Masculine Science v. Marie Curie

The persistent dearth of women scientists has been researched, contested and speculated upon in recent years, with study after study interpreting this paucity as born of bias, biology or some combination of both. But amid this understandable concern about why so few women succeed in science, another significant question is often neglected: how the few women who have succeeded managed to do so.

Fortunately, a new book out by the Feminist Press may help fill that gap: The Madame Curie Complex, by historian Julie Des Jardins, challenges the prevailing notion that interest and aptitude are enough to rectify gender disparity in science. As she illustrates through a dozen or so profiles of women scientists from Marie Curie onward, when passion and genius take a woman’s shape, the male-dominated scientific community puts her in her place.

It’s maddening to note that, even in the past 100 years, the breakthrough scientific work of extraordinary women has been willfully appropriated by or attributed to the men who shared their labs. Today, few people remember that the world’s most popular woman scientist, Marie Curie, was long dismissed by her contemporaries as little more than her husband’s assistant: Even her Nobel prize was contested by fellow scientists. Moreover, at roughly the same time, men astronomers at Harvard and MIT were publishing under their own names the groundbreaking research of their low-paid, less-educated women lab assistants. Decades later, molecular biologist Rosalind Franklin spent years meticulously uncovering the double helix structure of DNA, only to have her work usurped by 25-year-old James Watson, who won a Nobel prize for what was arguably her discovery.

How these women, some of whom Des Jardins makes a point of describing as professionally obliging and socially passive, managed to earn worldwide acclaim against such a misogynistic backdrop is especially curious. While genius and perseverance certainly played a role, their relationships to notable men (in particular, other Nobel laureates) may have played an even larger one. Des Jardins never makes the mistake of attributing the women’s successes to men, but her careful exploration of their personal and professional relationships certainly underscores the crucial importance of male allies in their struggle for gender equality. As she demonstrates in these intimate histories, the tenacity of women–in combination with the support of a few unbiased men–has fostered leaps in women’s progress.

The Madame Curie Complex only takes us into the 1970s, but more recent events reveal that science is still plagued by many of the same biases. For example, when former Harvard president Lawrence Summers opined five years ago that women’s under-representation in science could be chocked up to innate gender differences,  responses to his sexist comments exposed contemporary inequities within the scientific community. Most memorable of these retorts was an essay written by neurobiologist Ben Barres, who described the sexual discrimination he experienced when he was a woman:

As an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I was the only person in a large class of nearly all men to solve a hard maths problem, only to be told by the professor that my boyfriend must have solved it for me… I am still disappointed about the prestigious fellowship competition I later lost to a male contemporary when I was a PhD student, even though the Harvard dean who had read both applications assured me that my application was much stronger. … Shortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”

Today, popular focus on the absence of women in science obscures the challenges still faced by women scientists operating in what Des Jardins characterizes as a needlessly and adversely masculinized field. The Madame Curie Complex reminds us that in spite of our conventional equation of science with progress, the scientific community itself has yet to achieve objectivity.

THE MADAME CURIE COMPLEX
The Hidden History of Women in Science
By Julie Des Jardins
The Feminist Press
ISBN: 978-1-55861-613-40

ABOVE: Marie Curie in her laboratory. Photo courtesy of the Cornell University Library / CC BY 2.0

Comments

  1. Several books on Marie Curie have come out in the past few years, and it makes me wonder what has sparked the publishing industry’s interest in women and science. Will have to ponder this one…

  2. Dr. Barres’ experience and Larry Summers’ comments present a succinct summary of the challenges women still face in the field of science. Thank you Julie Des Jardins and the Feminist Press for this important book.

  3. H Covitz says:

    As one who has been passionate about the history of science lifelong, I feel anguish about how my daughters will or will not thrive as science continues to be more and more crucial to our world. Science, as a profession, certainly has more than one chauvinism to contend with (overdone fixation on math precludes most of the population, for example). I have been keenly aware of the dearth of female scientist role models and cringe at how after all these years, Marie Curie is often the best teachers come up with.

    Anyway, thank you for bringing this book to my attention.

  4. Fellow lady scientists and scientists-to-be, here are a few tips:

    1. Choice of honours, graduate, and post-doc advisers/supervisors: Often the ranks of potential supervisors will hold many more men than women. This is not necessarily a huge problem, because many men can be good allies. While some male supervisors will be horribly prejudiced, perhaps without even knowing it, others will totally support you. If you talk to other women who he’s supervised before and they say he was totally supportive, that’s a good sign. Another thing to look for is what his wife does for a living. If she also has a high-ranking career, it’s less likely that he has a general tendency to underestimate women.

    2. Fighting the urge towards self-deprecation: It’s not your fault that you sometimes understimate your abilities or sell yourself short – the media and much of society have been telling you to do so your whole life. Luckily, you definitely can learn to overcome it. a) In manuscript revisions, never change your whole story just to make the reviewers happy. They haven’t put nearly as much time into thinking about the work as you have, so trust your opinions. Make just enough minor changes to let the reviewers know that you paid attention to them. b) In meetings & public speaking situations, if you feel awkward about having attention on you, one trick is to think of it as singing the praises of awesome data / awesome research questions rather than singing your own praises. c) When asking for reference letters and interviewing for positions, gather your willpower and force yourself to sing your own praises, because that’s what your competition is doing. d) In general, don’t be shy about saying what you’d like to do and asking for what you need. Asking sometimes pays off, which is more than you’d get if you didn’t ask.

    3. Get used to prioritizing and saying no (which is, of course, part of prioritizing). A handy trick to saying no is to emphasize the importance of the things you have to do first before getting to the requested task. Chances are, they’ll ask someone else rather than wait for you. If they need your intellectual expertise for something they’ll be able to take credit for, it can also help to point them in the direction of a manual they could use to learn how to do the task themselves, and to point out that there are not quick answers and that you learned the skill by putting in the hours.

    4. You’re more talented than you think you are. Yes, I mean you. The more you accept that, the more likely you’ll be to reach your full potential. Hold on to your most supportive friends. They’ll help when the arrogant jerks try to make themselves feel big by trying to push you down. Let your obsessive curiosity drive you. You’ll make it past the speedbumps everyone hits if you just never ever quit.

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