The Ravishing of Jill Galt
By Elizabeth Hwang-Wong
In retrospect, I must have aspired to be a scientist before I was even aware of it. As a child, I remember staring in awe at reproduction lithographs of famous people and descriptions of their work. Inevitably, the pictures and stories I chose to clip out of magazines or newspapers all seemed to be science-themed. A sepia-tinted replica of Metchnikoff’s drawings of phagocytes made the treasure pile, along with an austere shot of his solemn, bearded profile. Ramon y Cajal’s precise networks of neurons also made the cut, although his portrait was nowhere to be found. The now famous Eisenhower-era photo of Rosalind Franklin, with her chin lightly resting atop bent fingers, accompanied a brief sketch of her contribution to solving the structure of DNA. A retrospective on Ernst and Berta Scharrer made the treasure pile in its entirety, describing their work on neurosecretion using cockroaches as their model system. This included a black and white image of the husband and wife sitting back to back in a field of daisies.
Over the years, some of these treasures grew more frayed than others. I recently wondered what unifying theme bonded these often revisited heroes and heroines. Their subjects of study ranged widely from basic science tenets to highly specialized niches. So what, then, was it that so fascinated me with these few? The realization struck, like a cartoon lightbulb or Newton’s apple.
All of them dealt with adversity, rooted in their membership to some kind of marginal group.
Who is Jill Galt?
The adjectives describing these margin types compose a vast array of venn circles to include (or exclude) so many of the scientists in that treasure pile. Religion formed the basis for some, while nationality (or ex-patriot status) another. The two largest and most disparate were race and gender, unsurprisingly. Contemplating these classifications, I applied them to my nearest scientific microcosm – my graduate class. With only two margin types, every person was defined as an outsider. Any of my contemporaries could guess the largest cohort type – most of our class is female. Could we then consider the females of our class as the body of the page, and the males as the margin? Upon contemplating these well-worn treasures, a socially optimistic friend pointed out years earlier, “These scientists lived back then. Things were different, they are better now.” Could this margin definition be inapplicable to our modern, more liberal society?
“She did not know the nature of her loneliness. The only words that named it were: This is not the world I expected”
For many years, I held to the halcyon hope that the status quo was similar to what said friend described. Sure, there were outliers – we could probably all name at least one blatantly sexist scientist, infamous or not. The outcry against these obvious offenders suggested these sentiments were rare. Even still, a nagging whisper lodged in my peripheral consciousness. Were things really egalitarian in the state of Denmark? As scientists, hard evidence won by rigorous experimentation supporting or negating a theory is what we value. When these thoughts were furthest from my mind, I came across a half-page blurb in the December 2012 version of Nature’s Ten, which highlights major contributions made by scientists in the previous year. It drew a neon sign around the Handelsman lab’s study on subtle gender biases amongst science faculty.
My initial reaction included a simultaneous sense of gratification and chagrin. The experiments were admirably designed. Faculty scientists from several universities were asked to evaluate applications from a student given multiple criteria, in a double-blind fashion. The application given to each faculty member was exactly the same, with the only variant being the gender of the applicant. The chagrin stemmed from the results – faculty consistently rated the females lower in assessments of competence and hireability. They also were less willing to mentor the female applicants, and offered them consistently lower salaries. The salt in the wound – both male and female faculty propagated this bias.
“I started my life with a single absolute: that the world was mine to shape in the image of my highest values and never to be given up to a lesser standard, no matter how long or hard the struggle”
So what does this mean for female scientists? Will we all remain in some margin, with major breakthroughs acknowledged as posthumous corrections by the ruling elite? Will we appropriate self-defeating policies by devaluing members of our own venn circle? Or continue posting facebook diatribes against sexist offenders while supporting stereotypes of a different margin? Well, through somewhat less rosy-tinted glasses, I should point out there is a difference between chagrin and hopelessness. That these experiments were done was a coup. That the results were highlighted in a major journal was another.
As for my personal plans in reaction to this study - the article will be the latest addition to a box full of treasures, as a reminder that belonging to a margin does not necessarily exempt me from propagating ideals that place me there.
Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J.(2012) Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students.
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Oct 9;109(41):16474-9
Shen H.(2012) The bias detective. Nature 2012 Dec 20/27;492:340-341.
Rand, Ayn (1957) Atlas Shrugged. Signet/Penguin Books
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of The Restriction Digest Editorial staff, The Graduate Student Association at JHMI, or Johns Hopkins Medicine.