Science is Missing Out

In a society where sexism is so deeply ingrained in our culture, a lot of it goes by undetected and unchecked. Today I watched the 8th episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. The show is excellent, don’t get me wrong, and this episode titled “Sisters of the Sun” covers the discovery of the chemical composition of the sun and other stars, a fascinating topic. Especially to me as a physicist with a special place in her heart for astrophysics.

In this episode we meet the brilliant astrophysicist Cecilia Payne. She was the one who discovered that the sun is mainly made up of hydrogen and helium, something that ran counter to the conventional wisdom of her time. Neil deGrasse Tyson describes her 1925 Ph.D. thesis as one of the most brilliant theses in the history of astrophysics; although it did take 20 years before her discovery was recognised. In a series where the focus on men is dominating, which given the history of sexism in science and education isn’t at all surprising, it is very refreshing to have an episode where the main characters are women.

Despite this Fox decides to describe the episode in this way, and this description follows the episode all over the internet:

Discover the remarkable story of Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne, two incredible women who challenged conventional wisdom and uncovered the real-life story of the stars. Cannon led a group of female astronomers in the early 20th century to catalogue the spectral characters of stars, and two decades later, young British beauty Payne joined forces with Cannon to analyze the data and uncover the chemical compositions of the stars.

First of all, they were astronomers. You never hear anyone refer to astronomers as “male astronomers”, so why the need to use the phrase “female astronomers”? The text already states that these were women. There is never any need to specify a gender with a profession whether it is “male nurse” or “female astronomer”. It’s a red flag signalling that whoever wrote the text believes this is a profession best suited for one specific gender. An astronomer is an astronomer regardless of gender, and so is a nurse, airline pilot, or whatever other profession who traditionally have been subject to strict gender roles and stereotyping.

In addition, they just had to make a comment about Payne’s looks. A “British beauty”. The piece of information is not only utterly irrelevant to the story, looks is also a common distraction used about women who stand out. The old stereotype that smart girls are ugly and pretty girls are dumb is so ingrained that a smart and pretty woman is exceptional enough that it simply must be commented on.

As revealed in this episode of Cosmos, Payne left England because she, as a woman, was not allowed to receive a degree in science even though she completed her education at Cambridge. Being brilliant was irrelevant if you were a woman, and even today in our society this comes at best as a second to your looks in the eyes of the public. That folks, is institutional sexism.

How many discoveries and how many brilliant scientists haven’t the world missed out on because of sexism? Payne was brilliant in her own right, but we only know of her because she was so brilliant that even the men of her scientific field noticed her. The amount of brilliance needed to overshadow male privilege in the fields of physics and astrophysics is well illustrated by the fact that in over 110 years, and 196 Nobel Prizes awarded, only two have been given to women.

Added later:
So why do we still think it’s so exceptional that women can do this that we need to state multiple times that the person in question was a woman, and also manage to talk about her looks instead of her more relevant battle against sexism? When I tell people what I do, women without exception tell me they could never do that, and many follow up by asking me how many other women work with what I do. The fact that the majority of the Ph.D. candidates at my department are women always surprises them. I don’t blame them for asking, but I blame gender stereotyping for the need to even ask.

Even if things are changing within the field it is still assumed by society that this is a men’s profession. That obviously affects how many women prepare for a career in the sciences and how many choose to apply in the first place. It is still true that a woman needs to work extra hard to catch up to the head start male privilege gives the men. More and more do, and as they do, that head start shrinks a little, but it is still very much there. The steps on the academic ladder gets harder and harder to climb as a woman the higher up you get.

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  1. I think a lot of it is white + male = “normal” and anything else = “deviant”. Standard in-group/out-group bullshit.

    And of course, Fox feels the need to point out every woman’s appearance. How many times have right-wingers flamed Elena Kagan’s appearance? Never mind all that’s relevant to being a judge or a scientist is your mind.

  2. It seems to me like the fact that Cannon lead an all female group is entirely relevant here. I don’t see where the fact that the group Cannon lead was all women elsewhere in the text. And it seems like an all women group, such as the Harvard Computers, existing in this time frame is fairly worthy of note. The fact that a woman, leading a team of women, redesigned the entire catalog system of astronomical bodies is the sort of thing we should point out when highlighting women’s contributions to science.

    Specifying someone as beautiful is way out of line though.

    1. There is a lot of ways to point out that without modifying the profession by adding “female”. If they actually wanted to get that point across they could simply have said she led a group of women doing calculations for the project. It is perfectly possible to say in a way that doesn’t make you sound like a Ferengi. The “British beauty” comment only adds to that impression.

      The person who wrote this probably had no idea what message they weaved into this. That’s what institutional sexism is. If it was just the language used it would be one thing, but this is just a symptom of a much bigger problem with these fields of science. That is the point I’m making here, not just to challenge problematic language.

