Disparity in recognition for women in STEM

Disparity in recognition for women in STEM

Ky Watnick


An astronomical new feat has propelled science forward yet again with the first ever black hole picture, thanks to the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) and four teams of scientists around the world. Unfortunately, the world is more ready to celebrate the international network of radio telescopes than the people who interpreted the data to bring the picture to life. One of the leading minds behind the imaging was Dr. Katie Bouman, the accidental face of the project. 

Dr. Bouman was the lead of one of the four teams around the world who worked to make a seemingly endless stream of data into a picture worthy of history. She became a media sensation when a photo of her gleeful delight in seeing the black hole image was shared online by MIT CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab) with the caption, “Here’s the moment when the first black hole image was processed, from the eyes of researcher Katie Bouman.” Assuming that history was once again burying the hard work of women, people began sharing the image, begging for recognition for Dr. Bouman. Unfortunately, this led to some skewed facts, as many claimed that Dr. Bouman was responsible for the image itself, rather than one of 200 scientists on the project, according to The New York Times

Another of the scientists who helped to image the black hole, Chair of the Science Council for the EHT Dr. Heino Falke, shared a photo of everyone involved in the project with the caption, “The people behind the black hole image. Here are (almost) all the heroes of the @ehtelescope. (From our last collaboration meeting in Nijmegen, Nov.  2018.) #EHTblackhole.” The image shows most of the 200 scientists from 60 institutes, 18 countries, and six continents who worked together to create this historic picture. Still, even if the work was not Dr. Bouman’s alone, she is shouldering much of the fame for the historic picture, and, as is the way of our patriarchy, she is getting plenty of negativity for it.

Online trolls have reportedly turned to Dr. Andrew Chael as their martyr. Dr. Chael was the primary developer of the EHT-imaging software library, and some people have taken that as evidence that he was really the genius behind the historic image. Again, the 199 other scientists were forgotten by the online community searching for a face, rather than a people to identify with. Dr. Chael told The Washington Post that “[the trend] was clearly started by people who were upset that a woman had become the face of this story and decided, ‘I’m going to find someone that reflects my narrative instead.’” 

Dr. Katie Bauman reacting to the first image of a black hole.  COURTESY OF  YOURSTORY

Dr. Katie Bauman reacting to the first image of a black hole. COURTESY OF YOURSTORY

According to The Verge, “In addition to [fake] Twitter [accounts], trolls have been putting videos on YouTube spreading rumors about her work and creating fake accounts on Instagram targeting Dr. Bouman and Chael.” These attacks continued even after Bouman posted to Facebook: “No one algorithm or person made this image. It required the amazing talent of a team of scientists from around the globe and years of hard work to
develop the instrument, data processing, imaging methods, and analysis techniques that were necessary to pull off this seemingly impossible feat. It has been truly an honor, and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you all.”

Unfortunately, this is not a stand-alone issue. Women face more harassment than men, even within the scientific community. According to a report by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington D.C., the most common type of harassment is gender harassment. Co-chair of the committee, who wrote the report, President of Wellesley College Paula Johnson, described this type of harassment as “the put-downs as opposed to the come-ons.” This behavior is often marked by telling women that they do not belong in the workplace, they are not as capable as the men in their field, and they often can lead to other forms of harassment, most notably sexual harassment. Besides harassment and discouragement, women also receive much less recognition for their work.

In an article by Newsweek, they discuss their investigations into first-time publications from men versus women. “We expected over 40 percent to be women, similar to the percentage of women postdocs in neuroscience in the U.S. and Europe. Instead, fewer than 25 percent first authors in the journals Nature and Science were women,” said Newsweek. Furthermore, papers that were written primarily by women are cited 10 percent less than works by male authors, according to sciencemag.org. The U.S. National Science Foundation reported that “on average, [women] earn just 82 percent of what male scientists make in the United States — even less in Europe.” So, not only do women get published less than their male counterparts, their published work also gets less recognition from the scientific community when it is published, and they get paid less for their work. 

Even though Dr. Bouman was not the only brain behind the entire operation, her work did help to create the first image of a black hole. Scientists become the faces of their discoveries all the time, whether or not they had partners or teams behind their discoveries. Charles Babbage, who is known as the Father of Computing, did not build The Babbage Engine, the first computing device, all alone. He had a team of people behind him, yet only his name and face are known. Just as we cannot punish Babbage for becoming the name behind the computer, we cannot punish Dr. Bouman for becoming the face of black hole imaging. Just because the internet liked her picture does not mean she is trying to steal the credit, nor does it make her contributions as a team lead any more or less significant. If you still find yourself hating Dr. Bouman, perhaps you need to look into your heart and figure out why you hate her so much for what the internet has done.