Gender and the Study of Scientists at Sea

I started watching this 2012 UK documentary series a couple of nights a go, Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey. It was an interesting look at the Earth’s orbit as well as extreme weather patterns. I especially enjoyed seeing a science show hosted by women. Co-presenter Dr Helen Czerski discussed science with great passion. Reading more about Czerski’s research led to other interesting projects about women in science, science education and social scientists who study other scientists at sea. 

Imagining scientists

Czerski is a physicist and oceanographer. In an interview she says:

“I don’t mind [doing] interviews if they make female scientists more visible. Give a six-year-old a pencil and ask them to draw a scientist, the result will be male, elderly and look like Einstein with crazy hair. Women scientists are like unicorns. Too many people have never seen one and so don’t believe they exist.” 

Czerski’s website links to Science Grrl, a great not-for-profit organisation featuring women scientists. Their blog provides a woman scientist perspective on science news. Check out Professor of Cognitive Imaging, Georgina Rippon’s post on “neurotrash.” She eviscerated the latest media frenzy over a flawed piece of research that argues men and women’s brains are “wired” to be different. Sadly for sexist science, this isn’t the case. Rippon writes:

if we could fully understand the structural differences [between men and women’s brains], does this tell us anything about how these connections could be used? No. For me, the scientists’ biggest error is the massive leap from structure to function – this really is a cardinal sin in cognitive neuroscience circles. Before interpreting their findings in these terms, the scientists should have asked themselves the following questions:

Is bigger better? Are more connections better than fewer? Does this technique allow a direct measure of the relationship between structure and function?

The fact that the media reproduces sexist science is a problem for science in general. It perpetuates the myth that girls aren’t suited to do certain types of activities and therefore certain types of knowledge. Hence the barriers that women face in STEM. On the plus side, it’s heartening that qualified scientists speak out and critique this science. 

Science Grrl has developed Sound Science a set of audio shows to teach science to children in the UK. Having the science presented by women is such a powerful way to change the way children perceive scientists. 

Studying scientists

Czerski’s blog has an engaging way of documenting her field work at sea and there’s some excellent photos of the scientific process (see my post on the importance of visual science). I was envious when reading Czerski’s blog that there’s already a social scientist on board studying the other scientists’ interaction. This has been my not-so-secret ethnographic dream since I was young. 

When I was in Grade 6 or 7, I watched a documentary on scientists taking ice samples to measure the Earth’s changing climate. One of the women scientists kept a video journal. Over the course of time she became more upset with herself that her appearance started to bother her like never before. The fact that her face was always sunburnt from the sun’s glare on the ice annoyed her. The fact that her clothes were practical and had no shape irritated her, even though she knew their warmth was essential. I will never forget seeing her cry over the fact that she couldn’t wear lipstick even though she rarely wore lipstick in her everyday life. These aspects of her femininity that had never mattered before suddenly made her feel like she was losing her sense of self. 

Context matters: while this scientist appeared to be upset because of gender issues, other factors would have likely played a role. Being socially isolated from friends and family, as well as the disruption to her usual routine and social life. Being confined to the same space for months on end with never-ending sunlight.

Still, even in the absence of gender cues, gender mattered. Anthropologist Richard Jenkins has described beautifully the social science of social identities. No all identities matter to everyone at any given time; it depends upon the social context. Identities like gender and ethnicity will not matter to some people unless people decide they need to differentiate themselves from others. Social identities are relational. They depend upon social interaction. In this case, this particular woman scientist who took her gender identity for granted at home suddenly felt its loss because the visual cues in her new environment did not differentiate her from the other scientists with whom she worked.

I was not so eloquent of course as back then, as I was not yet a sociologist. Still, I wondered about the diverse experiences that other scientists would have from different genders and backgrounds. I was intrigued by the idea of social norms. How might cultural norms impact the interaction of scientists when they are in the field for such long periods? These international crews bring lots of different scientists together from different societies. How might their ideas of culture, gender and science influence their collaboration?

Over the years, I have regularly jumped on the Australian Antarctic Division website hoping they might one day ask for a sociologist to come study the intercultural interactions of their multidisciplinary teams… So imagine my surprise when I read Czerski’s blog:

‘There’s an anthropologist on the ship, studying how scientists get science done. One of the questions she has asked almost everyone is “is working on a ship like you thought it would be?”. Everyone has the same answer: society romanticises this life, and the reality is much more prosaic.’ 

Czerski also answers a question that holds great sociological interest for me: “How do scientists do science at sea?” With some home comforts (Trivial Pursuit and Oxford Encyclopaedia of Astronomy flying past them), battling through lack of sleep and unexpected weather. All worth collecting massive amounts of exciting data!