SMASH SEXIST SCIENCE REPORTING: “Lady in the Lab”

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Cover of “Heart Matters,” Jan Feb 2013, vol 47. A woman must be an angel in the kitchen…

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog that is not affiliated with any research institution, funding body or charity. The British Heart Foundation is a very nice charity that does amazing things – donate your used goods to them today! This piece has not been endorsed by Professor B. Casadei or any member of her research group, and should not reflect upon her or her opinions in any way. As someone who writes frequently about sexism in science culture, I believe that criticizing the following article from a gender-egalitarian perspective will move the field forward, reduce the levels of sexism in science, and possibly improve reporting quality in the future.

       The British Heart Foundation is a popular and beloved charity in Britain, funding over half of the cardiovascular research performed in the British Isles. Non-academic readers may be surprised to learn that charitable funding is how a lot of scientists pay the rent.

   For me, this is one reason why consistent, trustworthy, high-quality science communication is so important. The public pays our wages, whether by charity or by tax dollars. Public interest and public trust is vital if we want to cure cancer, heal hearts, save the environment, fight off meteors, survive climate change and understand the meaning of life. None of this can happen without you guys. Thank you so much for your help and support.

    So when I see really terrible, sexist science reporting occurring in the pages of the British Heart Foundation’s magazine, well … it breaks my little heart. (Which is ironic.) I believe that science communication at every level is charged with moving the field forward, and I believe that it should be held responsible when it breaks that trust.

   The BHF’s circular Heart Matters is supposed to reach out and reassure people in waiting rooms that their health is well in hand, that research is chugging away to make their lives happier and healthier, and their charity dollars are being well-spent. Most recently, it stuck a prominent female professor on the Jan-Feb cover and wrote a puff piece about her recent BHF award.

    The piece, “Lady in the Lab,” is jaw-droppingly sexist.

casadeii2

When girls outgrow cooties, they catch the Science Bugs.

Professor Barbara Casadei is a great role model for young women in science: successful, intelligent, dynamic, generous, happy. She is a full professor at Oxford, leading a powerful and impressive cardiovascular research group. She is highly involved with the Athena Swan Charter, which works to promote women’s research careers in the STEM fields. If you’ve been following my Girls in Science series, you’ll remember that I believe that providing  career support is the only solution to solving the gender gap. Well, Professor Casadei is working on that very problem, as well as developing new treatments for atrial fibrillation that will hopefully reduce the danger involved in heart surgery!

How does the BHF choose to introduce this remarkable scientist?

Barbara Casadei doesn’t exactly fit the traditional stereotype of a science professor.

Slim and elegant with long, blonde hair and oozing charisma, she’d look just as at home on the society pages of Tatler as in a lab.

no, this is the opposite of what we wanted

And of course, as a woman, she’s still sadly a rarity in the higher echelons of academia.

Well then.

That’s how: by opening the article about her life and work by objectifying her and claiming that she belongs in a driveling fashion mag… and then acting surprised that there aren’t too many women at her level… while apparently missing the fact that the BHF gets to pick those who get swept into those “higher echelons.”  After that, it gets better (worse) as Casadei’s remarkable life and work are overshadowed by awful reporting. Because nothing inspires young women to do well in science more than seeing that a Professor – the highest scientific position attainable – can be given a platform from which to explain that salt makes one bloat. Yes, if we climb the highest mountain, we too can answer questions about whether or not our lifestyle allows us time to prepare healthy family meals from scratch!
What else is terrible? Well….

