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.
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.