Category Archives: Women in Science

December 6th, 2016

Every December 6th I sit down and work, and reflect on the voices missing from the scientific community. I generally work in public, and this is the first year I’ve worked in public in an non-academic space. I have no academic space in this city, and soon will have no academic space at all; I have still not quite adjusted to that. Somehow sitting in a coffee shop with a laptop and half a dozen terminal windows open is a poor substitute for sitting in my office, or the library, or the table at the end of the fourth floor hallway where I started this ritual over a decade ago.

In 1989, it was nearly unthinkable that someone would walk into a school and start murdering people in cold blood. But 27 years and hundreds of school shootings later (largely in the US), it’s still heartbreaking but somehow no-one’s really surprised anymore. Violence aimed at women has always, always been a thread running through society, but in the nearly three decades since the École Polytechnique massacre, that violence is increasingly in public eye. Much of this is due to the tireless and brave work of women and feminists to hold abusers to account, to speak up when they are harrassed in the work place, and to work towards a society where violence against women is not accepted or acceptable. I cannot emphasize how grateful I am to the women who came before me, and how important that work continues to be.

The other reason violence against women is more visible is because the perpetrators are increasingly public about their actions. One glance at the Twitter mentions of any prominent, outspoken woman will likely turn up rape threats, death threats, and a stream of harassment. Being a woman in public on the internet is to be subject to a steady grind of violence. And when the American president-elect is publicly gloating about sexually assaulting women, suddenly all those men forming the Greek chorus of harassment and violence feel like they have permission to act with impunity.

Violence isn’t always as stark and overwhelming as the École Polytechnique massacre, but mass murder sits at the very end of a long continuum of violence against women, and that violence is far from eradicated from the scientific community. In the past year, multiple cases of sexual harassment and abuse have surfaced from science departments, and there are surely dozens and dozens more cases that haven’t made it to national media. Scientific departments are still male dominated and still operate in sexist ways, even if there isn’t a serial abuser or three operating with few repercussions to their actions. That low-level hum of violence and the constant resistance to push back against it just to stay in the same place is draining, disheartening, and ultimately leads to a lot of women and other underrepresented people to leave science. Sometimes this is voluntary, sometimes it’s not, and blessedly rarely it’s at the end of a gun.

I have mostly accepted my decision to leave academia as being the right choice for me. I didn’t leave because of harassment or violence, I left because I realized I would be happy doing other things, and the notion of hopping from contract to contract around the world filled me with dread rather than excitement. I am not leaving science, just the academy. I have the capacity to fight, the bandwidth to push for inclusion and acceptance, the strength to pull people up the ladder behind me, and the conviction to follow through on that. I continue to fight, but outside the academy rather than from within, and I worry that that’s not enough. I know I don’t carry The Weight Of All Women in Science alone, and I know that burning out helps precisely no-one. But on days like today, the weight is heavy.

As a closing note for this admittedly scattered post, this piece from two years ago reflecting on how the women murdered in the École Polytechnique massacre were portrayed remains a very important read.

Looking for Women in the History of Astronomy and Physics

There’s a new physics and astronomy editorial up on Science Borealis, now written with my co-editor Jared Strang. Since it was Marie Curie’s birthday last week, we wrote about the general lack of historical role models for physics-minded girls, and how having only one titanic role model in a field is hard to aspire to. Not everyone’s going to win two Nobel prizes and revolutionize physics, after all.

So to make a point, we compiled a list of historical (roughly pre WWII) women who studied physics or astronomy, and we wound up a list of about 50 women. Jared and I both went looking for historical female astronomers and physicists, and in the first go round we had very similar lists. I found all the relatively well known women (Emmy Noether, Chien-Shiung Wu,,Lise Meitner, Hypatia, etc) and a handful of other lesser known figures within an hour or so. But I looked at the list, and almost all the figures were Western, and most lived in the 19th or 20th centuries. There were a couple from antiquity, and a couple from outside Europe or North America, but it was a pretty uninclusive list.

So I went looking for more women, particularly astronomers, as the history of astronomy is longer than the history of physics, and it is in many ways more accessible than physics. You don’t need any equipment to stand outside and look at the stars, so it’s hard to believe that over a millienia and a half, no women anywhere in the world sat down and wrote about the heavens.

You really have to go looking for hints of these women, though. Over a few days, I spent probably between 10 and 12 hours combing the internet and looking through history textbooks. I found a few more women, and a number of Renaissance salonists and teachers. Even though they didn’t necessarily do original research, I included them in the list because due to the exclusionary policies of universities, salons were one of the few ways that women could participate in the scientific culture of the day.

