggles, that she proudly proclaimed that she too wanted to be a scientist. Willenbring despaired at the idea of her daughter facing the kind of sexist abuse she had endured, and so she wrote an official complaint against Marchant and presented it to his employer, Boston University. The university suspended Marchant for three years when the other scientists who had accompanied Marchant and Willenbring in the field corroborated her story. Less than two years later Robert Brown, who had been provost at MIT when Nancy Hopkins presented her study, became president of Boston University. Brown took the lesson he’d learned at MIT about the undeniable existence of systemic sexism in institutions of higher learning, and immediately fired Marchant. The Marchant glacier received a new name a few months later.

Adam Lewis is one of the scientists who witnessed Willenbring’s abuse in Antarctica. He has since come to regret not standing up for her, but insists that he thought she was okay since she never complained or even acknowledged her ill-treatment at the time. He has come to understand, with Willenbring’s help, that such responses weren’t even an option. Marchant was in charge of the study while also being a well-connected and highly respected member of the scientific community at large. He held not only the trajectory, but the very existence of Willenbring’s future career in his hands. The power dynamic was such that Willenbring would have been jeopardizing her chances of continuing as a scientist had she stood up to him. 

One scene in the documentary features Lewis and Willenbring having a conversation about sexism in the sciences. Lewis tells the story of something he saw at a scientific conference when the participants had gathered at a bar after the day’s meetings. There was an older man who was making the rounds of all the young women in the room, offering his room key to each of them in turn. Lewis comments on how impressed he was with these women when, one after another, they each politely refused his offer. Willenbring responds with an explanation of the deeper implications of this sort of exchange for the women involved. Women who say no to powerful connected men risk facing substantial problems and obstacles when they later apply for funding, advancement, or tenure. On the other hand, if a woman does take a man up on such an offer, or even has a private drink with him to discuss her work, then achievements she may later claim in her field are forever tainted with the suspicion that she slept her way to success. This particular dilemma is not contained to STEM disciplines, but exists for women in pretty well every profession – a fact attested to in countless testimonials from the Me Too and Time’s Up movements. 

The final woman featured in the documentary is Raychelle Burks, a Ph.D. in chemistry and associate professor at St. Edward University in Austin, Texas. Burks is a woman of colour and consequently faces even more discrimination in her profession than her white female counterparts. Burks succinctly sums up her work experience thus, 

“You get used to being underestimated. You get used to being treated a bit shabbily. People can insult us to our face with inappropriate language and derogatory terminology, and we’re the ones who are supposed to be respectful and civil. You get used to being invisible in the sciences, but then you’re hyper-visual because people are like, ‘Why are you here?!’“

Female professors in the sciences are often mistaken for technicians, but Burks was the only one in the documentary who has been mistaken for a custodian, and who has been pointedly asked why she was in the building at all. She has been told to straighten her hair to look more “professional,” and since only one black woman has ever won a Nobel Prize in science (as opposed to 616 men and 19 white women), she has had virtually no one in her field to look up to. Burks hosts a YouTube show about chemistry and speaks at any conference that will have her in an attempt to be a role model to young black girls interested in science. I quite admired her tenacity and optimism despite what appeared to be an often demoralizing work situation.

It’s obviously not the case that all men in STEM fields are raging sexists. Social scientists suspect that many, if not most of them, are acting on an unconscious societal bias, and a few years ago they came up with a clever experiment to test this theory. They created a fictitious resume for someone supposedly interested in becoming a lab manager, and then sent it out to male science professors all over the country. The covering letter asked if the men could please weigh in on whether this person looked like a good candidate for the job. The resumes were absolutely identical except that one had a woman’s name at the top, and the other had a man’s. Researchers compiled the professor’s responses and found that most of the time the female applicant was rated to be less competent, was deemed less likely to be hired or mentored, and would consistently be offered a lower starting salary. This experiment, along with the irrefutable evidence presented in the MIT study, prove the “hard baked” nature of sexist biases in the professional and academic worlds of science and technology.

Many women in the film also commented on what’s called the leaky pipeline. High schools and universities are providing increasing enticements and opportunities for girls and women in STEM, filling the pipeline. It is empirically the case, however, that increasing numbers of females drop out as they move up the academic ladder. 50% of STEM bachelor degrees are given to women, but only 44% of masters, 41% of Ph.D.’s, and 36% of post-doctorates are awarded to females. In the end, only 29% of those professionally employed in STEM disciplines are women. The most likely reason for these numbers is sexual harassment. Experts in the documentary estimate that only about 10% of this harassment takes the form of sexual touching or inappropriate language, with the other 90% being made up of things like women being stigmatized for taking family leave, constantly having their competence questioned, not receiving credit where it’s due, being ignored at meetings, and receiving inappropriate e-mails or purposely being left out of professional e-mail chains. These subtle but constant slights and omissions have a cumulative exhausting and demoralizing effect on the women who bear them, and it’s no surprise that many eventually throw in the towel. All three women featured in this documentary commented on how sapping and dispiriting this situation is, and confessed that they have on more than one occasion considered leaving their professions as a result. 

Watching this documentary inspired me to do some research on the distribution of prizes and medals awarded to men vs. women in all STEM fields. According to Areppim, a Swiss data management company which compiles and lists such information, the disparities are depressing. I have already mentioned some of the Nobel Prize numbers, but here is a more specific breakdown: in physiology or medicine women have won 5.4% of the prizes, in chemistry 3.8%, and in physics a paltry 2.9%. A mere 3 women have every won the Turing Award, the highest accolade in computer science, and one lone woman has been given the Fields Medal for mathematics. 

There is a long, explanatory note under the charts displaying these numbers on the Areppim site containing information which is highly relevant here. It says, 

“In several cases, for instance in the computer science field, it is widely conceded that female scientists made decisive contributions that have been typically credited to their bosses, the more conspicuous male contributors. Also some Nobel prizes have triggered harsh controversy for reasons of outright ignoring indispensable breakthroughs by female contributors.”

This last sentence immediately brought to mind Rosalind Franklin and her crucial yet completely overlooked contribution to the discovery of DNA. The concluding sentiment in this excerpt sums up not only how women have been historically overlooked and undervalued in STEM disciplines, but in most almost every other profession as well.

“The unbalanced split of the awards, rather than portraying the genuine talents of the genders, turns out to be a revealer of the workings of our society, namely of the process by which value judgments are produced in male dominated power structures.”

Just think of all the amazing discoveries that have been missed because 50% of the population has been either flatly barred, or more recently systemically discouraged, from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Let’s hope that the current trend of progressively more women entering and surviving in these fields continues. Mankind can only benefit from such a course. 

4 thoughts on “Picture a Scientist

  1. “ Let’s hope that the current trend of progressively more women entering and surviving in these fields continues. Mankind can only benefit from such a course.” … says it all!

    Liked by 1 person

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