Alexandra Phillips: "I don't go to the laboratory with makeup in case they don't take me seriously"

The participation of women in science has always been present, but for centuries many brilliant female minds were deprived of a formal scientific education, and opportunities to contribute to the field of research, because of their gender. In recent years, a great effort has been made to change this situation and promote STEM education, which responds to the acronym Science-Technology-Engenieering-Mathematics –CTIM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics), in Spanish – among girls. However, there are still obstacles to overcome, from breaking down stereotypes to achieving greater access for women to positions of responsibility and recognition.

With this objective, 'Women Doing Science' was born, a social media movement founded, in 2018, by the postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) Alexandra Phillips. Initially, it was a space to share photos of women scientists of all kinds, but the impact it generated made it become a case study on the audience's reactions to the diversity of representations, which was published in July in the academic journal Social Media + Society. Currently, the Instagram profile @womendoingscience has more than 95,000 followers and, thanks to the collaboration of an international team of volunteers, more than 800 photos of STEM women have been shared. Additionally, the #womendoingscience hashtag has been used more than 25,000 times.

On World Science Day for Peace and Development we spoke with its creator about this initiative and her opinion regarding the current situation of women scientists.

What led you to create Women Doing Science?

One of my friends is a geologist and she is very active on Facebook during her field trips. She always posts great photos of herself at work. For example, knee-deep in mud or holding rocks for the camera. I remember thinking about how powerful these images could be if they were widely available, and how well they counteracted the typical, inaccurate images of female scientists. So I started posting photos of my geologist friends, and before long, in a way only possible on the internet, I started receiving photos and biographies from women all over the world who wanted to add their image to our growing gallery. I started asking for help, and eventually our team expanded to what it is today: 50 volunteers on subteams for diversity, writing, translations, and more.

In your opinion, what is the current situation regarding stereotypes of women in science?

Stereotypes of women in STEM still exist, but I think we are in a time of transition. For example, a classic stereotype perpetuated in film is of the mathematician man who is portrayed as white, young, a kind of lonely genius, lost in a sea of ​​equations, socially awkward, and incredibly bright. I imagine the protagonists of films like 'The Incredible Will Hunting', 'The Big Bang Theory' or 'A Beautiful Mind'. As far as this stereotype is concerned, there is already some evidence that Hollywood is changing. For example, movies like 'Hidden Figures' and 'A Wrinkle in Time' put women of color in that central role.

Above: Scene from the movie 'Hidden Figures'. Bottom-left: Scene from the movie 'Good Will Hunting'. Bottom-right: Poster for the series 'The Big Bang Theory'. / 20th Century/Miramax/CBS

However, there are still stereotypes that are perpetuated, especially in the media, in which women scientists are portrayed as either intelligent or attractive, as if scientific ability is at odds with femininity. I think for girls today there is a lot of uncertainty not only about what a scientist might look like, but also about what it means and represents to be a scientist.

What are the main stereotypes suffered by women scientists?

In an article written in 2003, social scientist Eva Flicker analyzed 70 years of media representations of women in STEM (from 1929 to 1997). She's a little out of date now, but I think a lot of the themes she identified are still surprisingly accurate. One that really stands out to me is the portrayal of female scientists as "lone heroines," a cliché that paints the female scientist as ultra-competent (often above her male peers), unrealistically young, beautiful, and with a insatiable curiosity, prioritizing science above all else, often sacrificing personal or family relationships. Flicker gives the example of actress Jodie Foster in the movie 'Contact', but others come to mind such as the character of Brennan, in the series 'Bones'; Ryan Stone's in 'Gravity'; or even Shuri's in 'Black Panther'.