  • The article opens – and closes – with borderline-insulting references to Casadei’s physical appearance. The insulting tone of surprise and astonishment (“Phwoah, a sexy scientist!”) at once suggests that scientists are not supposed to be attractive women, and that non-sexy women will not be welcomed as BHF covergirls.
  • “Slim, blonde and elegant” – really? Really.
  •  Likewise “oozing charisma.” Ladies don’t ooze, darling, they radiate.
  • The article has a special feature of “Barbara’s diet tips” to “stay in shape.” While this is to some extent expected in a cardiovascular health magazine geared towards the public, the radical idea that one can control calories by ordering salad dressing on the side is not exactly what I would pick an Oxford professor’s brain over.
  • How does she stay so slim and elegant? Grilled 30-minute meals, apparently. How does she cope in a culture where even a complimentary puff piece about her drips with sexism and condescension? The reporter doesn’t care.
  • The reporter calls Professor Casadei “Barbara” throughout. As Casadei is, by her own merit, a Professor, a Chair and a Doctor, by marriage a Mrs and a Lady, and would by most journalistic standards just be referred to as Casadei (as I’m doing) this reporter calls her Barbara. Even if Casadei politely asked the reporter to call her Barbara during the interview, respect and standards dictate that the scientist ought to be “Casadei” in the actual piece. Men interviewed in Heart Matters are referred to by title. Casadei’s husband is referred to as Professor Sir Rory Collins, Chair. There is literally no excuse to continually refer to Casadei by her first name.
  • The reporter claims to be intimidated by Casadei’s academic accomplishments; she states that the professor’s 14-page CV has given her “an inferiority complex.” Men with lesser accomplishments in Heart Matters are treated with respect and their CVs are regarded as impressive.
  • The reporter states that Casadei’s home must be a “motivating environment” as her husband is also successful.
  • An actual interview question: “Being so busy all the time must be exhausting. Does it ever get [to be] too much?” (This may be a bit more subtle – the  reporter possibly doesn’t realize that the “Don’t you think she looks tired?” gambit is a popular way to undermine the achievements and positions of middle-aged women, who only need to publicly demonstrate wrinkles or grey hair to be perceived as unfit leaders.)

In the popular British tv series Doctor Who, the Doctor promised to bring down a female Prime Minister’s government with six words: “Don’t you think she looks tired?” As promised, the middle-aged woman was quickly agreed to be no longer fit for her position and was forced to resign.

Hillary Clinton, the former American Secretary of State, suffered from rumors that ill health and tiredness made her unfit to hold a political position.  During the 2008 presidential campaign, conservatives circulated photos of 61-year-old candidate Clinton looking weary, implying that nobody wanted a tired/old woman in power. Rush Limbaugh asked, ‘‘will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?’’

  • It’s possible that the reporter was blissfully unaware that describing a successful middle-aged woman’s schedule as “punishing” and “exhausting” undermines the perceptions of the scientist in question. But that’s no excuse for her to follow it up in the style of: “with your punishing lifestyle, how do you still manage to cook fresh, wholesome meals for your family? With your exhausting commitments, how do you maintain such a motivating home that nourishes your husband’s career so well?”
  • Emphasis was continually placed on the professor’s domestic abilities.
  • The closing of the article notes that Casadei was patient and capable throughout the photoshoot, and uses that as evidence that her students couldn’t have a better role model.
  • This, combined with the Tatler allusion, makes it pretty clear that Casadei is being valued for her model-like looks.
  • The tone of the article treats Professor Casadei as a superlative woman, while pretending that it is difficult to understand why she is the only woman in the position of BHF Chair. The 49 other Chairs are men.
  • Absolutely no recognition was made on the part of the BHF that they are at least partially responsible for their promotion practices – as one colleague put it, “I was especially surprised by their highlighting that she was indeed this one [superlative] woman to have gotten the chair, without any reflection whatsoever on their own practices in awarding said chair mostly to men!”
  • The very title – “Lady in the Lab” – carries unfortunate connotations. (Angel in the kitchen,  whore in the bedroom, etc.) The phrase “Lady” is hardly ever used respectfully, and when it is, it is in reference to perceived social class and submissive feminine qualities that are no longer complimentary. Now, I’ve looked it up, and Casadei’s marriage to a Sir makes her eligible to be referred to as a Lady – which begs the question of why the BHF is titling an article about her with a reference to her husband’s status? As I’ve said before, the title of full Professor is the highest status that an academic scientist can achieve – and it’s one that Casadei has earned and fought for. Why not just finish it off and call her “Hausfrau in the Halls” or “Hot Mama Heart Scientist.”

When Casadei speaks for herself, her voice is powerful and inspiring. Read the article to appreciate it!

“There’s no question that women can do science as well as men,” [Casadei] says. “But there’s a lot of subtle messaging that implies science is for boys and the arts are for girls. As a result, girls aren’t encouraged in the same way.”

But she’s only allowed a passing reference to the Athena Swan Charter – cast as her “New Year’s resolution.” Anything else that she says that’s interesting is quickly tacked back to the safe script of Sexy Domestic Lab Goddess: the journalist has a structure that she’s gotta stick to, people have to walk away from this HEARTWARMED! They need to hear about SALMON RISOTTO! They don’t want substance, they want to hear about EATING LESS FAT and BIKING TO WORK, because people have never heard about those things before.

