From Siberia to NASA: Confronting Sexism in Science

Philip Ball on A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman by Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Space science is a long game. NASA’s Psyche mission, which aims to send a small spacecraft to the metal-rich asteroid Psyche 280 million miles away to explore its composition and origins, was approved in 2017 as part of the US space agency’s Discovery Program of low-cost, high-value planetary missions. The plan was to launch it this year. But testing the systems on the $900m, Smart Car-sized spacecraft has taken longer than hoped, and the launch window of 2022 has now passed. Because of the relative orbital positions of Earth and Psyche, a delay until 2023 or 2024 means that the mission would arrive at its destination not in 2026, as previously hoped, but in either 2029 or 2030.

That’s not an easy prospect for the mission’s principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University. When project schedules are measured in decades, senior scientists have to wonder if they’ll still be around to see them come to fruition. Elkins-Tanton will be at retirement age when Psyche meets Psyche – but given the enormous personal and team effort, described in A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman, needed to make the mission happen at all, it’s hard to imagine that she won’t stick around as head of this ground-breaking enterprise. 

The book is, however, no ordinary account of a life in science. Elkins-Tanton’s memoir joins a small group that is reconfiguring the way science is presented and framed: not as a triumphant march of discovery but as an intimate journey in which researchers navigate their own dilemmas, struggles and traumas at the same time as they try to expand our knowledge of the physical world. These accounts are frank about professional and personal vulnerabilities, about doubts and setbacks and the difficulties of family life, friendships and rivalries. They are acutely human, challenging the heroic image that has dominated scientific autobiography for so long.

It’s probably no surprise that these memoirs have come from female scientists. Cosmologist Janna Levin’s 2002 book How the Universe Got its Spots stood out from most accounts of contemporary cosmology for its self-reflective, confessional style; paleobiologist Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (2016) was almost novelistic in its account of personal relationships, its honesty about the travails of grant applications and funding anxieties, of sexism in science, and of the author’s own struggles with mental health.

Elkins-Tanton’s book is equally raw, recounting the shocking childhood traumas that both she and some colleagues have experienced. Anyone who has attended to the issue will be depressingly unsurprised at the level of sexism and even misogyny she describes during her life in science. But one of the great virtues of A Portrait is its dissection of how deep-seated, normalized, and undermining to women these attitudes really are. For all the noble statements by scientific societies and institutions, and their efforts to redress gender imbalances and inequalities, the problem remains a blight on science that even now some seek to minimize or dismiss.

For Elkins-Tanton, as still for many women today, these challenges began from the outset. As an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s, she says, “all of us women were told at one point or another that we were at MIT on sufferance, that we were not really good enough.” Things have changed a little since then, she adds, “but the sense of the scientific community as a male domain is still strong.”

Sometimes this sense is reinforced by major issues, such as sexual harassment and bullying. Elkins-Tanton describes a recent episode when she was a department director at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, in which the authorities failed to take action against a male colleague who was bullying staff and harassing female members. “The experience”, she writes, “sharpened my appreciation for the headwind women and people of color are walking against all the time”.

That is a ubiquitous problem, and not just in American professional culture. But in science the problem is made more acute by several factors. The idea that science is meritocratic and “value-free” can be used as a smokescreen to avoid confronting the issue; but perhaps worse, a blind eye is repeatedly turned to individuals who are perceived as high achievers or geniuses, and whose abuses are excused as eccentricity or outspokenness. There is a sense, strongly evident in the Carnegie episode, that authorities find it embarrassing or unseemly to have to challenge scientific luminaries for personal misdemeanours.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton. A Portrait of the Scientist as A Young Woman. Harper Collins. pp.272. Hardback. $29.00.

More often, however, a significant obstacle for women in science is the constant stream of microaggressions and undermining comments or actions. Elkins-Tanton experienced many during field trips into Siberia to study the “flood basalts” that poured out of the deep Earth 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian period, which she and her colleagues showed to have altered the composition of the atmosphere sufficiently to cause mass extinctions of life through ozone depletion and the emission of greenhouse gases. This chapter is a highlight of the book – a tale of intrepid adventure to one of the most remote regions of the planet, tinged with real danger, in search of tell-tale geological samples holding frozen clues to this catastrophic natural event. Yet, despite her considerable scientific experience, Elkins-Tanton felt constantly marginalized by male colleagues. Her Russian collaborators “seemingly were not used to women in scientific leadership and many were uncomfortable with it.” But the Americans too evinced a reluctance to let her chisel out samples. “Why was the fact of my being smaller and less strong than most of my Russian and American male colleagues a constant tiny undertone of discontent, and even sometimes voiced as a burden to the team?” she asks. Of course, one role she was always welcome to undertake was to cook. “But I didn’t want to cook.”

Time and again, even from people close to her such as her father and uncle, she encountered blank disbelief that a woman, even in a senior academic position, could truly be an expert or a leader. The result – as many female academics will attest – is not just frustration or anger, but self-doubt. Female scientists are of course no more likely to be mistaken in their ideas than their male colleagues, but are typically more ready to think they might be. They are less likely to ask questions in seminars, less likely to be cited in the literature and to receive credit for their contributions to research. They, like many people of color, are made to feel a constant pressure to justify their position, while being systematically denied equal reward for their work.

But A Portrait does much more than simply call out this problem, important though that is. The book presents a vital challenge to the entire culture and practice of scientific research. Whether or not one wants to consider this a “female perspective” is beside the point: the problems that Elkins-Tanton identifies are problems for everyone, and are genuinely hindering the scientific enterprise. “I have watched graduate students, particularly men, learn the practice of harsh contradiction instead of discussion, and I’ve watched them begin to practice it on each other, and on female faculty”, she writes. “This practice does not indicate the depth of the person’s knowledge but is instead a mark of the senior academic… it’s a way of saying, I am master of my field.”

Some scientists defend and even revel in this approach: you have to be tough and smart to survive in this rarefied intellectual climate, they proclaim. But this is dangerous nonsense; as Elkins-Tanton says, it “does not lead to best learning and discovery.” It goes hand in hand with the common idea that career advancement hinges on showing an unwavering dedication to research – at the expense not just of a personal life but of outreach and public writing, of team-building, leadership and interpersonal skills, and sometimes of decent behavior to peers and students. 

There are of course some who thrive in that environment. But there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that they are the best minds. “A highly specified, punitive training environment encourages performers who do exactly as they are told, do not stop and think too much, and do not offer new behaviors and ideas,” Elkins-Tanton writes.  For here is the blunt truth: addressing the most difficult intellectual problems (and not just in science) needs discussion, collaboration, and diversity of views. Elkins-Tanton describes a program she has developed at Arizona State University to help students frame, and then evaluate and refine, better research questions. It requires a different approach to the way “senior scientists commonly school younger scientists with flat statements rather than nuanced explanations with support and reasoning.” It demands that they renounce the canonical “hero” model of the successful scientist.

A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman is, then, not only an engaging and sometimes moving personal account of a life in science, but something of a manifesto for how to do science better and how to produce better scientists. Putting these ideas into practice will require deep institutional and attitudinal change. But if science wants to present itself as a better alternative to the polarizing, fact-free tribalism of much public and political discourse today, it would do well to heed this wise advice.

Philip Ball is a scientist, writer, and a former Editor at the journal Nature. He has won numerous awards and has published more than twenty-five books, most recently The Book of Minds: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings, From Animals to Aliens, The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination and The Beauty of Chemistry: Art, Wonder, and Science. He writes on science for many magazines and journals internationally and is the contributing editor for Science at the Marginalia Review of Books. Tweets @philipcball