Zombie Marie Curie speaks the truth

Last Friday, I dedicated at Friday Feminist Fuck Yeah to women in science, and from the looks of the comments section and my email inbox, we have a fair few scientists in the Feministing community. It was great to see so many of you sharing stories and advice about how to survive and thrive as a woman in a male-dominated field. XKCD has some advice about that, too. Well, XKCD and Zombie Marie Curie:

This cartoon is so spot on, and not just because Radium is in fact deadly. When there are so few women in a field, the pressure to be great is immense, not only because you feel the need to defy stereotypes about your gender’s inferiority, but because you feel the pressure of representing your entire gender. It’s a double-edged sword: any success is extra sweet, because it’s a victory for your whole gender. But any mistake you make will reflect poorly not just on you, but on all the lady scientists – or lady comedians, or lady jockeys, or whatever (and of course, the token experience applies not just to gender, but to race, ethnicity, class, gender identity, sexual preference and ability, and it gets even more complicated for people who live at the intersections of any of those minority identities).

That kind of pressure will make anyone a sorry role model. Miserable, and a sorry role model; you’re admired not necessarily because you were great, but because you were there. And to be fair, being there – being a woman and scientist at the turn of the century, for example – is sometimes an accomplishment in and of itself. Like Zombie Marie Curie says (I cannot believe I just typed that phrase), those Nobels aren’t decorative. But women and girls who want to look up to great women scientists should have a range of great women to choose from.

And Zombie Marie Curie is right about one other thing (yeah, I really did just type that, again): if the comments section on last Friday’s post, and my inbox, are anything to go by, you really are not alone. If you want to do this stuff – whether “this stuff” is physics, or Ultimate Fighting, or any other field in which you are historically underrepresented and still a minority – you are not alone.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted May 9, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    I recently graduated with a Bachelors-es of Science in both Information Systems and Computer Science. When there are only three females in the CS major and four in the IS major (including myself), representing the entire gender is something I’m very familiar with. From bullshit like “she only got in to school/that scholarship/that award because she’s a woman!” to defending an A on test that all the boys failed, it is infuriating. Finally, by graduating early with two degrees with a 3.5, finally, finally did they shut up. My professors would stick up for me whenever they overheard the jealous comments and that only made things worse. I had to establish that I was the smartest person in the room, and my Mensa membership card wasn’t enough. Now in the corporate world, it is a lot easier. Keep your chin up, and never, ever, ever let the bastards get you down, whomever those bastards be.

  2. Posted May 9, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    I LOVED this xkcd comic. Love love love love LOVE. Women especially have to play second fiddle to lesser men all the time. Yeah we aren’t always the best and the brightest, but even when we are many times our accomplishments historically and even contemporarily go unnoticed or – in my opinion worse – accredited to the nearest man.

    There have been so many times in martial arts or in science graduate courses or whatever where I have been the only woman in the room and so many times when I had to actually justify my presence there by citing smart women who have gone before as if their presence somehow validates or invalidates my own. I would much rather be JUST a scientist or JUST a martial artist rather than a woman scientist or fighter because … I wan’t my accomplisments to exist for their own sake rather than for mine.

    The other really sad thing is women in sciences get to be sorta like the token black friend. ‘I have one black friend so I’m clearly not racist’ is very similar to ‘well one of our PhDs is a girl so we’re presenting a diversified unbiased discussion.’ And that’s not accurate. If you only have one black friend you may have a problem and if there’s only one woman in a room full of ten or more people having an intellectual discussion, then it’s not representative and inherently biassed. Since all us sciency types try to be unbiased … that’s a huge problem right there.

    And then there’s the scary … most of the time this doesn’t happen but being the only woman in whatever it is does occassionally make one or two of the guys think it’s perfectly okay to assault you later. Don’t ask me for the logic, because it’s flawed and silly, but that has been my experience and the experience of many other women who dared to be the only woman in the room.

  3. Posted May 9, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    And Rosalind Franklin! It was her X-Ray diffraction images that unlocked the double-helix structure of DNA, but Watson and Crick (quite literally) stole her images, realized their importance and published on the results, getting the credit and the Nobel. She died before the prize was awarded, and the Nobel for Science is never posthumous (or wasn’t in that era), so mooting the issue of her contribution. Watson, meanwhile, turned out to be a screaming racist, but my friends told me years before his racist remarks became public about his public fat-hating remarks and he was pretty much a multi-axis asshole his whole life.