I believe that this is a disrespectful way to write about a female role model in science, although I am sure that no overt offence was meant on the part of the Heart Matters reporter, Madeleine Bailey. Bailey, a freelance journalist, probably did not realize that in the social context of academia and the greater cultural context of British society, stating that a successful, top-of-her-field professor would look “just as at home on the society pages of Tatler as in a lab” is incredibly sexist and discouraging. Of course, the fact that a journalist with 20+ years of “experience” has less keyed-in cultural savvy than @Horse_ebooks is almost equally discouraging.

OR IS SHE?!

You know, if you remove Casadei’s quotes and biography from the article, this is pretty much what remains – WAIT A MINUTE.

I take it back. It is entirely possible that the BHF has hired a fake horse’s Twitter spam feed to perform all of their Science Journalism.

Insert joke about Tesco’s lasagna and typing with hooves.

Dr Glass hopefully suggested that I create a character called Professor Brock “Rowdy” Badcock and write fake BHF interviews with him.

Rugged, manly and elegant, oozing charisma like a masculine cologne from his earthy pores, Brock “Rowdy” Badcock would be equally at home ropin’ steers or pleasin’ ladies – but instead, he chooses to break hearts. Which he FIXES, with sexing and sometimes punching. For his sterling service in the field of servicing weak lady-hearts, and his controversial “Punch Heart Disease in the Face” campaign, Brock received the BHF award for Manliest Scientist, which he recently celebrated by chewing a steak from the flank of a live wolf.

“There’s no reason why all scientists can’t be as manly as I,” he enthuses. “As a child, I grew up eating raw bear hearts, which infected me with a passion for cardiovascular research, as well as some interesting parasites and the tendency to sprout even more grizzly chest hair at the full moon.”

Brock is one of only forty-nine male BHF chairs, though he states that the other forty-eight are hardly what he’d call men. “I blame the lack of punching,” he says.

Dr Glass initially suggested that he pose for pictures in the role of Rowdy – smouldering against his lab bench wearing nothing but cowboy boots and hat, a labcoat and a smile – but he suddenly decided against it, leaving us all bereft.

 

Anyway, I’ve  had the opportunity of corresponding with Professor Casadei, and she is a really generous, inspiring role model indeed, who acknowledges that there are indeed problems to solve in science culture, and feels confident that future generations of female scientists will achieve greater parity. She has a lot of hope – and the Athena Swan Charter is a great institution.

 

Casadei’s life and work continue to inspire. This article does not. I am dismayed and saddened, and I intend to write to the BHF with these concerns, hoping that they may revise the article in a more positive, empowering light that does not detract as much from her accomplishments. Hopefully this will be more encouraging for junior researchers who may not wish to see a scientific role model compared to a literal fashion model.

 

The passages about Professor Casadei’s life, work and inspirations are lovely; the framing sections describing her looks could be changed with a few words to become more positive. After all, if it is important to the BHF that their cover scientist be recognized as Traditionally Pretty, the woman’s beauty can speak for itself – on the cover of the magazine and in the multiple photographs provided with the article.

 

And it’s not just me. Six female and three male coworkers have reacted negatively to the sexism in the article. I think this is an easy one. The article doesn’t need the framing bits that lavishly describe a role model’s physical assets – they’re an easy thing to edit out. Reducing sexism in a charity’s promotional materials will hopefully inspire more positive reporting in the future, as well as keeping potential donors charmed.

 

Would it amuse you to help me? You can reach the BHF on Twitter, Facebook or by contacting the Heart Matters staff.

19 thoughts on “SMASH SEXIST SCIENCE REPORTING: “Lady in the Lab”

  1. Last year, when working at Big Pharmaceutical Company, I created a poster for and attended the Women In Science event. Hurrah! Except we had two amazing, world-leading, ground-breaking women scientists talk, not about their work, but about how they balanced their work with their home life and having kids.

    …yeah. No.

    I’m sure that they author of that piece wasn’t being intentionally sexist, but it is so disappointing. You have Professor Barbara frickin’ Casadei, guys! Don’t ask her what her favourite recipe is, for God’s sakes! Unsurprisingly I am yet to hear a male scientist ever being asked how they manage to spend time with their kids, or cook healthy meals.

    Also, really, how does she find time to COOK FOR HER FAMILY?! Surely the answer is either: a) my husband can cook, as he’s a grown-up with life skills too or b) I do possess the basic ability to organise my life enough to ensure my kids don’t starve to death or possibly c) sweetie, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there are these amazing things called READY MEALS so if we’re really busy then that could be an option?

