Life as a Palaeontologist: A thoroughly suitable job for a woman

by Ellen Currano1

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — J. R. R. Tolkien The Fellowship of the Ring (Ballantine Books, 1954).

Introduction:

It was never part of my plan to become the (sometimes bearded) face of women in palaeontology. I was that first grader who fell in love with dinosaurs and set her heart on becoming a palaeontologist. Since I started college, my dream has been to work at the University of Wyoming, travel the world digging up fossils, publish papers in scientific journals and, if I was lucky, be asked to give public lectures on my work. In other words, I wanted to emulate the professors at the top-tier research institutions I attended. In 2013, five years after I received my PhD, I was well on my way to achieving my goals, and yet some things just didn’t feel quite right.

Time and time again, I was the only woman in a field crew (Fig. 1), I could count on one hand how many other women were in the room at a professional gathering, or I was told by fellow geoscientists how much they appreciated their students interacting with a “successful female scientist like you”. Don’t get me wrong: I have treasured my time in the field and been treated as an equal by the vast majority of my colleagues. But although I am flattered to be singled out as a role model for aspiring geoscientists, the pressure to succeed is incredible. Will anything short of constant perfection demonstrate that women can do this job just as well as men? If I fail, will it be that much harder for the next woman to succeed?

Figure 1 — My first experience doing palaeobotanical fieldwork, and of being the only woman on the field team. That summer inspired me to pursue a career in palaeobotany and introduced me to the scientists who would become my PhD co-advisers — Scott Wing (second from right) and Peter Wilf (back row, centre) — as well committee member Conrad Labandeira (left).

Figure 1 — My first experience doing palaeobotanical fieldwork, and of being the only woman on the field team. That summer inspired me to pursue a career in palaeobotany and introduced me to the scientists who would become my PhD co-advisers — Scott Wing (second from right) and Peter Wilf (back row, centre) — as well committee member Conrad Labandeira (left).

The most deep-rooted struggle for me was how to reconcile femininity with a career all too often perceived as virile, rugged and macho. My childhood role models were the dinosaur palaeontologists featured on television or in National Geographic, who led expeditions to Africa, Mongolia, South America and the American West. I desperately wanted to be a field palaeontologist like the grizzled men who were showcased, and so I was a huge tomboy and openly sneered at all things ‘girly’. Case in point: I wore field clothes for my high-school graduation picture. It was not until my late 20s that I truly accepted that you can be taken seriously as a field scientist and yet wear dresses, carry a purse and style your hair when not in the field. The thought of make-up still induces minor panic, but since hearing a colleague refer to it as the “war paint” that she puts on before teaching large lecture courses, I feel a bit more open-minded on the subject.

Five years ago, I would never have written the last two paragraphs, because I had not yet become a minority. My graduate-school cohort at Pennsylvania State University in University Park was about 50–50 men and women, and while finishing my PhD at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, I interacted most with the palaeobotany postdoctoral researchers Cindy Looy and Caroline Strömberg (Fig. 2). It was not until I became a faculty member at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (the second woman out of 12 tenured or tenure-track faculty members) that doubts and isolation surfaced. As I was moving up the academic ladder, I saw fewer and fewer geoscientists who looked like me. I questioned whether I had got certain opportunities because I truly deserved them or because I was filling a diversity quota. As I looked back on my academic training, I realized that each institution I was part of had had only a single woman in my field: Sue Kidwell for my undergraduate years at the University of Chicago in Illinois; Kate Freeman while I was doing my PhD at Penn State; Kay Behrensmeyer at the Smithsonian; Bonnie Jacobs as my postdoc adviser at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas; and Liz Widom helping me to navigate my first academic position at Miami University. Quality-wise, it is simply not possible to do better than those scientists. But what about in terms of quantity? How do my experiences compare with national (for me, US) data?

Figure 2 — The 2007 Smithsonian Paleochicks Bowling Team. When this photo was taken, I was finishing my PhD and Cindy Looy (seated) and Caroline Strömberg (standing, right) were postdoctoral fellows. Today, we are faculty members at the University of Wyoming, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington in Seattle, respectively. Photo credit: Walton Green.

