One of the things my wife and I like to do over Thanksgiving is read magazines, especially unfamiliar ones. A few days before the holiday, we visit Borders or Barnes and Noble and buy a batch of magazines.
The October/November issue of Bust was among our haul. What had caught my eye in the magazine stand, besides the cover’s magenta logo and photo of Helen Mirren, was the line WE ♥ SCIENCE in the top left.
Bust‘s tagline is “for women with something to get off their chests,” but the issue was as much about celebrating women in science and their achievements as it was about airing their grievances.
The opening editorial from Debbie Stoller, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, set the tone. Before introducing feature articles on Antarctic science and the actor and pioneering cryptographer Hedy Lamar, Stoller described her own experiences as a graduate student scientist:
I spent the better part of four years inserting electrodes into the tiny neurons of leeches (true story). But at a certain point, I couldn’t take it anymore. I loved the science part—wondering about how our amazing brains work and trying to puzzle out an answer kept me endlessly fascinated. Instead, it was the daily grind that got to me.
Stoller switched fields from neuroscience to psychology. If she encountered any sexism during her science career, she didn’t say.
Evidence of overt discrimination was also missing, thankfully, from Trina Arpin’s article in the same issue. Arpin profiled several women scientists at various stages of their careers, including three students. One of the students, Sylvana Yelda, is pursuing a PhD in astronomy at UCLA under the guidance of Andrea Ghez. Despite having to write computer code—the equivalent of Stoller’s threading electrodes into leeches—Yelda was quoted as saying “I love what I do. I just really love astronomy.”
But two other students, the University of Connecticut’s Jayinta Banerjee and Sarah Lamb, recalled encountering sexist attitudes that caused them to switch from physics to other fields: Banerjee to biology, Lamb to engineering.
Both women told Arpin that they felt they had to worker harder than men did to prove themselves. If that wasn’t bad enough,
Lamb noticed that her male classmates, who had treated her as an equal when school started, began to emulate their professors’ gender bias. “Watching my class move through the physics program, freshman and sophomore years, we were the best of friends,” she says. But junior year, when the students began working more closely with physics professors on special projects, her male classmates changed. “It was like guys who had supported me turned into the mentors [they worked with],” adopting their professors’ tendencies to openly doubt her abilities and intellect.
Science in general and physics in particular will remain competitive—for the simple reason that telling a scientist not to work hard at something he or she loves, even when it entails tedious tasks, is usually futile.
But science in general and physics in particular don’t have to, and should not, remain hostile to women. The depressing thing about Banerjee’s and Lamb’s experiences is that they didn’t ask for or expect special treatment, just equal treatment.