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Reader Rants: Meeting Carl Sagan – GeekGoddess

Skeptic season is upon us! Right now, everyone I know and love is either on a pilgrimage to Minneapolis for Skepchicon, which starts tomorrow(!!!) or packing for TAM8.

Me? I’ll be sitting at home watching the action unfold, live, via Twitter… and sobbing into my breast pump. Just one more reason to never get pregnant ever again. The postpartum blues have never been harder.

Anyway, while every one of you heads off to Skeptic Mecca, I thought Naomi’s rant was especially relevant. No, none of you will be meeting Carl Sagan this July, but you will be meeting people who you admire and even strike your awe.

And on the eve of Skepchicon, this rant shows us how far we ladies have come. We still have a long way to go, but we’re well on our way.

Meeting Carl Sagan

By Naomi Baker

Actually, I did not meet the great man, but I did talk to him.

I knew about Carl Sagan from his TV series Cosmos, and owned the heavily illustrated companion book that was published in 1980. When his fiction novel Contact appeared in 1985, I immediately bought it. Although I viewed the novel itself as merely entertaining, I was captivated by a scene involving the heroine, Ellie Arroway, interacting with her colleagues:

She set out to broaden her education, to take mathematics, physics, and engineering. but there was a problem with her central interests. She found it difficult to discuss physics, much less debate it, with her predominantly male classmates. At first they paid a kind of selective inattention to her remarks. There would be a slight pause, and then they would go on as if she had not spoken. Occasionally they would acknowledge her remark, even praise it, and then again continue undeflected. She was reasonably sure her remarks were not entirely foolish, and did not wish to be ignored, much less ignored and patronized alternately. Part of it – but only a part – she knew was due to the softness of her voice. So she developed a physics voice, a professional voice: clean, competent, and many decibels above conversational…every time she found herself in a new group she would have to fight her way through again, just to dip her oar into the discussion. The boys were uniformly unaware even that there was a problem.

What has stuck in my memory is how accurately Sagan, a stereotypical privileged white male, captured the essence of experiences at that time of a female student, and later a female professional in a male-dominated field. Sagan might have been looking over my shoulder when he wrote this passage.

I used to spend quite a bit of time driving to field locations as part of my energy industry job. At the time, company cars were typically stripped down Ford LTDs with manual controls and an AM-only radio.  I frequently listened to a national talk show hosted by Michael Jackson (not the pop singer).  As I returned home one afternoon, Mr. Jackson announced his guests, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, who were promoting their new book Comet. I rushed home (no mobile phones in back then) and began calling the toll-free number.  I got through.

Although the guests were there to talk about Comet, I told Dr. Sagan that I was calling about Contact, and specifically how intrigued I was that he was able to capture so accurately how women had been treated in academia and industry. He credited his wife Druyan for his insight. He asked a bit about my college education and my profession, and the conversation ended.

I think today, having read so many of Sagan’s subsequent works like Demon Haunted World and Pale Blue Dot, I’d be a little bit more awestruck, but at the time I was talking to an author that I admired.  For some reason, I had completely forgotten about this until last week, when I cataloging my books.  I was telling a friend about this essay, and she commented “I was struck by one thing when I read that part you quoted in your blog.  That it is very possible that women will read Contact today and not have a clue what Sagan was talking about.  They will not be able to associate themselves with her character.  And Naomi, that is a good thing.”

Naomi Baker, aka GeekGoddess, founder of the Houston Skeptic Society, is a skeptic, engineer, directs a private energy company, and has two grown sons that also attend TAM every year. You can follow her at @goddessgeek on Twitter.

The Skepchick Reader Rants, posted every Wednesday at 3PM Eastern, is a feature where you, the Skepchick readers, get to tell the Skepchick community what you think about whatever you want!  To be considered, please submit an original rant, preferably unpublished anywhere else, to skepchick(at)skepchick(dot)org with the subject: My Rant.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. Sadly, Naomi, I think your friend was overly optimistic about the state of science today (especially physics). While things have improved dramatically for women in the hard sciences since the Contact era, I think the distance yet to be traveled is still the greater of the two. I doubt, frankly, that there will ever come a time when a certain degree of aggressive assertiveness is not required in order to be taken seriously as a scientist.

