Thursday :: Jan 17, 2008

polar eye

by Christina Hulbe

We are now in the midst of the International Polar Year (mid-20062007 to mid-2009, in all) and as a result, the polar latitudes (and scientific meetings about polar science) are crawling with reporters, videographers, and other chroniclers of the scientific endeavor. I'm not much for navel gazing but this is an unusual aspect of modern science that brings up some unexpected topics so please do indulge me for a few paragraphs.

There are probably nearly as many motivations to chronicle science in the polar latitudes as there are reporters and creative artists out there doing so. Their efforts run the spectrum from big-budget network acquisitions of footage and soundbites to fit stories, to federally-funded trips for reporters and informal education projects, to freelance reporters "embedding" themselves with field expeditions.

These media opportunities have produced some great reporting, some silly reporting, and more web content than you can shake a stick at.

For the most part, the media interest is great. It is important for science stories to make it into the popular discourse and I am pleased to do my part. But a question has come up this year that's new to me (though certainly not to others) and perhaps worth a bit of discussion here because it intersects part of the discourse on Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate. Paraphrasing, the question is: "what is it like being a female scientist in this field?"

A friend who has been asked questions like this too often over the last few years simply refuses to engage them any more and it doesn't take much effort for me to be right there with her. These questions are built on the premise that there is something unusual about my doing this work; that my presence in this field requires some sort of special explanation (hey look, they let a woman does she manage it?). Gender inequity is a well recognized issue in the academy. There are steps that can be taken to remedy the inequities, asking me why it sucks to be female is not one of them.

The long and the short of it is that a career in research science is a tough row to hoe and our culture runs roughshod over women. I live in a fairly progressive city and work on a fairly progressive campus but even here, sexism shapes many contours of my experience. Of course I have "what's it like" stories to tell. You'd be hard pressed to find a woman in any profession in America who doesn't.

But asking if toiling away under the patriarchy is unpleasant (for me) is asking the wrong question of the wrong person. The question to ask is why we (and I do mean we) tolerate an environment in which degrading, harassing, and violent treatment of women is accepted (or even cultivated) as part of the popular culture. The next question to ask is how can we change that?

Watching the reaction in polite society to Hillary Clinton's candidacy really brings home for me just how far we haven't come (baby). Is she a cold b*tch or overly emotional? Will PMS (oh come on) let the terrorists win? What was up with that blouse she wore last week? Is she "playing the gender card" by courting the female vote? None of this is new, of course, but it sure strikes an unpleasant chord.

Bob Herbert wrote a fine column in the Times this week about America's tolerance of degrading and violent treatment of women (though some of his ideas about sex work strike an off note). It's good to know there are some allies out there. But at the moment, The Ghost of Dr. Violet Socks, responding to a recent Oliphant cartoon, sums it up best for me:

"Women have no idea how much men hate them," said Germaine Greer. You have to raise your head above the parapet to find out, or let some other woman raise her head. And then you see. Then you really see.

Christina Hulbe :: 1:20 PM :: Comments (6) :: Digg It!