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Rita Colwell speaks at a news conference in Washington, D.C.

Rita Colwell speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in 2011.

Photograph by Jim Lo Scalzo, European Pressphoto Agency

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic News

Published March 25, 2013

All she did was join Twitter.

But when Elise Andrew, the brain behind the popular Facebook page I F**king Love Science, posted her Twitter profile picture there last week, some of the page's 4.3 million fans were shocked to learn her gender—even though Andrew's identity as a woman was no secret.

"Holy sh*t you are a chick? MARRY ME," Raul James wrote in one of the hundreds of comments on her Facebook post. "I'll admit it, I was surprised that IFLS was run by a woman," wrote David Peterson. Most of the comments were posted by men.

By posting regular science-related jokes, quotes, and memes, IFLS highlights "the funny side of science," according to the page, as well as "anything your admin finds awesome and strange."

The flood of Facebook reaction attracted amused attention from the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper and The Escapist, an online gaming magazine (Woman Loves Science, Astounds Facebook). But it left Andrew, a social media content manager for LabX Media Group, which publishes The Scientist Magazine, dismayed.

"I was absolutely astonished by an onslaught of comments expressing their absolute shock that IFLS is run by a woman," wrote Andrew, who's in her early 20s.

"It's a sad day when a woman being funny and interested in science is considered newsworthy." (Read about National Geographic's women explorers.)

We talked to molecular biologist Rita Colwell, distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and former director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, about why the idea of a female science guru is so surprising.

What was your reaction to this?

I didn't really like the title [I F**king Love Science] because I'm old fashioned and don't think expletives are necessary to make a point emphatically. I also didn't like, but wasn't surprised about, the nonsense that it's a big deal because it was a woman who loved science and wrote about science. I thought it was absurd and clearly indicates [that] although we've made progress over the past 40 to 50 years, we haven't made that much progress in behavior and attitudes.

Why is it so surprising that the founder of a science Facebook page would be female?

There is a tendency to think that if anyone is interested in the exquisite details of science that they must be a nerd, and nerds are supposed to be male. That's too bad because there are a lot of women who really love all of science. Part of this reaction may be due to socialization in our culture that suggests girls are only interested in "soft" science like psychology and not interested in "hard" science involving mathematics. That's a pity.

Does this highlight certain hurdles that women still need to overcome?

Yes. There was a publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently that showed that when the same application for a job as a laboratory manager was sent out for response with a man's name and with a woman's name, the man got the offer with a higher salary, and the [application with the] female name was ranked lower.

That's disheartening.

It's very disappointing, and even worse that women scientists in the PNAS study also ranked the woman lower: That was the tragic part of it.

Why don't women scientists support other women, in your opinion?

There have been several reasons offered to explain this phenomenon. My best guess is that it is a cultural attitude that women "don't do science" that, of course, is totally erroneous.

Are you still treated differently as a woman?

Certainly. I still have to tolerate it. It doesn't stop; it never stops. It's just that now it's more covert and not overt.

Can you give an example?

There are too many examples to even begin to enumerate.

During your career, have you seen changes in how women scientists are viewed?

I think there's an awful lot of lip service paid. If you look at the rosters of universities, you see a triangle with the top being male senior professors and the bottom ranks being women—it's still very skewed. It's the same thing with boards of Fortune 500 and even biotech companies.

What's your advice to women starting out in science?

My advice is to pursue your dream—a science career is wonderful. If you work hard at your science you'll do OK in the long run. Being a woman in science is not as precluded as it was a hundred or more years ago. But today you still have to be twice as good to get half as far.

As for Elise Andrew, she tweeted on March 24: "Curious: why do YOU think people were so amazed by my gender? Ignoring the sexist morons, there was a lot of genuine surprise. Why?"

What do you think, readers?

This Q&A has been edited for length and content.

14 comments
Kori Terray
Kori Terray

I get the same reaction when people find out I am a female electrical engineer. I truly hate responding to the question "so what do you do for work?" because for some strange reason the answer almost always gets an "oh wow" response complete with a surprised and trying to comprehend how this could be face. Unfortunately as kids, girls are not brought up to believe they can be good at science and math and it is reflected in the distribution of women in scientific fields. I am currently the only female in my group at work, and I believe this could change if girls were not brought up with such a bias against science and math. I am lucky to have had great teachers in high school who pushed me towards an engineering career.

