Science Policy & Funding News

Illustrating Casual Sexism in Science

Little sexist comments are a big issue that can be difficult to talk about. These illustrations help strike at how such comments can harm and can serve as a starting place for conversations.

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Imagine that you’re a man and a principal investigator of a group researching geodynamics. It is a normal day at a conference where you and your team—who happen to be women—are presenting your research at a major international science conference. You’re excited to share your results on your group’s new data assimilation technique.

A man approaches you and asks, “Did you come with your harem?”

How would you respond? For Nicolas Coltice, the principal investigator of a geoscience group focused on studying the state and evolution of Earth’s mantle in a 5-year project funded by the European Research Council (ERC), this is not a hypothetical. This situation actually happened to him at the 2015 European Geosciences Union (EGU) conference when his team consisted of four women.

“A Man’s World” by Alice Adenis, for the “Did This Really Happen?” project.
“A Man’s World.” Credit: Alice Adenis/didthisreallyhappen.net, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Coltice, who was not with his team when the comment was made, had faced this type of comment before. He immediately asked the questioner to explain what he meant, making it clear that the remark was inappropriate.

But when Coltice and his team discussed this and similar events, they decided that more needed to be done.

Their eventual response? To start documenting and sharing such instances of casual sexism in academic environments and in an eye-catching way: through illustrations.

They call their effort Did This Really Happen? to capture the bafflement and sense of surreal that those on the receiving end of casual sexism feel after an incident has just happened.

The name “really represents our attitude when we faced this kind of sexist behaviors,” said Maëlis Arnould, a Ph.D. candidate in ERC’s Augury group and member of the project. “How else would one react at the remark ‘Where is the rest of your harem?’ Even asked as a joke during an international scientific conference?”

A Story Arc

The group initially gave a presentation about casual sexism at the 2016 EGU conference. That poster just had anecdotes and text.

But the project took its current form in 2016 when Alice Adenis joined the Augury group. Adenis, a data scientist, grew up reading her mother’s collection of comics and began making her own when an internship gave her too little time to paint.

With Adenis’s artistic aid, the group turned several of their own experiences into illustrated stories, which they initially posted to their lab’s refrigerator and presented on a conference poster in 2017.

Now, they share the comics through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and archive them on a website. Through the website, readers can also share their stories so that the group can transform them into new illustrations.

“Forever Girls” by Alice Adenis, for the “Did This Really Happen?” project.
“Forever Girls.” Credit: Alice Adenis/didthisreallyhappen.net, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

When the Did This Really Happen? team chooses to illustrate a story, they work together and with the person who submitted it to ensure the “compliance and accuracy of the final comics compared with the initial testimony and message that should be conveyed in the story” and to maintain the desired level of confidentiality, explained Arnould.

Toward Thoughtful Discussion

The goal of the project is not to shame individuals but to raise awareness of the issue and promote thoughtful discussion. “Each of our comics raises the question, ‘And you, what would you do in such a situation?’—not only addressed to women but also to men potentially witnessing such a situation,” Arnould explained.

“I love how the drawings can tell a story and how you can see the events happening in front of your eyes,” said Adenis. “Even if the drawings are fixed on the paper.”

“Nature Cover” by Alice Adenis, for the “Did This Really Happen?” project.
Nature Cover.” Credit: Alice Adenis/didthisreallyhappen.net, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

The short strips are quicker to read than a blog post and are more likely to inspire reflection, she explained. “We live an era where information must go fast. Reading a small strip is way faster than reading a blog article and can have a much larger impact,” she added.

Virginia Valian, a psychology professor at the City University of New York and director of the Gender Equity Project at Hunter College in New York City, thinks it is good that Did This Really Happen? portrays real events.  But she adds that “these cartoons run the risk of portraying women as helpless victims.”

“I think women often do not know how to respond either to doubts cast on their abilities or praise of their abilities,” Valian continued. “It would be helpful to provide women with possible answers.” She suggests that examples of appropriate responses might be beneficial after each situation.

Valian’s feedback is not an uncommon response, Arnould said. However, she noted that the current goal of the project is to honestly document, rather than offer advice that might be hard to adapt to different circumstances.

“It is important for us to show how such situations have been more or less uncomfortable and perhaps even totally unpleasant, by representing exactly how women reacted in those situations,” said Arnould. The group does not believe that reporting such stories paints women as victims, but rather, their real reactions of shock or hurt feelings serve to denounce the sexist behavior, she added.

Barriers Exposed

The careers of the scientists behind Did This Really Happen? have evolved, and they are now scattered across multiple continents. But they collaborate and spread information about the project when they visit other labs, attend workshops, and present at conferences. Two members of the group, Mélanie Gérault and Maëlis Arnould, will be formally presenting a talk about Did This Really Happen? Tuesday morning at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2018.

“Like anything else in science, we can’t solve a problem if we don’t understand it,” said Tracey Holloway, a cofounder of the Earth Science Women’s Network who is not involved in the project. “I think this comic series is a valuable effort to communicate some of the well-known barriers facing women in science.”

“Conference Classic” by Alice Adenis, for the “Did This Really Happen?” project.
“Conference Classic.” Credit: Alice Adenis/didthisreallyhappen.net, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

You may ask, Can one drawing make a difference? “Our initiative might be a drop in the ocean,” acknowledged Arnould. “But we do truly believe and we do trust that starting from small projects like Did This Really Happen? can eventually lead to more gender equality in science.”

More drawings from the project can be found here.

—Bailey Bedford ([email protected]; @BBedfordScience), Science Communication Program Graduate Student, University of California, Santa Cruz

Citation: Bedford, B. (2018), Illustrating casual sexism in science, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO111589. Published on 10 December 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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