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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

A post about International Women's Day

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

08-03-2013 11:22 CST

Topics: personal stories

Today, March 8, is International Women's Day, a day that has its origins in nineteenth-century protests against inhumane working conditions in the garment industry. Nowadays, people around the world variously use the day either to honor women in their lives (not unlike Mother's day in the U.S.) or to highlight inequities that remain in working conditions, access to health care and education, personal security, and other issues.

I think that the latter goal is a good and important one but I'm not fond of the former. For me, celebrating me or any other woman today only serves to emphasize that to be a woman is still considered to be "other." It should not be exceptional that I am a woman in science; it should not be something worth celebrating. It should just be. The fact that it is still considered exceptional and something about which awareness needs to be raised with a special day is something I want to mourn, not celebrate. (For the record, I don't like Mother's Day either. Do nice things for your mom on other days, too, kids.)

So for International Women's Day I ask that people read this PNAS article about how "Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students," which got a lot of press last year, including this excellent writeup by Kenneth Chang. And have an honest conversation with yourself, whether you're male or female, about whether you would behave similarly to the people in the study. And then, rather than spending just one day recognizing the inequities that remain for women in science (or in general), I ask that you resolve to be conscious, not just today, but tomorrow, and for the rest of the year, of whatever biases you may have, and consciously act to counteract them.

We all prejudge others; to do so is as natural as breathing. I'm no less guilty of this than anybody else, and I don't notice myself being prejudicial as often as I wish I would. We're biased against people who don't look like us or who don't talk like us or who are less privileged than us or who make different life choices than us, where "us" is an ideal of the group we are in or want to belong to. I don't believe it's possible to make these biases go away completely, but I do believe it's possible to be conscious of them, and to work (and it is work) to prevent our biases from influencing everything from hiring decisions to the list of people you invite to speak at an event to what you say about other people's parenting decisions behind their backs.

If you think I'm a party pooper and do want to use today to celebrate women in science, then check out the SETI Institute's Twitter feed; they are posting lots of photos and brief Twitter profiles of women of space science doing awesome things today. And, as always, issues important to women in planetary science are discussed at the blog of the same name, where you'll find lots of profiles of awesome women in planetary science. In that spirit, here are my two favorite women of science being awesome:


The older of the two has a new theory about Saturn's rings that I think deserves some attention:

See other posts from March 2013


Or read more blog entries about: personal stories


Bob Ware: 03/08/2013 03:32 CST

Hi Everyone -- Emily makes valid points. Over the years from my first job to my telecomm years I have seen first hand of what she wrote. Finally in telecomm I saw this come to a change for the better with lots and lots of female engineers and tech., some of whom became my managers or leads. They also were friends and yes their boyfriends or spouses had a normal life with them after work. The stereotyping of female engineers and techs as some weirdo is not fair. Sure life isn't fair either but remember female engineers and techs are just normal humans like us males. I'm glad to see and have had my female friends make it high on the ladder of success without getting stereotyped as a weirdo of sorts. Emily's point of basically 'just accept as a norm and move on' is a great idea. We should. There is no reason not to.

Stanton Whitehead: 03/09/2013 02:22 CST

Great post! I would add other "Days" to this conversation. Its as if our holidays are a kind of societal absolution. I'll be kind and generous because its Christmas, but come Boxing Day its; "Look out suckah, that's my big screen!" Do they represent perverse incentives? Do we get less of what we are honouring? Would those two enthusiastic young scientists be so keen if they thought it was unusual or extraordinary for girls? Yet when "legitimate rape" and Malala Yousufzai are part of our lexicon, and even Sweden has a miserable record; where do we find the balance between positive action and negative incentives? Let's all help spread Emily's message and counter bias where ever we find it! p.s. The age of the ring structure is related to the number of ring sections. Brilliant!

Mr. Mallory : 03/09/2013 06:48 CST

Good food thought & great perception shown on Saturn's rings.

Stephen: 03/10/2013 03:32 CDT

When's the International Men's Day?

Charles Adams: 03/10/2013 09:56 CDT

I can't totally agree with your opine that, "It should not be exceptional that I am a woman in science; it should not be something worth celebrating. It should just be." Maybe some time in the future you will just be another rather than an other. I have experienced many women in the engineering field and I find that they look at problems and solutions from a different perspective than men and that has been a real complementary positive. We should celebrate them today so that my granddaughters can grow up to have an equal chance in the near future to just be another run-of-the-mill, humdrum, exceptional scientist like you. To quote a famous scientist from Vulcan, "Infinite diversity in infinite ways".

gilgit: 03/14/2013 12:55 CDT

I read a Chad Orzel post where he talks about how many articles on "women scientists" emphasize the "women" part at the expense of the science and then I remembered I never got around to posting a comment here. It will be nice when the day comes that no one bothers to note you're a "woman in science". I know I keep coming back here because you tend to provide different details than many other sites. Always worth stopping by. On the other hand... After my first visit, days later I was thinking about which science sites I might like to go back and read again and thought: I wonder if I can find that site with that picture of the pretty woman with reddish brown hair at the top... It's a big complicated world.

Emily Lakdawalla: 03/25/2013 05:19 CDT

gilgit: LOL on your final point. It is a big complicated world, and when you want to be a public persona you not only have to be comfortable with people commenting on your appearance but you also have to use your appearance to be memorable -- but this is a fact that's true of men as well as women and I have no problems with it. There's two other prominent public-persona redheads in my circles (namely Zach Wiener and Phil Plait), who use that trait as one tool to help them be remembered, much as I do. It's not clear to me who has it tougher: I can amplify my "memorability" by putting on makeup, while Phil can amplify his by polishing his balding head! Either way, appearance is a tool to increase prominence.

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