  2. Carl Sagan was my childhood idol and I still follow his example on how to be skeptical, how to criticise religion tactfully, how to express spirituality without decending into believing into woo, and making people love science, all at once. NO ONE seems to have measured up to that.

  3. That’s a great story Naomi. And I think an astute observation by your friend. I think women might still have a clue about what Sagan was saying, but given the progress, they might not feel as connected to it as you did back then.

  4. @SteveT: I hope you are wrong about doubting there will be a time when women don’t have to shout their idea out to be heard. In fact I think you are.
    While I am not in science I worked in Life Insurance for 11 years. Agents are mostly men. I don’t know the stats, but I would estimate 90%. The older generation of agent would not hear a word I said, despite being their best source of information, having been referred to me by someone, being told I was the expert. By degrees of age, it gets better. By the time all of the silent generation and baby boomers have retired, women will not experience what Sagan describes.

  5. I find what your friend said to be so exciting and encouraging. My daughter is 12 and already she just assumes that nothing can hold her back and takes it for grated that she is an equal to anyone.

    When some boys at her school tried to tell her that she didn’t know what she was talking about because she is a girl, she let into them and completely flummoxed them with her fierce defense of her equality, her wit and her intelligence. They were left speechless.

    I love this post because for two reasons. One, I’m a huge Carl Sagan fan, and two, because I am a huge promoter of woman in science and skepticism (and anything else they choose to do).

    I wrote in one of my recent posts on my blog, Freethinking For Dummies (yes, it’s a shameless plug!), about my daughter’s interest in zoology and our discussions of evolution, and now I’m going to have her read this entry to see what her thoughts are about the character Ellie’s experience.

  6. @primowalker

    Way cool. I’m a chemistry/chemical engineer. It didn’t occur to me that I would be treated any different, until I got in my math classes in high school and some of my engineering courses in college. And work….

  7. This was a great post. Carl Sagan was a hero of mine growing up and I can relate to Ellie’s experience in the book. Going through a bachelor’s and master’s degree in math in the 80s I was constantly encourage to switch into the math education degree for teaching because that is what women were supposed to do and it was easier. I was frequently the only female in my classes. Ultimately I think that only made me work harder.

  8. I love Sagan, and Arroway was a huge inspirational character not too long ago when I was switching my major around and feeling a little lost. Now I’m an undergraduate intern doing some molecular cloning (yeah, it’s pretty sweet).

    As to women in science, I often have to explain to my mentor that I do understand what he is talking about after he’s said something along the lines “but I think this is too advanced for you.” No dude, it’s not.

    Maybe it’s my age, or maybe it’s because I have tits, I haven’t figured it out yet. I’ll report back in about 10 years.

  9. One of my anthropology papers covered some of problems that women have interacting in a group situation, and one of the factors was that women have softer voices, and therefore have to fight that much harder to be heard in the group dynamic. Additionally, in male-dominated sectors, you very often get lots of loud shouting-down going on. In a perfect world, it would be great if women could say stuff and not have to shout to be heard, but I’m afraid, this will not be going away any time soon.

    I am hearing impaired, and this probably has some bearing on the volume of my voice (I am quite a loud person when I want to be), but I suspect that a larger part of my volume is having to compete with male voices in the industries that I’ve chosen (there are sweet buggerall women in my work environ).

  10. Unfortunately, I have to tell you, that paragraph still resonates with this particular female physics student. The only part of her story that I can’t identify with is the part where talking louder seems to help. Perhaps the volume and tonal quality of my voice is making it harder for me to be heard, both literally and figuratively. But that’s just one illustration of the obstacles facing women in science. And if my fellow (male) students are any indication, it’s not something that’s being naturally bred out of the population.

  11. I do not work in science, but I’ve had that exact same feeling in the Skeptics in the pub in my area. I’m one of the few women attendees and the only regular. I know how it feels to speak and have this happen:
    “There would be a slight pause, and then they would go on as if she had not spoken.” It makes me a bit insecure. I don’t know if this is happening because I’m a girl or because I’m saying something stupid. It also doesn’t help that I dress quite differently from the typical skeptics in the pub crowd. I don’t go in wearing designer clothes, but from the looks I get, you would think I got my outfit from the gossip girl costume department. The guys just don’t know how to relate to me.
    I really want to fit in, but I don’t think I should change my personal style to achieve that (let alone have a sex-change operation). Fortunately, I feel secure enough about my skeptic credentials not to let it bother me too much. I just try to be as friendly and relatable as possible. Still, it’s not nice that I consider them “my people” and they regard me as a creature of another planet.

