Ghostbusters, women and the life in science

Ghostbusters 2016 – Film Poster [Image Source via Wikipedia Commons]
The biggest crack in the glass ceiling this year (apart from Hilary Clinton’s nomination as Democratic candidate in the upcoming US elections!) is the reboot of the 1984 supernatural comedy, “Ghostbusters”. The July 2016 release has received positive reviews and also ringing in the cash register. But the movie has also been in the news for an altogether different reason – its trailer is among the most disliked videos ever on YouTube.

It was quickly realized that there was an almost coordinated effort by the “Ghostbros”, the male admirers of the original, who could not bear the “blasphemy” of a reboot with an all-female cast. The re-imagining of the Ghostbusters as a team of super-intelligent, gadget-wielding, ghost-hunting, gal-pals was simply too much for the “fan-boys” of the 1984 original. The fans felt it was reason enough to spoil the movie’s chances at the box office.

Sadly, movies are not the only social domain where women are denied their due recognition, despite repeatedly proving that they are capable and in many cases, even better than their male counterparts.

ENIAC, the first all-electronic computer [Image source via Wkipedia Commons]
Back in 1942, a team of six female mathematicians worked along with several other men to create America’s first all electronic computer. They were respected for their programming expertise and even called the six “computers”. They were assigned the crucial task of programming the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) to “think” and calculate the ballistic trajectories of missiles during wartime.

When the ENIAC was finally ready for deployment the six women were given a certificate of commendation by the US  Army. But they were not invited to the unveiling ceremony! It was not until five decades later that Betty Jean Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, Frances Bilas Spence, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, and Betty Snyder Holberton were acknowledged publicly for their contributions to the “Digital Revolution” and inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame. A 2014 documentary, “The Computers”, also brought to light the seminal work of the six programmers.

Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize Winner for Medicine in 2001, stirred a hornet’s nest in 2015 when he addressed an international conference of science journalists. He said that he had trouble working with “girls” in science because “three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.”

With such attitudes against women in science, it is no surprise that the ratio of women to men in science careers continues to remain low. Fortunately, women all over the world have initiated many innovative efforts to bring this issue to the attention of the academic community, and also to the general public.

Emily Wood, an aspiring biologist and Wikipedia contributor, had been at the receiving end of online harassment for several years. In 2012, she retaliated very positively: she co-founded the WikiProject Women Scientists. The project is meant to ensure that women in science are adequately represented on Wikipedia – and it has done just that with hundreds of Wikipedia articles on women scientists already published.

Florence Piron, an anthropologist and ethicist, anchors the Association science et bien commun (Association of Science for the Common Good) in Canada. Launched in 2011, ASBC has coordinated (among other things) an international, open source, participatory effort to compile stories of women scientists from across the world: Femmes savantes, femmes de scienceThe effort has since led to the publication of two compilations, with the third volume ready to be published in 2016.

Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, two science writers in India, have embarked on a journey to counter the dominant narrative of science being the “expertise” of men and men only. They launched The Life of Science project to document the personal and professional experiences of Indian women in science.

Can these public projects help to change the image of science being “the domain of old, bearded men”? What more could be done to ensure gender equality in science… and break the glass ceiling?


2 thoughts on “Ghostbusters, women and the life in science

  1. While there is no doubt that women are equal to men in every aspect of scientific ability, and may even be capable of greater insights, care should be taken when citing instances towards making out a case.
    It is difficult to say that it was really a group of women that played a special role in the building of ENIAC. It is even difficult to say that the role they played was exceptional, or to credit them with contributing to the war effort.
    ENIAC was an early digital computer and was constructed by assembling components according to an exactly created circuit diagram. The role of the six women was to carry out the assembly according to the diagram. This may be regarded as a more sophisticated deployment of women in routine tasks, such as the assembly of hair dryers or cell phones. There was neither any role of design of the computer nor of any programming, least of all in respect of the trajectory of missiles.
    No doubt, computers are an aid to carry out the complex computation of the trajectory of a missile with specific aerodynamic qualities and moving through the resisting air medium at different altitudes. This would have been an application of ENIAC, but there is no evidence that there was such application or material use of ENIAC for such a purpose during WW II. Furthermore, the programming of a computer to carry out the exercise would have been straightforward and to cite such a task, even if it had been done by the six women engaged in assembly of hardware, as an achievement would be to make a poor case for the much higher capabilities of women, or men for that matter.
    That there is much to correct in the attitudes of men towards women and science is evident. It should be said that even women have almost the same attitude towards their own sisters in science. The reasons are historical and cultural, dating back to times when biology did have a role in defining the roles of people, a feature that has disappeared in recent decades. There does not appear to be much served in lamenting that this is so. More to the point would be the cultivation of science, the attitude of objectivity that comes from science, both among women, who form 50% of the earth’s great resource, and also among men, including Sir Tim Hunt, cited in the blog.


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