Figure 2 — The 2007 Smithsonian Paleochicks Bowling Team. When this photo was taken, I was finishing my PhD and Cindy Looy (seated) and Caroline Strömberg (standing, right) were postdoctoral fellows. Today, we are faculty members at the University of Wyoming, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington in Seattle, respectively. Photo credit: Walton Green.

The Underrepresentation of Women in STEM Fields:

This summer, I applied for an early-career award from the US National Science Foundation (NSF). Because these grants require a significant educational component, I decided to formalize two initiatives I had started the previous spring as an attempt to alleviate the fears and isolation I was experiencing as a woman in a male-dominated field. The first step in writing any proposal is to read as much as possible about the problem you plan to address. So, like any good researcher, I hit the literature and found the cold, hard facts on underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. In doing so, I learned that my own experiences were fairly standard.

According to data collected by the NSF and the Paleontological Society, women represent:

  • 16% of US geoscience faculty members
  • Around 17% of Paleontological Society professional members (students not included)
  • 5% of Schuchert award winners (the Paleontological Society’s top award for a palaeontologist under 40)
  • 13% of Paleontological Society Fellows
  • Not a single individual winner of the Strimple award (Paleontological Society award for amateurs)
  • About 5% of Paleontological Society officers in the 100-year history of the society

Why do so few girls become scientists, and why is the retention rate for female scientists so low? There is no evidence for innate differences in scientific aptitude between men and women. Rather, most recent work argues that many talented women are prevented from succeeding by implicit and probably unintentional biases that stem from repeated exposure to cultural stereotypes. Bluntly put, women are perceived as less competent but more ‘likeable’ or ‘warm’ than men. The scary thing is that women, as well as men, display biases against aspiring female scientists. A study published in a top peer-reviewed scientific journal in 2012 showed that female applicants for lab-manager positions were less likely to be hired, more likely to be offered a lower salary and generally viewed as less deserving of mentorship than identical male applicants, regardless of the scientific discipline, age, sex or tenure status of the evaluator (see Moss-Racusin, 2012). Furthermore, student evaluations demonstrate that female academics are viewed as less capable than their male counterparts. One study, published in December 2014, showed that in an online course, where an instructor’s gender can be concealed, instructors perceived as male received significantly higher ratings than instructors perceived as female, regardless of the instructor’s actual gender (see MacNell, 2014). An interactive website (http://benschmidt.org/profGender/#) allows you to search roughly 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessor.com, and see how often different words are used to describe male and female faculty members. Depending on the field, the word ‘genius’ is used to describe a man at least twice as often as a woman.

Eight months after I began to look into this, these data still sadden me and intensify my feelings of powerlessness. However, for better or worse, I am an optimist incapable of sitting still. All too often, I act first and ask questions later. Over the past year, I have learned that although it takes a whole lot more time and energy to get even than it does to get mad, it is also much more rewarding. Below are my two ‘get even’ projects, which showcase some inspirational field-based scientists and challenge the stereotype that women have lower scientific competence than men.

Palaeontology is a suitable job for a woman…

Despite being a matter of months from starting my dream job, I struggled tremendously last spring. More than ever before, I felt like a fish out of water and questioned whether my gender was holding me back professionally. I needed reminders that despite what I saw in my own life, on television and in popular-science magazines, I was not alone in the old boys’ club of geosciences, and female scientists were not the horrors portrayed on The Big Bang Theory. I couldn’t transport a bunch of awesome female geoscientists into my building, but I could create a virtual community, and by learning about the amazing science that other women were doing, be inspired to push my own science forward. So I started a blog (http://www.ellencurrano.me/) on which I published short profiles of outstanding field palaeontologists who happen to be women.

Although I had never heard of it at the time I was writing the profiles, I’m proud that most pass the Finkbeiner test, proposed by journalist Christie Aschwanden in honour of fellow journalist Ann Finkbeiner (http://www.doublexscience.org/the-finkbeiner-test/). Finkbeiner had been asked to profile an outstanding female astronomer for a magazine that was trying to right gender imbalance in its coverage. Finkbeiner accepted, with the hope that she could “be blindly, aggressively, egregiously ignorant” of the subject’s gender, and “pretend she’s just an astronomer” (http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2013/01/17/5266/). To pass the Finkbeiner test, an article cannot mention:

  • That the scientist is a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child-care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she is such a role model for other women
  • How she is the “first woman to…”

Thanks to being awarded the NSF grant mentioned above, I will be back to blogging from 1 March. There will be more profiles of outstanding scientists and also updates on the work being done in my lab.

