Science and Culture

Actual Living Scientists Dress Like Women

Two Twitter hashtags signal new era for science outreach

By Ben Lybarger

Two events last month generated an incredible response on social media. One was triggered by Donald Trump’s reported pressuring of female staff members to “to dress like women.” This spurred the hashtag #dresslikeawoman, which has managed to deconstruct antiquated gender norms related to fashion while also highlighted the inspiring variety of occupations and activities pursued by women all over the globe.

The second event was set in motion by wildlife ecologist, conservation biologist, and science communicator David A. Steen. Reacting to troubling reports of the public’s disconnect from science — such as a 2013 survey by Research America revealing that 70% of Americans were unable to name a single living scientist — he reintroduced himself to the Twitterverse with a now viral hashtag: #actuallivingscientist.

Steen has, in fact, been engaged in science outreach for a long time: both through his website (Living Alongside Wildlife) and his social media activism. He was even proclaimed “The Best Biologist on Twitter” by Slate in 2015 for — among other things — his tireless forays into snake identification and advocacy, which spawned classic hashtags like #NotACopperhead and #NotACottonmouth.

It is little wonder that #actuallivingscientist has caught on so impressively. It couldn’t be more timely as increasing portions of the United States mistrust science, scientific literacy in general remains stagnant, and the current Administration is not just openly hostile to science, but also to the very notion of facts. In this heated atmosphere, more and more scientists are feeling the need to become at least visible, if not outright politically active.

In fact, many scientists (alongside herds of science enthusiasts) are stepping away from their labs, classrooms, and remote field sites in order to engage the public and influence policy. The newly formed 314 Action group seeks to advocate for the STEM community and support candidates with science backgrounds for public office, while an incredible wave of interest in a March for Science has created what promises to be historic demonstrations across the nation.

The idea that increased science outreach is needed is not new, although the current political climate seems to have dialed up the urgency a few hundred notches. Back in 2013, conservation biologist, Jai Ranganathan, stated the situation bluntly in a Scientific American blog: “If you don’t convince the public that your science matters, your funding will quickly vanish and so will your field.” He made a convincing case for this expanded role of a scientist during the pre-Trump era. Now the threats to science and evidence-based public policy are exponentially greater and shockingly imminent.

In this cultural context, #actuallivingscientist is more than a wry introduction to a hitherto largely ignored demographic of hypothesis junkies and peer-reviewed truthers. In fact, very few of those who hold anti-science views will likely spend their free time on Twitter getting familiar with this wave of proud researchers. Therefore, the success of this hashtag should be measured instead by the solidarity it engenders among the science community, and whether it serves as an opening salvo for a new and unprecedented era of energetic science outreach.

Such a movement must be inclusive to be successful. While institutional bias does exist within the sciences, as it does across society in general, the benefits of embracing immigrants, minorities, and women in every STEM field should be obvious. This is what has made the co-occurrence of the #actuallivingscientist and #dresslikeawoman hashtags so important. Not only is the often-caricatured image of the scientist being humanized by the former, but when paired with the latter, you get a real sense of how “yugely” women are contributing to the sciences. Just by scanning the small sample of posts included here, the cliched notions of “women’s work” are exposed as bizarrely anachronistic, and any talk about female-appropriate clothing in the workplace just seems small-minded and, well… gross.

Acknowledging the current and past contributions of women to science is vitally important. Making their stories and their work visible is not only rooted in basic respect, but it also allows them to inspire the next generation of scientists. Without striving to grow the scientific community, to have a voice in the culture, and to remove barriers so more women participate in STEM fields, we are stifling innovation, thwarting discovery, and ultimately hindering progress that will benefit us all.

There is still a lot of work to be done on this front; so much so that an entire issue of Nature was devoted to exploring gender equality in the sciences, including disparities in pay, promotions, and grants. Our current hashtag discussion can also be seen in connection to an earlier trending hashtag on Twitter. Starting in 2015 (and still going strong), #Distractinglysexy has rightly mocked a Nobel-winning biochemist’s sexist comments about the type of attention he paid to his female colleagues. Taken in the context of this 2017 conversation, we can see a peculiar double-bind for women in the sciences: they can be simultaneously invisible to a public that hosts traditional stereotypes about what a scientist looks like, while also being disturbingly conspicuous within their fields. These are two sides to the same coin, and both may improve rapidly as “women in science” ceases to be a novel concept.

While science communication and outreach necessarily grow in order for STEM fields to survive, they will need to embrace and highlight diversity: gender and otherwise. To be truly effective in regaining widespread public approval, more people need to be reached, educated, and inspired to participate. At this moment, with scientists stepping out of the shadows en masse to defend the environment and social justice, perhaps science itself has the potential to be a much-needed cultural unifier. Here’s hoping.

{Please continue scrolling down this page to see just a small but inspiring sample of actual living scientists… all dressed like women.}