But most of the women were still European, which didn’t make sense. There was a huge revolution in mathematics in the Islamic Golden Age (9th – 12th centuries), and lots of the innovations Islamic scholars developed relied on Indian texts. There are lots of documents showing that the Malinese empire had advanced math and science. What about the Polynesian islanders, who must have had excellent knowledge of astronomy to travel the Pacific? There’s lots of evidence of excellent astronomical knowledge in Mesoamerica! It’s not like astronomy and physics are the sole domain of Western thinkers, so surely someone on the internet, repository for all things meticulously enumerated, would have some evidence of female astronomers from around the world.

Here’s who I found from outside of the Western world pre-1900:

  • Hypatia (Egypt), the titan of math, astronomy, and philosophy
  • Ban Zhao (China), who was not properly an astronomer but a renowned scholar of many topics, who wrote a treatise on astronomy
  • Queen Seondeok (Korea), who built the first observatory in East Asia (but I found no evidence that she herself was an astronomer)
  • Maryam al-Ijiliya (Syria), who was renowned for building innovative astrolabes
  • Fatima of Madrid (Spain, but had Arabic heritage), who worked on compiling tables of astronomical data
  • Wang Zhenyi (China), who wrote multiple astronomical treatises on equinoxes, planetary motion, and eclipses.

That’s six women, spread over 1800 years, one or two of whom weren’t themselves astronomers. If ever you need some evidence that women have been effectively written out of the history of science, there’s some evidence for you. I couldn’t find a single named female astronomer from India, Polynesia, non-Egyptian Africa, Mesoamerica, Japan, southeast Asia, Australia, etc in 2000 years of history.

I should note that names of non-Western male astronomers weren’t plentiful either, much to my irritation. Rather than trying to wade through a sea of names and fish out the one or two who belong to women, I spent those hours craning my metaphorical neck going “where is everyone?!”

It’s frustrating to be confronted with a thoroughly Western-centric history of one of the most universal fields of science. There is ample evidence that plenty of cultures developed sophisticated calendars that required precise astronomical knowledge, and it’s patently ludicrous to think that no women, and few men outside of Europe, were ever involved in that sort of work.

It’s worth noting that the majority of the earlier Western women on the list worked with their husbands, brothers, and fathers, often starting as transcribers or assistants. How many more historical women in science are hidden away out of sight of the history books? How many women’s contributions were roundly ignored by the scientific establishment, and discarded? I shouldn’t need to be a historian of science to find enough non-Western female astronomers in 2000 years to enumerate with more than one hand.

Here’s a somewhat unrelated anecdote that I failed to shoehorn in elsewhere: I first heard of Noether’s theorem in, I think, second year of undergrad physics. Noether’s theorem states that a symmetry in a non-dissipative system corresponds to a conserved quantity in that system. (It’s technically a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.) This theorem underpins most of classical mechanics and greatly clarifies what “energy” means in general relativity, so to say it’s an important theorem is a pretty big understatement. Since every other named theorem, law, lemma, algorithm, equation, or unit that I’d come across in math or physics up to that point had belonged to a man (exception: Marie Curie), I naturally assumed that Noether was male. It wasn’t until two years later, in my last year of undergrad, when I came across the name Emmy Noether, and was genuinely astonished that she was a woman.

The Personal and The Professional

I’m (as usual) very late to the party on the whole Scientific American masterclass on how not to deal with sexual harassment, but here’s the gist of the (first) situation:

  • Dr. Danielle Lee has been blogging at Scientific American for 2 years. Her research is in ecology and evolutionary biology, and she does a lot of excellent outreach work to the general public and especially underserved groups; she’s highly regarded for both of these.
  • She got an email last week asking if she would contribute to a site, she asked the terms of the request (including, among other things, if it was a paid gig), and then professionally declined. In response, the other person asked “are you an urban scientist, or an urban whore?” I’ll give you a moment to pick your jaw up off the ground — it can take a minute to jiggle it back into the joint properly.
  • She turns around and publishes a post on her blog at SA that not only clearly lays out not only why this is totally unacceptable, unprofessional, and breathtakingly rude, but also talks about it in terms of “your work is valuable — don’t let someone else dictate the terms you work on.” Academia has a lot of endemic and unresolved labour and sexism issues, and even outside of the context of this one incident, that is an important point to make. She handled this very professionally, I thought, and in a way to underscored how while this is an isolated incident, it exists within a larger context.
  • SA then took her post down without contacting her, later citing in a very hand wavy way that SA publishes on science, not on personal matters. The later justification was that they were worried that the site that contacted Dr. Lee would lawyer up, and until they had proof that she wasn’t making it up, they wanted to cover their butts. Note that these are totally incongruent explanations, and the second implies that Dr. Lee would potentially fabricate sexual harassment. Faaaaaantastic.
  • After much of the community around the SA and other blogs raised a stink about this, Dr. Lee’s post was reinstated, and an “apology” was posted. I’m using scarequotes because at no time in the piece was Dr. Lee actually apologized to by SA, and there was nothing in their post covering this to the effect of “this person’s behaviour was completely inexcusable.” While it’d be nice to think that that goes without saying, I’ve been around the sun enough times to know that that’s not the case.