Whether bearded or not!

The other day, as I passed the bulletin board next to my department office, I was stopped in my tracks upon seeing that a colleague had posted a flyer that included the photograph in Figure 3. As I said at the start of this article, I never in a million years would have guessed that I would co-found something like The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science. But director Lexi Jamieson Marsh, photographer Kelsey Vance and I had come up with a ground-breaking idea, and we believed that together, we had the expertise, dedication, enthusiasm, friendship, sense of humour and fearlessness to pull it off. Our goals are to create a short (roughly 45-minute) live‐action documentary and a touring portrait series that identifies women working in the geosciences, and brings to light the challenges and obstacles they face. And, yes, each scientist featured in the portrait series will be bearded! You can find more detailed information about how The Bearded Lady Project was founded, trailers for the documentary, and journal entries from our first photo shoot in the Hanna Basin, Wyoming, on the project website (http://thebeardedladyproject.com/). Here, however, I would like to give a brief update on what we have accomplished since that first photo shoot.

Figure 3 — As lead subject of The Bearded Lady Project, I donned a beard and moustache for a photo shoot in the Hanna Basin, Wyoming. So, does this beard make it more likely that I will be taken me seriously as a field palaeontologist? Photo credit: Lexi Jamieson Marsh.

Figure 3 — As lead subject of The Bearded Lady Project, I donned a beard and moustache for a photo shoot in the Hanna Basin, Wyoming. So, does this beard make it more likely that I will be taken me seriously as a field palaeontologist? Photo credit: Lexi Jamieson Marsh.

Kelsey and Lexi joined me at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in October 2014 to publicize our project and recruit bearded ladies, and four amazing things happened. First, we left the meeting with a list of phenomenal women willing to don beards and open their field sites to Lexi, Kelsey and their cameras. Second, we received overwhelming support from male palaeontologists, including the idea of the hashtag #beardsforbeardedladies, included on photographs of bearded men showing support of our project. Third, Penn State, the palaeontology programme ranked eighth in the country by US News and World Reports, showed our trailers and gave away handmade beards at their alumni party (Fig. 4). Last, Kelsey and Lexi met Cindy Looy, assistant professor of palaeobotany at the University of California, Berkeley, the palaeontology programme ranked second. Cindy has four female graduate students in her lab, and she invited Lexi and Kelsey out to Berkeley to for a Looy Lab bearded photo session. Cindy then went back to Berkeley and recruited more than 25 palaeontology faculty members, curators and graduate students to take part in the project. In February, our creative team spent four days at Berkeley and returned home with a wealth of photographs and interviews, as well as renewed excitement for the project.

Figure 4 — Palaeontologist Ellen Currano, director Lexi Jamieson Marsh and photographer Kelsey Vance don beards at the Penn State Alumni Party during the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting.

Figure 4 — Palaeontologist Ellen Currano, director Lexi Jamieson Marsh and photographer Kelsey Vance don beards at the Penn State Alumni Party during the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting.

Lexi, Kelsey and I are awed and humbled by the support we have already received from institutions such as the NSF, Penn State, UC Berkeley and the University of Wyoming, as well as from individual scientists and proponents of women in science. But we still need your help to make this project as awesome as possible! Supporting The Bearded Lady Project can take many forms: monetary donations (tax deductible), following us on Facebook and Twitter, or getting the word out by showing our trailers (http://thebeardedladyproject.com/trailers/) to friends or in science classes.

In summary:

In this essay, I have been as open as possible about my emotions and experiences, in the hope that others who feel similarly will know that they are not alone. However, in rereading it, I am not sure that it comes across just how much I love my job, and so I want to close by expressly stating that. I cannot imagine doing anything else with my life, and it never ceases to amaze me that I get paid to do what I am passionate about! Although rarely glamorous, life as a palaeontologist is never dull. My work has taken me to six continents, and I have met so many incredible people along the way. It hasn’t always been an easy road, or a predictable one, but it is the only one for me.


1Department of Botany and Department of Geology & Geophysics, University of Wyoming

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