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.
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 science. The 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?