And then yesterday morning, it came to light that SA’s blog editor Bora Zivkovic has sexually harassed a woman named Monica Byrne (and, judging by the comments on that piece, some other women) at what she thought was business meeting where she was trying to pitch stories. Byrne who wrote that post a year ago without Zivkovic’s name on it, and actually named him elsewhere a few weeks ago, but in light of Dr. Lee’s harassment, she updated her own post and it’s gotten attention. He’s issued an apology — notably not on SA — and while it’s a clear enough apology, I’m not holding my breath that it means an awful lot. It’s straightforward to apologize after the fact, but shifting your attitudes and actions takes work.

The second incident underscores how asinine the initial SA response to Dr. Lee’s harassment was:

The environment we live in shapes how we do our work, what work we do, how we talk about our work, and who we are as scientists. The personal isn’t separate and distinct from the professional, and nor should it be: our personal experiences and perspectives are bringing a much needed diversity of viewpoints to academia and to science. The personal, for women, includes navigating a minefield of sexism and sexual harassment in the past, the present, and the future, and as these two incidents clearly show, the professional regularly requires the same. Scientific American still owes Dr. Lee a proper apology, and Dr. Zivkovic needs to demonstrate that he understands where he crossed boundaries and refrain from crossing more. Hopefully both of these will occur shortly, but unfortunately I don’t expect that this will be the last instance of harassment being poorly handled.

Quite a lot of people have already written thoughtful reactions to these two incidents, so I’m just going to direct you to some of them (below this paragraph). Additionally, LadyBits has posted a call for submissions on sexual harassment for a collection on Medium.

WEDNESDAY EVENING UPDATE: More people have come forward about their harassment, notably Hannah Waters. I’ve added another few things to read at the end of the list.

Other things to read:

Scientist or ‘Whore’? Incident Symbolizes Familiar Struggle for Women of Color in Science
What @sciam’s actions tell me as a female scientist of colour
Derailing Techniques and My Final Thoughts on Scientific American’s Public Statement
Why Be So Militant About a Woman’s Right to Name Her Harasser
Another Sexual Harassment Case in Science: The Deafening Silence That Surrounds It Condones It
This is Not a Post I Want to Write
Silence and Friendship
Let Me Fix That For You
The Insidious Power of Not-Quite-Harassment
Mixed Up
Science, Blogging, Sexual Harassment, and the Power of Speaking Out
Science Online Board Statement 10/16/2013

December 6th

December 6th is National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women here, and this year it’s the 23rd anniversary of the École Polytechnique Massacre. In the past year, the long gun registry, which was put in place in 1995 after considerable debate (and pressure from women’s groups and gun control advocates), has been unceremoniously scrapped. One of the perceived front-runners in the Liberal leadership race now contends that it was a failure, even though he previously voted for keeping it. Each year there’s fewer and smaller memorial services and recognition of the day, as it fades out of the collective memory and into a shadowy box labelled “History.” I’m not an advocate of dwelling on the past, but I think the massacre’s anniversary is an important touchstone in Canadian women’s history, and I’m concerned that that seems to be a minority opinion. There’s not a lot of touchstones in Canadian women’s history.

I am a woman, a physicist, and a feminist. I am exactly the sort of person that Lépine was trying to silence, so it’s important to me to take a moment to reflect both on how fortunate I am to live in a time and place where I can pursue a scientific career and an advanced degree, and on how much more work there is to be done to reduce gender inequality and drive out the ignorant attitudes and outright misogyny that allows attitudes like Lépine’s to flourish. Each year around this time there’s usually some dreck written (almost invariably by a man) about how Lépine was a lone madman, and there’s no cultural significance to the fact that he actively sought out women to murder and explicitly said that he was killing them because they were women (and assumed feminists), and right on cue, there’s an article that can only in the more generous of worlds be called drivel published in the National Post yesterday that does just that. I’m not linking to it (google it if you feel like spiking your blood pressure in anger), but the (male) author posits that the real victims are men, Conservatives, and anyone who is against the long gun registry. Apparently all three groups are “bitterly attacked” every year around the anniversary, and that’s totally more important than the fact that women face vastly disproportionate amounts of violence (domestic, sexual, physical, institutional, economic,…) every single day. If we ladies realized that we’ve bruised a few men’s egos and just stopped acknowledging that one of the most public acts of violence against women in Canadian history occurred, then everything would be peaches and sunshine!