    • Posted May 9, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      YES A MILLION TIMES YES. That is one of the biggest things that I learned/annoyed me in science (though I was in bio sci/biochem/biotech/mol. bio strand of things, where women are represented more equally). Rosalind found the data/measurements that made building the model possible. Without data, you could’ve made DNA look like a buckyball, monkey bars, or anything else. You can speculate all you want – but that DATA is the only thing that matters. (Also, she found info on both A and B forms of DNA!)

      I really hate the hierarchy in science and that the grunt workers who are doing the data gathering often get little/no credit. Especially when you leave a lab and suddenly, you find your data published with no mention of you. And many ‘seasoned’ profs haven’t done bench work in years. And then you fight with them b/c you’ve actually been working hands on with the stuff, but what could you possibly know you lowly student? :(

      On top of all the scooping, politics and posturing, I mostly left because I was having real ethical issues with possibly going to work in industries that exploit nature and society (Monsanto), run skewed trials (big pharma) or whose big-shiny-science props up exploitative labour practices (agriculture and migrant workers). I really, REALLY miss doing science sometimes and I wonder what my life would be like now if I had been in a different lab, using different techniques or with a different project. I wish I hadn’t felt like science was such an individual pursuit, where you would get ‘good’ data if you just lived in the lab 24/7.

      My hat’s off to the ladies who have stayed and try to figure out the world and make it better :)

      • Posted May 10, 2011 at 2:03 am | Permalink

        Try to get into Neurology. There’s plenty of benchwork to be done, its – in my opinion – fun, its mostly female, and from my experience the doctors do their best to credit the lowliest of their lab workers. That’s where I got my first publication. I was doing lab work in a Neurology lab and just crunching numbers and my prof added me to her paper. If you miss it you should go back. There’s good science to be done devoid of getting big guns. (Please excuse the gratuitous Portal reference.)

  4. Posted May 9, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Also, nit to pick: the Ultimate Fighting Championship is only one promotion (read: league) in a sport called Mixed Martial Arts. It is the premier promotion, however, and it doesn’t yet have women. They say that’s because the talent pool for women is not very deep and there are not a lot of good women fighters. Whether that’s true and whether there should be a better pipeline — or whether fighting sports have a place at all, for anyone — is a separate discussion.

    • Posted May 10, 2011 at 1:58 am | Permalink

      I know, right?? There’s plenty of kickass women in martial arts. In fact adult women’s karate matches are a bloodsport. The men sorta trade punches and it’s all very fun and cool, but the women absolutely go for it. It puts the men to shame every single time. I’m small so one of my teachers would use me to prove that technique could overcome strength by pitting me against the biggest guys in the room. I took them down easily every time and I’m not anywhere near the best female martial artist I know. There’s a huge “talent pool” of female fighters who are not only spectacular but could go toe to toe with the male competitors any time. Ultimate Fighting is full of it. They’re not trying. They don’t really hold auditions for women but every dojo I’ve been to they’ve been to actively looking for male competitors. I used to watch that crap in the hopes that I’d eventually see a woman or one of my friends but … nothing. It’s not worth it. Not to get all sour grapes, but the guys they do have in it have meh technique.

      Honestly, the real issue is probably the insurance. There’s the whole issue of women’s bodies in the first place and then … women fight harder than men. There absolutely will be more and worse injuries. That said, if the boys can do it, why the hell can’t the girls?

      • Posted May 13, 2011 at 2:31 am | Permalink

        “There’s the whole issue of women’s bodies in the first place and then … women fight harder than men.”

        Not to go off track(yet doing so anyway…)

        But do you ever wonder if societal pressure for women to be “demure” and to not fight, lets us pent it all up until we do?

  5. Posted May 10, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Ugh, I had a college science class that required us to do a report on a scientist from a huge list provided by the prof, and Marie Curie was the ONLY woman on the list. When someone asked him about it (because of course the professor was a him!), he implied that Marie Curie was the only woman to ever break boundaries because all the other women (up through the 90s) were confined to the home. I’m tempted to send him this comic.

    • Posted May 13, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

      Yes Amanda!!! Please do send him the comic!

  6. Posted May 10, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this post. It inspired my feminist “click” moment. Thank you thank you thank you thank you.

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