Women in STEM vs the Lone Genius

I guess this is kind of a late reaction to the black hole picture, and the fallout around Katie Bouman, and several articles I’ve been reading, and general frustration with perceptions of science/female scientists.

So: black hole picture announced, a picture surfaced of Katie Bouman excitedly watching her work unfold on screen, followed by a brief burst of praise for women in STEM, followed by backlash against her and the very idea that she had made an important contribution at all.

It’s the typical rise-and-fall these days for women in STEM fields, it seems. It absolutely has to do with the fact that women are still not consistently perceived as competitive in these fields. But intertwined into the never-ending, exhausting narrative of misogyny (exhausting that women still have to work so much harder to exist), is a fatal flaw of sorts in how science is understood by the public. For some reason, we are still attached to the idea of science being done by solo, lone-wolf-type geniuses. After all, when was the last time you saw a scientist portrayed in popular culture who was part of a big team of equally-talented people?

It’s a major problem, because if scientific advancements are accomplished by one individual alone, then those who are being perceived as less capable are even more easily written out of the narrative. It limits the scope of what a scientist could be to a model that honestly doesn’t exist (and if it does, it probably looks like an established white male researcher whose fame overshadows those that assist his work). And if you don’t see yourself as the brash, brave explorer revolutionizing the world with their discoveries, then it is just that much harder to make that decision to go into a field that’s not quite yet comfortable with embracing people of all backgrounds.

So what, you say? Why do we need to see ourselves to become a thing? Can’t we all just follow our dreams? That only works if you perceive your dream as even being a possibility. If becoming a physicist seems just as wild as say, adopting a unicorn, you’re probably not going to pursue it. And we could talk about all the intersectional barriers that prevent kids from being exposed to and prepared for careers of all kinds, but that’s a vast world of discussion that deserves more than a sentence or two here.

The reality is that science is incredibly collaborative. Yes, you’ve got somebody responsible for the lab, but they’re usually not the ones doing the experiments. That work is usually done by students, and sometimes those students have students too. And then you’ve sometimes got lab techs and lab managers, and people running specialized facilities and generally keeping things moving and getting people trained in new skills. There are collaborators – some you’ve met in person, some you haven’t – potentially all around the world. Conferences where you meet other people and learn about what they’re doing. The lab next door where you go when you need to borrow something or ask advice. All people with very specialized skills in some areas, and other areas where they are still learning, and everyone is essential for things to progress.

There’s no one person doing everything. That’s not to say individuals can’t do amazing things, or don’t deserve credit for their accomplishments. It’s just that nobody works in a vacuum. What seems to have happened this time is that a single individual (who totally deserves recognition of her work and is definitely a role model for women in STEM) was presented somewhat inaccurately as the lone face of a project, which exposed her to people waiting to strike against anyone who failed to match what that face is “supposed” to look like.

I guess I think it might be easier to address the horrible bias against women and others in STEM once we’ve changed how we think science is done. It’s sort of awful, in a way that our accomplishments might not be seen until they are watered down with acknowledgement of collaborators, but it does open a door to conversation. More positively, reframing the narrative as one of collaboration welcomes everyone, because there is room for everyone to contribute what they are able. I’m not quite sure how to accomplish this, especially from a non-influential position. All I know is that we humans are storytellers and the more of us tell stories that celebrate each other’s achievements and thank those who work with us, the farther that new narrative will spread.

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