Absolutely not. We need to drag misogyny out into the light, call it what it is, and work to dismantle it, not wring our collective hands about the dented egos of men who make every issue primarily about themselves. Dented egos do not trump institutionalized violence, and the fact that this sort of dreck can still be published in a national newspaper is indication enough that there is still considerable work to be done.

So every December 6th, regardless of how much work I have on my desk or have managed to clear off my desk, I sit down and do science. Thankfully, actions like Lépine’s are rare, but the attitude and cultural narrative that informed his actions is still pervasive, and women are still woefully underrepresented in STEM fields at all levels. It’s a small action, but it’s important to me that on a day where women were silenced for pursuing what was perceived by Lépine (and plenty of others) to be men’s rightful work, I continue to contribute my voice and my work to a similarly male-dominated field. I’m currently working on writing a paper for publication, and it’s the first paper I’m working on in my PhD. I don’t expect that scores of people will read it, but I’m proud that I can contribute to academic literature, and I’m proud to put my female name on my work. I’m fortunate that I can be a part of normalizing the presence of women and their contributions to science, so that hopefully, women and girls who follow me will have an easier path.

Memorial plaque commemorating the 14 murdered women: Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik Widajewicz.

Ada Lovelace Day: Teachers Are Important

It’s Ada Lovelace Day! October 16th is a day dedicated to women in science, technology, engineering, and math and their stories. Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer, writing algorithms for her friend Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, and is one of many too-often unsung female contributors to scientific fields. Many of the posts and discussions on Ada Lovelace day are about semi-famous or mostly obscure scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, but I want to write about some women a little closer to home: my high school teachers.

I was blessed with an array of really excellent math and science teachers (both male and female) all through high school, and while I suspect that I’d’ve ended up in science in some fashion regardless of my high school experience, those teachers helped me find my path in that direction. Lacking that support, I’d’ve probably found it eventually, but I’m not sure I’d’ve gone to university with the confidence and conviction that I was, in fact, in the right place for me; that self-assurance really helped me adjust to university life and flourish in my undergrad, even when things got stressful and difficult.

Not all my teachers were women, but those who were remain the clearer than most of the men in my memory, and made a larger imprint on my intellectual development than the male teaches did. I learned calculus from a tiny, very unassuming looking woman who could strike fear in the heart of any surly teenager who dared cross her, and I learned chemistry from a pair of outgoing, devil-may-care women who routinely flouted sense and featured explosions and dramatic chemical reactions in their classes. The three of them showed me that science and math was exciting, interesting, and accessible to me. Their enthusiasm for their subjects was palpable, and the encouraged their female students to stick with science and math; just the fact that they were there at the front of the classroom was proof that there was a place for women in science and math. I was fortunate to have male teachers who were also supportive, or at the the very least not discouraging to their female students, but hearing and seeing it from women, who’d lived the experience of being women in mostly-male fields, carried a lot more weight. Seeing them as successful teachers, respected by their departments and for the most part their students, showed me that you could be taken seriously as a woman in science. It’s one thing to hear someone say “you should stick with math, and there’s a place for you in the field,” but it’s another thing to see a women teaching math and chemistry, talking about their previous work experiences, and showing you it’s possible and within your grasp, even if you’re a woman.

When I was younger, I didn’t know much about the history of science, and I didn’t have much of a grasp of how women and their considerable contributions have been systematically erased from the annals of science. I didn’t have heroines (or heroes really, for that matter) to look up to to say “I want to be like Ada Lovelace, or Marie Curie, or Emily Noether, or Rosalind Franklin, or….” Maybe then, in the absence of knowledge of many more famous historical or contemporary women in science, the presence of women at the front of my classrooms took on a bit of extra importance. It’s certainly important to talk about the under-appreciated contributors to science, but there’s potential (and accessible!) role models for girls in classrooms, too.

There’s lots of organizations and groups that are working to normalize the place of women in science, but it seems sensible, given the namesake of the day, to suggest having a look at the Ada Initiative, which aims to get women involved in the open source and open access community (which is very heavily male, even by computer science standards). The full directory of Ada Lovelace Day posts is here, and includes posts from previous years, and is chock full of great reading material.