    *SMASH SMASH RARGH*

    • Can we briefly talk about ready meals? We don’t really have them in the US (despite the fact that we are commonly portrayed in the media as mindless tv-dinner-munchers) and so the options for a hungry, overworked family are pretty much fast food or cooking from scratch. Like, the frozen tv dinners do exist, but they’re considered “lower class” and extremely sad, have absolutely no nutritional value and are very expensive; you can buy frozen pizza and pre-seasoned meat but it doesn’t really help much. If you’re poor/busy you’re stuck with instant noodles/canned soup/trying to cook from scratch.

      When I came to Britain I was AMAZED that high-quality, reasonably priced, healthy, fresh, tasty snacks could be purchased in a package. At first I was pretty suspicious, since it’s not part of my culture, but I came around to it quickly. Like, ready-made curries do not exist in America; we don’t even have curry, really. Those packaged Sainsburys Chinese-food things, with a friendly little traffic light on the front to tell you what the nutritional content is? We don’t have those. Other things we don’t really do are “fresh bread in chain grocery stores” and “pre-prepared meal components” like the ready-made vegetable side dishes, etc. Oh, and “nice” grocery stores like Waitrose where you can pick up something like a potato au gratin and see that it’s basically just decent potatoes and cream. We can complain about Tesco’s lasagna all we want, but the fact remains that convenient/healthy family food just doesn’t exist in America.

      But yeah. Exactly. RAWR SMASH INDEED!!!!! I agree that the reporter was probably just oblivious (and possibly a horse) but it’s not really an excuse. Besides, she’s writing for a charity – they’ve gotta sound really positive and pleasant.

      • Wait, what?! You don’t have good ready meals in the states?! Or curry? :-O

        I highly recommend the Morrison’s microwave meals that are usually discounted to two for a fiver. The Thai curry and chicken and prawn paella ones are delicious.

        • We don’t have ready meals! We just don’t! I met Dr Glass in the states and the poor man had the worst culture shock. He is beautifully housetrained – better than I am, in fact – and can cook very well, but had not really counted on the fact that if he wanted healthy food, it was his job to cook it seven days a week. I thought he was a bit crazy, actually, like “sure, dude, a magical food genie cooks your food for you and puts it in a package and you just have to pick it up.”

          Then I came here with him and was like WHAT IS THIS MAD CONCEPT OF NOT COOKING? TELL ME MORE, FOR I HAVE TRAVELED FAR AND AM WEARY.

          And he was all VERILY, NEW WIFE, BEHOLD, FOR WE SHALL NUKE IT AND ALL WILL BE WELL.

          I am definitely a convert. We still mostly cook from scratch (it is a bitch to find GF snacks that aren’t curry) but it is so nice to know that we don’t HAVE to.

          I have only been to a Morrison’s once, and it was AMAZING. Granted, it was in deepest Wiltshire, and there was a man in full foxhunting costume buying giant tubs of plain yogurt and I still regret not asking him why.

          • :D You made me smile at 5.30 on a Friday evening when I have experiments running til late.

            *hands Elodie GF cake*

          • I’m actually absolutely not sure if we have ready meals here.
            Which probably is because I’m a rather passionate cook and thus simply don’t pay attention to stuff that aren’t possible ingredients of my meals (even though I’m someone who loves to unhurriedly stroll through my supermarket I actually only head for the stuff I need and ignore my surroundings entirely), but by all means I shall change that.
            From the top of my head I’d say there are ready meals but not very many and also not some that are healthy and/or fresh and/or tasty-looking, but that’s really just a guess.
            Luckily I’ll go grocery shopping tomorrow so I shall be on the lookout for ready meals!

          • I begin to understand the magic of Trader Joe’s freezers full o stuff – I thought for a long time they had to be doing magic in some giant freezer/warehouse, because it is possible to live in a healthy and happy fashion on things from the Trader Joe’s freezer section: veg that is ONLY veg, meats ditto, rice, noodles, all good things!! Now I find they are using known (foreign) technology to bring me things other countries know well.

            Ah well. Enlightenment over belief in magic is a fine thing.

  2. I have seen this happen in other arenas, too; the women getting asked questions about their diet, their clothes, their physique, whilst their male counterparts get asked more career-based questions. I have no problem with fashion, diet, family, etc., questions but only if it’s applied equally, whatever your gender.

