Author: Kristina Lenn
Editors: Isabel Colon-Bernal, Jessica Cote, and Whit Froehlich
Being confronted with our own biases is a humbling experience. I hate to admit it, but for most of my life, even when I was in college, the images I had of scientists and engineers were typically of men. Growing up, the parochial school I attended taught us that men are supposed to be providers and women are supposed to be nurturers. According to my teachers and pastors, men are more logical and women are more emotional; therefore, men are more reliable for leadership roles. Popular culture at that time, which is unfortunately not very different from today’s, was full of references to dumb blonde women, women’s “excuse to be crazy” once a month, and men’s mistrust of “anything that bleeds for seven days and doesn’t die.”
Even though my parents found out what we were learning and worked overtime to try to undo the damage, I still didn’t flinch when I walked into my engineering courses to find myself one of a handful of women in the room. I had been saturated with the stigmas about women that society had been propagating, and I merely assumed that my desire to be a woman in engineering made me the exception to the rule. It certainly helped that my parents had helped me break away from the notion that men are naturally logical and women are naturally irrational; having such forward-thinking parents reinforced my notion that I was different from the norm. As it turns out, I was right. And that is a terribly sad reality.
In 1983, David Wade Chambers published his results from his “Draw-a-Scientist” study in which children of various primary school grades were simply asked to draw a scientist. Until recently, the image most children draw of a scientist is a white male; while that is starting to change and younger children draw an almost equal ratio of male and female scientists, most children in primary and middle school still draw a male scientist. Sadly, the stereotypical image of a scientist carries over into adulthood, reflecting a society that views scientific aspirations and the skills necessary to pursue them as inherently male.
Dr. Julie Des Jardins, a professor of history at Baruch College specializing in American gender throughout history, addresses this perpetuated stereotype in her book The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science. (This book is amazing, by the way!) She defines the Madame Curie Complex as the pervasive notion that in order for women to get ahead in science, they have to be smarter, work longer hours, and output more data than their male counterparts while fitting into both the stereotypical masculine mold of a scientist and society’s definition of femininity.
She writes, “The persistent presumption that women must be more devoted, more myopic, more talented than men is a sign that modern womanhood is still defined by traditional domesticity to some degree, and modern science still defined as its antithesis. As more women enter scientific institutions, we cannot be content with statistics alone. We must ensure that the presumptions made, questions asked, and ends sought in these institutions reflect a more egalitarian, depolarized culture than that which has characterized most twentieth-century science. Until then, the scientist conjured in the American mind will be male, and the woman scientist an oxymoron, one who suffers conspicuousness and invisibility at once.” (The Madame Curie Complex)
Essentially, one of history’s most successful women scientists has been pictured as one who became “one of the boys” in order to make it in a male-dominated field. It’s true that Marie Curie had all but pledged her undying devotion to her work and didn’t care for anything that interfered with it. She was not overly concerned about her appearance; she optimized her tasks so that she spent as little time away from her lab as possible and left much of the care of her two daughters to her father-in-law.
Her singular focus is what made her the famous Madame Curie, the first female winner of the Nobel Prize and the first person to ever win two Nobels in two different fields, physics and chemistry. (She is still the only woman to have accomplished that feat.) However, her method of scientific pursuit was extrapolated as the model for all women who wanted careers in science. Even then, the idea of a woman being able to handle scientific reasoning and use it to discover something groundbreaking was far-fetched to many, an idea that persists today, especially in mathematically-intensive fields.
Because of its strong dependence on mathematics, physics has traditionally been viewed as one of the most masculine of the scientific fields, an all-boys club in which women are unfit to participate. Unfortunately, that archaic viewpoint still seems to be prevalent, considering the number of accolades female physicists have received. In the last one hundred fifteen years since Marie Curie won her first Nobel Prize, only two other women have received Nobel Prizes in physics: Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1965 for her work on the nuclear shell model and Dr. Donna Strickland in 2018 for her work on the chirped pulse amplification. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another fifty-three years for another female physicist to become a Nobel prize winner.
While acknowledging the importance of recognizing Marie Curie and many other successful women for all their hard work and contributions to science and society, Dr. Des Jardins fears that lauding individual women, instead of women as a group, might be detrimental to the future of women in science.
“[Curie] was seen as the anti of women. Other women internalized it. Other women felt they couldn’t live up to the perfection that is her so they didn’t even try.”
