Be honest. What does a scientist look like?

Perhaps you had a certain picture in mind? I wonder if a scientist looks like any of the ladies pictured below. These twelve women scientists gathered together for a 2015 TedFellows meeting.  Meet 12 Badass Women Who Just Happen to Be Scientists is a fascinating article that describes a wide variety of scientific concentrations and the hurdles women face in the world of science.  

As I stare at these women who are proudly posing for the camera, I realize I know very little about their specialties.  What’s more, I see the prejudice women face when one woman tells the story of a cab driver who asked her, “What do men say when you tell them you’re a scientist? Because you don’t look like a scientist.”

The driver’s question is a serious one. So is the answer.

Before we get to that answer, WomanScape thought it would make for a #FunFriday by challenging our readers’ knowledge of scientific fields of study.  See how well you do by answering TRUE or FALSE to the following questions:

  1.  A coral biologist studies how coral reproduces?
  2.  A molecular animator creates 3D software for researchers to study hypotheses?
  3.  A computational biologist helps to develop genetic solutions and databases to solve problems with marine life?
  4.  Astrophysicist studies are concerned with supermassive, hyperactive black holes?
  5.  A glaciologist uses chemical compounds to break down dangerous blocks of ice that could flood cities?
  6.  A paleo-oncologist studies cancer in mammals?
  7.  A genetic virologist stops deadly viruses from mutating genes?
  8.  A cosmologist knows how to engineer the perfect martini?

Answer key: #1-4 are true; #5-8 are false.

While there is a myriad of challenges faced by badass female scientists, women’s careers typically suffer for reasons that include:

  • Men often getting twice the amount of research funding over women;
  • Women holding as little as 20% of the STEM jobs in the U.S.; and,
  • Some people honestly believe women don’t have the necessary skills to be scientists.

Okay so we all know that last belief is total blarney but what do we do about these hurdles? How do women see life as a scientist? WomanScape considered the perspectives of two women, Christine Fleet and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Both have TedX Talks and share stories so that other women can benefit from their experiences.

Christine is a member of the biology department at Emory & Henry College, studying the genetic control of plant growth hormone production.  When she started teaching, she had her first child one month into the job and quickly realized what she was up against.

Most obvious is the stereotypical bias that somehow expects women to be the main caregivers.   Somehow raising children is more of a woman’s job than a man’s, even if the woman is the breadwinner.

This makes working in a lab and conducting research particularly difficult for many women. The working conditions can be dangerous dealing with strains of bacteria and having to figure out how to be away from family for long tracks of time when research involves study abroad.  

Christine says that because women are still so under-represented in science, it’s easy to see how the myth about what a scientist looks like is perpetuated.  If you don’t “look like a scientist” odds are you’ll be passed over for a promotion and more serious study grants.

That’s where Dame Jocelyn Bell comes in.  Her serious straight-talk and years fighting bias in the workplace landed her £2.3m in prize money last September 2018.  Jocelyn’s work in the field of astrophysics was a constant struggle because she was habitually discouraged from studying science and wanting more challenging work.   

In her wonderfully endearing Irish brogue, Jocelyn announced she would be donating her winnings from the discovery of pulsars and a lifetime of scientific achievement. In case you’re wondering, pulsars are rotating stars that emit electromagnetic fields.

The money from Dame Jocelyn’s winnings will go to the Institute of Physics to establish research studentships for people from under-represented groups.  In Jocelyn’s video below, she says, “I think diversity is very important. One of the under-represented groups in physics is women, so that is one that interests me.  But groups with various ethnicities could well be included, and it would be wonderful if we could find a refugee or two.”

Boosting diversity in science sounds like a promising start for making life easier for women.  As I head into the weekend, I’ll try my scientific skills in my kitchen lab by cooking up a few healthy dishes and pouring a few carefully measured shots of whiskey to keep me warm. If you’re feeling more festive than this, you could try a recipe from the Drink Lab called Christmas jello shots. Have a great weekend everyone.

Rose McInerney

Author Rose McInerney

Rose combines her love of all things artfully-designed to connect women to a shared community of learning and a richer, more fulfilled self. As a passionate storyteller, published writer, and international traveler, Rose believes women can build a better world through powerful storytelling.

More posts by Rose McInerney

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