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Ada Lovelace Day 2010 – Beatrix Potter

by Eva Amsen

It’s Ada Lovelace Day, on which we’re encouraged to blog about women in science and technology. Having been a woman in chemistry and biology, I’ve never felt out of place at all. My undergrad chemistry department was almost 50% female, and in 1998 I was one of five girls on a seven-person chemistry student executive board. (Incidentally, the initials of the five girls were H, A, R, E, and M.) I know you’re going to say that it’s different for students, and that the number of female chemists drops after PhD level. Maybe that’s true in chemistry, still, but the tides are most certainly turning in areas of biology.

Yesterday I was updating a list of contacts at work, and discovered that more than half of the developmental biology societies that are currently active in different countries are chaired by women. To be the chair or president of the developmental biology society in your country, you have to be active and respected in your field, and in the UK, Hong Kong, Israel, Germany, France, Portugal, and Australia/NZ this position is now held by a woman.
“Oh, sure”, you mutter, “but that’s biology. You don’t know what it’s like in engineering/physics/math”.

However male-dominated some fields may still be today, I think it’s worth looking at how far other fields have come. Even though biology is doing quite well now, it wasn’t always as accessible to women.

In 1897 George Massee presented a paper to the Linnean Society, called “Germination of the Spores of the Agraricinae“. He hadn’t written the paper himself, but the author was not allowed to present it in person, because she was female, and women were not allowed at society meetings at that time. The paper was withdrawn, meaning it wouldn’t be published unless significant changes were made. The author? Beatrix Potter, whom you may know better as the illustrator of Peter Rabbit.

Whether it really was a result of not being able to attend meetings in person (making it harder to explain the work to the society than it would have been for a male author) or a case of too many revisions to be worth spending all her spare time on isn’t known, but it is certainly likely that if she had lived a century later, Beatrix Potter would have been better supported in her career as a scientist. As it is, she didn’t finish all the required experiments to resubmit her paper, and instead gained more and more acclaim as a children’s book author and illustrator.
Ada Lovelac Day - Beatrix Potter Beatrix Potter could draw scientifically accurate lichens as well as fluffy bunnies, but it was the latter that was more acceptable for women a century ago. Today, she would have been encouraged to study, to submit papers, attend meetings.
Some fields are perhaps further behind than biology, or maybe there aren’t as many women trying to get in, like Potter did in botany, but even the most male-dominated fields let women attend their meetings these days, so nobody has to revert to becoming a famous illustrator as a backup plan.

Potter was also the first person to ever patent a character for distribution as a toy. And now the Peter Rabbit images are all copyrighted and I can’t show them here, but above’s a picture of a young Beatrix Potter holding a dog.

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Bob O'Hara March 24, 2010 - 12:02 PM

Beatrix Potter could draw scientifically accurate lichens as well as fluffy bunnies,

Beatrix Potter gave her scientific drawings to the Armitt museum, who still have them:
We know who this mushroom will be supporting in the World Cup
(sorry, looks like we still can’t embed images in comments)
They had a flood there last year, and are (as always) trying to raise money to keep it going. My dad is one of the volunteers there, so I’ve seen the drawings for real. he doesn’t know if the “adopt a Potter” is still running, but he’ll ask.

Samantha Alsbury March 24, 2010 - 2:07 PM

It’s true we’re making progress but I don’t think we should rest on our laurels. Only 6 out of 29 PIs in my department are female and whilst the British Society for Developmental Biology now has a female chair she was only appointed last year and I believe is the first women to hold the position.

Eric-Wubbo Lameijer March 24, 2010 - 10:32 PM

I must agree that women in science are probably still discriminated against, though, as Eva remarks, much less so than 100 years ago. And we certainly should try to improve much more. However, I think that ultimately we should not try to get by default X% women professors in an area where there are X% women PhDs. Women are individuals, and they have the right to choose the work they like, instead of sacrificing their lives and souls to some ideal of ‘womanhood’ that compels them to strive to have certain high-status jobs even though they personally would rather lead their lives differently. Saying that a percentage of X% is fair or unfair seems rather meaningless unless you know how many women (compared to men) really want to be a professor and make the corresponding sacrifices.

steffi suhr March 25, 2010 - 5:58 PM

Eric, first we need to make sure that those sacrifices are the same for men and for women. Right now, the scale is still tilted heavily to one side. Talking about ideals of womanhood is a bit dodgy in this context.
Concerning making sure that a certain percentage of women are hired – there are quite a few excellent women in important positions thanks to those types of policies. And they probably had to waste a bit less energy having to assert themselves.

Samantha Alsbury March 29, 2010 - 12:57 PM

Well said Steffi I think you make a good point.
As for the percentage game, Eric-Wubbo (Do you prefer that or just Eric?), I don’t have any numbers but am pretty sure that there are a lot of women who would like to be professors who are, or at least feel, forced out before that point. I do take your point though that we shouldn’t just become obsessed with statistics.

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