Olga Melnik
Olga Melnik

In my opinion, it's all down to normal distribution - we learn and function through observing patterns, and the unmistakable pattern we all would observe is that there are many more men in science/engineering/management jobs than women, because by nature their brain is simply more inclined "towards" science. However, according to the same statistics principle of normal distribution, there are also people who don't fall within the normal majorities of left-brained men and right-brained women. Such people tend to have a more balanced brain (in many cases due to a childhood practice that stimulates simultaneous work of both brain hemispheres, like playing a musical instrument). The problem with how much surprise and resistance such people get in their study years and professional life is down to the unintended but natural consequence of - once again - the normal distribution: learning and thinking in patterns leads to assumptions. And while assumptions make us learn and work faster, they also keep us from being flexible. An example of such lack of flexibility in people would be their inability to recognize and acknowledge that while most of scientists, IT workers and CEO's are men, from time to time there can be a woman successfully doing the same job.

Chanci Shugart
Chanci Shugart

When I was a little girl I wanted to be a scientist. It was a fascinating field to me at the age of six. However, as I grew up, other fields were pressed on me and science was downplayed. They wanted me to be a nurse, a teacher, a psychologist, etc. Even high school teachers seemed to downplay science as a career to their female students. As I began college and thought of what I wanted to go into, people tried to talk me out of science. I have noticed that, for some reason, females are considered too feminine for the 'hard' sciences. It really is a shame and when I start teaching science (yes, I'm going to school for that,) I am going to emphasize career opportunities to both genders in my classroom.

Peggy LaCerra
Peggy LaCerra

I find Rita Colwell's naivete with respect to human behavior noteworthy (ref., "I didn't really like the title [I F**king Love Science] because I'm old fashioned and don't think expletives are necessary to make a point emphatically.").  Did she really think that the expletive in the title was irrelevant to the fact that millions of people are following a science page on FB?  Does she know that little about the science of human behavior? No real surprise there, because we all know that little about human behavior; we  don't really want to understand ourselves too well.  I say this as a woman scientist who has published a model of the human mind ('the human neurocognitive architecture') in "The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" -- and then dropped out of the Medieval male-dominated hierarchy that is academia . . . 

Juan Loca
Juan Loca

Well I think Elise is f***** dope.

Dave Wilson
Dave Wilson

Personally,  I am not surprised.  However, I can explain it in that in my own personal experience, very few women I've known had any interest in science.  I'd say less than 5%.  That's just an observation I've made over many years.

J. Ness
J. Ness

As a woman in a "hard" science field I can also see this dynamic.  I think we should encourage our daughters to go into math and science disciplines early on.  It's important that their parents believe they can achieve it and then some might just.  In addition I think women in the field need to pay extra attention to their women colleagues, take a cue from the "boys clubs," and start propping up and encouraging their fellow female scientists.  I have been VERY fortunate to have many positive female role models throughout my career and hope to be able to inspire other women positively in the future.

Bren Dan
Bren Dan

The page in question has 4.3 million likes. So even if there were 20 thousand astonished people who commented there are still 4,290,000 people who were unmoved by the news that the page admin is a woman. A non-story if you ask me which highlights ignorance rather than actual conscious sexism. Without Grace Hopper they probably wouldn't be commenting on a Facebook page in the first place. 

Maus Reddan
Maus Reddan

I think the world needs to be paid a visit from zombie Marie Curie. http://xkcd.com/896/

As a woman in science, who also thinks she is funny, I'm not surprised, just really really sad, but still hopeful that education will cure all of this ignorance.

Elisha Grange
Elisha Grange

I'm a woman who loves science as well. While my career has been conducting field research for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, I love to blow off steam by posting to a science blog that explores the science behind love, dating & sex (http://sexyscience1.wordpress.com). It's hard as a female to find science publications that are female-friendly, funny, and insightful. Popular science magazines seem to be written for a male audiences. And general male-oriented magazines seem to carry many more science and foreign policy-themed articles than female-oriented magazines. 

Dailing Chen
Dailing Chen

there is still a discrimination about female

PU Annie
PU Annie

Women can do jobs as good as men, including science. We ourself can not midled by the traditional concept that women should stay at home or do some easy jobs. Everyone is equal, just persue your dream and to be the person you wnat to be.

Peggy LaCerra
Peggy LaCerra

@Dave Wilson The interest children take in a subject is a function of how it is presented to them.  Science has been dominated by men and it is conducted and presented by men [who do things like spend 15 years and billions of dollars trying to find out what characteristic of the sperm determines which one fertilizes the ovum (it was a characteristic of the ovum - a protein ligand of the egg's cell wall)].  

J. Ness
J. Ness

@Bren Dan She posted a picture of herself and Richard Dawkins a couple of months ago and that's when I learned she was a woman so presumably many already knew she was a woman.  I saw the same type of posts when she posted that picture as well.

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