  3. Gah, subtle sexism sucks. It reads like any other article you care to read in a glossy mag, so that, on first glance, you miss it because it’s how you expect such an article to read. BUT, as you say, it *is* disrespectful, and sexist, and the BHF editors could do so much better. Editing it and sending it back will help get my point across, yes?

    Also, it’s criminal that they gloss over the Athena Swan Charter in just two off-hand sentences. Given that a significant portion of funding is about to become contingent on Institutions having an Athena Swan Charter mark as a sign of their commitment and progress towards gender equality, it deserved a much greater mention and different language to describe it.

    I hadn’t noticed the impact of referring to women’s jobs and commitments as ‘exhausting’ before but it makes perfect sense. it’s a throw-back to the ‘teh wimmenz, they’re so FRAGILE, they shouldn’t be allowed to do anything more strenuous than pose in corsets!’

    On a happier note, that horse gif is hilarious!

    • I’ve written an email to them. I’ll let you know if I hear anything back. I’m prepared to follow up with a paper letter too if necessary.

    • oh my god, I love that your impulse is to edit it and send it back… “C-, must try harder.”

      Yes, it seems to be that while we’re writing about a superlative woman scientist (because she’s pretty and approachable, obvs!!) we ought to make more of an effort to promote her causes including the cause that would support more women in science.

      Also, it’s criminal that they gloss over the Athena Swan Charter in just two off-hand sentences. Given that a significant portion of funding is about to become contingent on Institutions having an Athena Swan Charter mark as a sign of their commitment and progress towards gender equality, it deserved a much greater mention and different language to describe it.

      NESSIE, BE CAREFUL WITH MY HEART.

      Thank you so much for this supportive & heartwarming comment, and for writing to them. You’re a star!

  4. Very good article Elodie, thank you! If it hadn’t been for you I wouldn’t have read the BHF article on “Lady Barbara”, I wouldn’t have got *really* angry at it and I wouldn’t have laughed at your cynical remarks!

    To be honest, I was not expecting such ignorance and sexism from the writers of the BHF. I really wasn’t. Could be because in my head all journalism/communication jobs in this types of charities go to Imperial MSc Sci Comm graduates and *surely* they know better than that. But maybe I’m wrong.

    Anyway, I recently did a podcast on Women in Science
    http://lifesciencespodcast.com/2013/03/08/episode-10-international-womens-day-in-the-lab/ and my favourite quote from it was from Professor Cay Kielty here at the University of Manchester: “Personally, I’ve always considered myself as a scientist rather than a woman in science and that’s how I would prefer to be considered”. That’s exactly it!

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      The story continues with the BHF finally responding to my emails by stating that they won’t change anything or address the issue going forward, but that we can all look forward to reading their next Woman in Science piece, which would focus on “PhD Student Mary Sue.” I wrote back sugar-sweetly pointing out that Mary Sue is a postdoc (and has been for a while) and expressed my warm hopes that they would remember that in the article.

      I refrained nobly from adding “Oh, and also, whenever your photographers stop by our department they take cheeky snaps of me. I’d really like a copy of the one they took last time of my butt, ‘cos my butt did look incredibly hot that day.”

      But I did not say this. I AM SO NOBLE.

      The story ends with the fact that not many people in a position of “power” really do know better, strive to be better or even write very well. Nor do they particularly care about the negative impact of their work or how they hurt others; in most cases they lack the intelligence, education or empathy in order to understand this. However, this really just means that the people in Fancy Jobs are all just people – basic starter people, not particularly bright or world-changing, but valuable nonetheless, just ordinary people occasionally doing their best; forgetting to buy milk, spending too much time on Facebook and complaining that their feet hurt. And then you meet the Imperial MSc Sci Comm graduates, or the famous science writers, and you realize that they’re the same. They might be slightly better-connected and they might work in prettier jobs, but they can’t spell “successful” and they don’t actually know what the definition of “protein” is. Looking behind the curtain is a liberating, but sobering, experience. Very much a “Wizard of Oz” moment. It puts the real heroes in your life into better perspective, whether it’s your genuinely brilliant PI, your fierce and funny mother, or even you yourself.

      If this sounds sad, it shouldn’t; it simply means that there are more opportunities for those who have an interest in changing the world and the strength to make it happen.

      Thank you so much for the link to the podcast – I will certainly download it!

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