  12. @primowalker: My 11-year-old daughter sounds similar, except she wants to be an astrophysicist and plans to set foot on Mars. She’s at a university-based science camp right now.

    The female voice/conversation style issue is an interesting one. During a short stint in the corporate ag biotech sector as one of two biologists in the IT department, the two of us were told that we were scaring other people with our interactions. I still don’t know if this was because we were two scientists who liked to challenge each other intellectually and IT dudes are the quiet type, or because we were two women carrying on aggressive discussions and IT dudes are the quiet type. Plus, we apparently frightened the admin support staff (read non-scientist, passive women with Candi’s shoes and painted nails, not that there is anything wrong with that). We were having discussions in a tone that is completely acceptable, and encouraged, within academia.

  13. At work the other day I was trying to make a rational argument and was told by my male supervisor that I was letting my emotions get in the way. I suspect that if a male had made the same argument, that wouldn’t have occurred. Maybe the tone of our voices has something to do with it. Maybe its just that men have the preconcieved notion that men are assertive and logical, and women are emotional.

  14. My daughter is an adorable petite blond teenager. And by the way, she’s absolutely Rockin’ her advanced placement math, science, and language classes.
    Her report cards are always so boring, just the same letter all the way down. I told her, can’t you at least try to spell a word?
    Career-wise, she’s thinking aerospace engineering. I tried to stear her towards, you know, girly stuff, like cashier or waitress. But no, she wants to be a rocket scientist. Kids today!

  15. I have never been accused of having a soft voice, so I’m not sure that’s been a problem for me. My very first supervisor, post graduation, told me not to expect to advance far because women were too emotional to be managers and not savvy enough to climb the technical track ladder*. I’m the technical director of an energy company, so go figure.

    Part of learning to deal with this doesn’t come only from changing perceptions, part of it comes from long years of experience and gaining some maturity. How I deal with people now is much different than when I was 25 and out to change the world. I likely had a bit of a chip on my shoulder because of my college experiences.

    *that company is now part of British Petroleum.

  16. @PretzelsAndBeer: I’m glad to hear this. Keep supporting her and possibly make sure she has a good dentist. She will probably end up doing a lot of teeth grinding.

    As someone that has gone through a science undergraduate and is currently in the process of getting a PhD in IT I have to say that this hasn’t changed all that much. Women in the sciences still need to speak more loudly and forcefully in order to be heard in serious discussions usually. And then you run the risk of coming across as a bitch or emotional. Really its a working bitch/doormat dichotomy that mirrors the virgin/whore one.

    However, I would say is that the one step we have made is that many young girls are being told at younger ages that they can achieve anything. Which hasn’t yet changed the culture but has made it more likely that the women will fight back to be heard and assert their rightful place.

  17. I’m a child of the 90s, but Sagan was also an idol of mine since I checked out Cosmos on VHS from the local library when I was about 12. It really fundamentally changed how I viewed the universe.

    I’m totally jealous that you got to talk to him. :D

    It’s good to hear that things are apparently better in the hard sciences. As a computer science major and now software engineer, my guess is that it would still be quite difficult for a woman in this field. If anything, probably more difficult then in the 80s when it had more women.

    Certainly a “a physics voice” would be very useful. When programmers talk to each other its typically quite argumentative. It is a valid way to work through difficult issues, but it is an ‘unfeminine’ form of communication. Though I don’t know really: I’ve never worked with a female as a peer, which (even if I’ve only worked for a few years) goes to show the problem!

  18. This is really interesting, and I think it shows that women still have a long way to go in trying to become equal with men. Sure, we may have legal equality, but less recognized is how we don’t have social equality. Some of it has been hinted at here: talking louder to be heard, having to fight for people to recognize your intelligence, dealing with being prejudged by unfair stereotypes, etc.

    It’s a hard, ugly road, and it’s going to take a long time for things to change. As usual, I think it’s going to take the younger generations to move up and replace the older generations to actually effect some real change. All we can do is keep at it, and don’t stop fighting.

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