“The problem is that tokenism ultimately never works in the service of women in the plural. When you find that rare exceptional woman, they’re always perceived as the rare exception. That’s what I fear. One of the things we always try to go against in terms of narrative is the ‘Great Man Narrative.’ It’s a very masculinist framework. When you apply that to women, it always creates this sort of tokenism that pushes the rest of the women down. Curie was lifted up and she deserved everything she worked for. But that was the Curie Complex. She was seen as the anti of women. Other women internalized it. Other women felt they couldn’t live up to the perfection that is her so they didn’t even try. The better service to women today is to trim her [Curie] down to human size.”
Marie Curie absolutely deserved her awards, and yet her husband Pierre had to come to her defense when the Nobel committee originally extended the award to him and Henri Becquerel, in spite of the fact that Marie had equally contributed to the work on radioactivity. People assumed she was simply Pierre’s assistant who did as she was told, someone who did the grunt work and not the creative work.
As Dr. Des Jardins describes this dichotomy, the public was similarly more apt to believe that women involved in science were useful for the “domestic” tasks such as organizing the lab, keeping it clean, crunching numbers dictated by the men, and performing secretarial duties. These were considered “feminine” tasks while the creative brainstorming, designing, and analyzing were considered “masculine.” This was not only because it was what society thought the respective genders should do but also because it was what they thought women and men were biologically programmed to do.
Dr. Des Jardins unfortunately was one of many women who didn’t pursue a career in science because she felt she wasn’t good enough at math, in spite of the fact that she really was good at the subject. “My husband is a physicist. I remember going to his lab; there were two women in the lab. [There were] jokes at their expense. What would compel a woman to pursue science in spite of all the subtle cues that you don’t belong here anyway?”
She also commented on the fact that with the growth of the female scientific population, science has become more open and collaborative, not to mention more accessible to the public. “Solitary discovery is a myth. Women have been told we’re good at socializing and doing things collaboratively. Let’s say that’s true. That’s actually how good science is done. [Science is a] very empirical, data-driven thing; but instinct is also important.”
In today’s world, this genderization of tasks is quite evident in academia. It’s true that a university’s primary function is to do research, and the tenure-track faculty members that are hired are expected to focus first and foremost on their research. To offset this, universities employ lecturers, many of whom also have doctorates but are required to solely focus on teaching. While this is an added bonus to the students, lecturers are typically paid less than research faculty and not offered tenure.
Innovative research has traditionally been viewed as a masculine pursuit, whereas teaching, with its allegedly strong nurturing (and therefore, maternal) component, has been seen as the obvious path for women. Women’s contributions to society are usually seen as “lesser than” a man’s, which is how the wage gap has persisted all this time. Sadly, it fits well within this pattern that the “feminine” field of teaching is not as well-rewarded as the “masculine” field of research.
“We can handle the science; but if you add in the discrimination… we’re going to get frustrated and discouraged.”
This serves as a cumulative causation cycle: women are discouraged from science, those who do enter science don’t receive equal compensation/accolades/opportunities, and they leave, strengthening the heinous idea that women just can’t handle scientific careers. We can handle the science; but if you add in the discrimination, the lower pay and benefits, and the outside onus of still having to be the primary caretakers of homes and children, we’re going to get frustrated and discouraged.
Marie Curie is a phenomenal woman not only because of her work as a scientist but also because of her legacy as a trailblazer. However, so many other women that are not as well-known but are equally capable should also be recognized for their abilities and contributions. Women like Rosalind Franklin, Lise Meitner, and Rita Levi-Montalcini (some of whom were cheated out of credit for their work or only belatedly received credit) should be likewise celebrated but also humanized. We need to develop the mentality that science itself is nondiscriminatory; it is open for everyone, not just people we deem to be superheroes. Scientists should be defined not by their gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation but by their hard work, persistence, and patience.
Kristina Lenn is a Physical Chemistry and Scientific Computing Ph.D. student in the Geva Lab where she is analyzing the quantum dynamics behind charge transport in photosynthetic reaction centers. She received her B.S. in chemical engineering from Wayne State University and her M.S. in chemical engineering from Cornell University. She spent three years as a lecturer at Wayne State before starting her Ph.D. at Michigan. When she is not busy doing research or writing her next post for MiSciWriters, she is working with the Museum of Natural History as a Science Communications Fellow, volunteering for STEM outreach events, reading as many books as possible, playing friendly games of chess, and writing for her own blog, Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak.
Read all posts by Kristina here.