  3. As I recall the “group of female astronomers” were hired to do repetitive hack work, somewhat like a steno pool. No analysis was asked for or expected. To me this makes the achievement even more impressive.

    Veronica says “it is very refreshing to have an episode where the main characters are women.” I agree. But then:
    “There is never any need to specify a gender with a profession It’s a red flag signalling that whoever wrote the text believes this is a profession best suited for one specific gender.”

    I would agree if this was a contemporary story, but not in a historical piece where there were, as you say, “strict gender roles and stereotyping” One could also argue that there are still strict gender roles (or at least imbalance) today and so to specify a gender could still be relevant. I don’t see that this recognition is necessarily an endorsement of that imbalance, it could be the exact opposite.

    So, in short, how are we supposed to know from this blurb that the main characters were women and that this is a story of interest? How could it be rewritten briefly in a less problematic way?

    1. The simple solution is to remove “female” in front of “astronomers” and to remove “British beauty”. That is in fact exactly what I did in one TV database where the text was editable and this blurb was used.

      According to the episode these women were computers (the original meaning of the word), a repetitive job usually performed by women. In any case I don’t follow your argument here, and there is no sign that this blurb is a critique of the gender roles. The language used is exactly what you expect from someone who is used to think of astronomy as a male profession and who thinks a woman’s looks is the first thing we need to know about her.

      I still fail to see why any of this is relevant information to the story. The fact that people feel it is natural to point out someone’s gender when they are a woman, but not when they are a man, is a symptom of the underlying sexism in the field. It is pretty obvious that they were women. The information is redundant.

    2. Also: The first sentences state that these were women, which is also apparent from the names. The titles also indicates as much. In total their gender is stated three times, and ultimately when Payne’s story is referenced it is not her struggle against sexism in academia, but her looks that are mentioned. In the episode itself her struggles are discussed, not her looks. There is absolutely no justification for any of this. It is, as I said, a symptom of the underlying sexism. The phrase “two incredible women” is more than enough to get the point across. The rest is redundant.

      In any case, I added another two paragraphs that pulls the whole piece more into current issues. My intention was not to just criticise the blurb, but to use it as an example of how this is still a problem. The blurb was after all not written in 1925, but in 2014.

      1. The first sentences (and title) indicate that Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne are women. It does not indicate that the rest of the computers were also women. Saying that Cannon lead a group of female astronomers does not repeat the fact that Cannon was a woman, it makes no statement on her gender. You don’t have to be a woman to lead a group of women. You don’t even technically have to be an astronomer to lead astronomers, you just probably won’t do a good job. It makes a statement of the gender of the people she was leading. Unless I’m missing something, that is not specified anywhere else.

        I know your point is that it’s a symptom of a bigger problem, but if seems to be like it’s just describing the episode. The episode is trying to put a spotlight on women’s contribution to science, so it seems relevant to me to indicate that the computers were also women. Even if it’s not trying to make a statement, even if the author is clueless, that bit seems to just be… describing the episode, which is exactly what it was written to do.

        1. There is no such thing as “female astronomers” there is no such thing as “male astronomers”. There is just astronomers. If it was that important to point out this group was all women (and that in itself is problematic as it serves no purpose) then there are better ways of doing that without playing into gender stereotypes. Given the reference to her looks instead of her struggle against sexism in academia, it is pretty clear that the gender focus in this blurb is entirely misplaced. This does not help. It perpetuates harmful stereotypes.

          1. “There is no such thing as “female astronomers” there is no such thing as “male astronomers”. There is just astronomers.”

            I don’t agree that using this kind of phrasing perpetuates stereotypes and it’s the part of your piece I find the most puzzling. I did read your suggested alternative phrasing in a post above, but I really don’t understand why, in a blurb about an event in the early 20th century, using the phrase “female astronomers” serves to perpetuate stereotypes. Astronomers who were men WERE the norm back then, because women were not given ample opportunity to overcome that barrier, and in many instances flat out sabotaged in their attempts. So the fact that a group of women astronomers did contribute such fundamental information to our astronomical knowledge, at that particular point in time, should be stressed.

          2. There’s a fine line between remembering the women who did great things despite all the bullshit they had to deal with and an exaggerated focus on their gendet which is just perpetuating the idea that it somehow is exceptional that women can even do this.

            As I’ve repeatedly tried to explain, and the lot of you repeatedly miss: It is ok to to point out, within reason, that this were a group of women, although three times in one blurb is far to many times, but it is not ok to use terms like “female astronomer”. If you think you have to modify the name of the profession to distinguish between marked and unmarked genders, you’re not helping. “Female astronomer” is marked, while “male astronomer” is not and is always just referred to as “astronomers”. This concept and this distinction is not that hard to grasp. And it does make a huge difference whether language we choose to use perpetuates gender stereotypes or not.

            This is not a unique case. This is how women are nearly always described in such a context. It is a symptom of the underlying problem of how we see women in such professions.

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