Above: actress Jodie Foster in the movie 'Contact'. Bottom-left: The character of Shuri (Letitia Wright), from the movie 'Black Panther'. Bottom-right: The character of Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), in the movie 'Star Trek'. / Warner Bros/

Another painfully common stereotype is objectification and sexualization. Flicker calls this role the "naïve expert," where a female scientist is exceptionally attractive, incredibly young, feminine, emotional, has some professional knowledge, and often wears unrealistic clothing, like Claire Dearing running around in heels in 'Jurassic World. ' or Carol Marcus, in lingerie, in 'Star Trek'. These images are especially damaging because they minimize female scientists as objects of desire for the male gaze.

In your career as a researcher have you had to face many stereotypes?

As a woman in STEM I have experienced many small cases of stereotyping throughout my career. For example, minor comments about my appearance, clothing, hair color (because it's blonde), age... I've noticed that academic spaces seem to reward the 'masculine' characteristics of being a scientist more, so I've picked up certain habits by fear of not being taken seriously, such as not wearing dresses to lectures or makeup in the lab. I think these decisions make a big difference in how women scientists are viewed, and even more so for women of color.

Women Doing Science has had three particularly viral posts. What was special about them and what conclusions have you drawn from them?

As Berger and Milkman summarized in 2011: "Virality is driven by physiological arousal." Therefore, posts that elicit very positive or negative reactions are much more likely to go viral. That is what the three images that went viral on our profile had in common.

In two of them the reason was positive, because they inspired astonishment or admiration; while the third provoked anger and resentment. Also, interestingly, all three were associated with stereotypes. The first two were widely celebrated because they broke stereotypes: one image showed a postdoc at a blackboard full of complex equations, the other a professor in a very messy office. The third photo, on the other hand, was harshly criticized (mostly by women!) for showing a biology doctoral student with her hair down, heels and makeup, as she was considered "too feminine" to be a scientist.

The two photographs that went viral for breaking stereotypes. On the left, Dr. and biology professor Ellen Rothenberg. On the right, astrophysics doctoral student Emma Osborne. /

Women Doing Science

This is not the first time this has been shown. Previous studies have found that the more attractive a person rates a woman, the less likely she is to believe that she is a scientist, because we still haven't gotten used to the idea that she can be smart and beautiful at the same time. My biggest takeaway from studying this case of viral posts was that women in STEM have a really fragile sense of belonging, and that insecurity means these social media pushes and threats have a disproportionate impact on their identity.

What would you propose to improve the identity development of women in STEM?

That's a hard question! There are so many things that can be changed… I think that something important and useful is to improve the representation of women in STEM in the media, as multidimensional and diverse people that we are. In addition, universities should prioritize assigning positions of responsibility to women scientists with different profiles, so that they act as reference figures for the new generations of students, since many women look for these role models on social networks when they do not find them in their environment.

What advice would you give future scientists and scientists?

I would tell them not to be afraid to create their own path in STEM if none of the marked paths fit what they want to do. There is plenty of room for creativity and for all kinds of personalities.

Mind you, charting your own path can be really difficult and exhausting, so I would tell them that it is very important that they find mentors who can help and guide them through the unknown. Also, don't be shy about seeking out your mentors in unusual places. The power of social media is that it makes distant connections entirely feasible.

What is the future of Women Doing Science?

I think people may be disappointed, but the future of Women Doing Science is that we just ended the project on Instagram this October when we made the last post. Social media is an ever-changing landscape, and the way we designed 'Women Doing Science' in 2018 just isn't as compatible with Instagram's direction anymore.

We have made this decision as a team and we have been really strategic in leaving evidence of some project legacies. The first, and perhaps the most challenging, is the academic article that we published in July with the conclusions of the project. The second is the creation of the Wonder Fund in conjunction with the American Geophysical Union, a grant that will provide annual travel grants and mentoring opportunities for black or indigenous women. And the third is the Instagram posts themselves, which will remain on the @women.doing.science profile, even if we stop sharing new images, so that anyone can explore the more than 800 photographs of women scientists submitted in the last four years.

Likewise, we will keep open the profile in Spanish of @mujeres.hazando.ciencia, in which images and stories of Latin American scientists with publications in Spanish and Portuguese are published.