Women and amateur science

Last month, Reptile Channel’s Russ Case posted a blog entry on women and reptiles — specifically, on the growing presence of women in the amateur herpetocultural community. Whereas once reptiles were “usually considered a guy thing,” Case argues,

Somewhere along the way, things changed. The next time you’re at a reptile expo, pay attention and you’ll notice just as many women wandering the aisles and enthusiastically examining the reptiles on display as there are men. And they’re not just in the aisles — you’ll see plenty of women vendors selling reptiles and amphibians, too.

It’s something I’ve noticed as well — not the trend, because even after 11 years, I haven’t been in the community long enough, or paying attention to it enough, to be aware of the trend — but the presence of women in the herp community, wrangling frogs, snakes, and lizards with the best of them, and I was aware that it was counterintuitive insofar as common sense or received wisdom was concerned. I’ve also met women who were bolder and less afraid of snakes than their male partners (which I found very interesting).

Florida Girls of Herpetology calendar But then Case had to go and wreck the point by pointing to the existence of a calendar of “herp babes” — the 2011 Florida Girls of Herpetology Conservation Calendar (available here). The problem is that photos of women with snakes and other reptiles aren’t exactly uncommon; a calendar of women whose “reptile-related credentials are very impressive” runs the risk of lowering skilled herpers to the level of eye candy. Not that I’m opposed to eye candy; I’m opposed to the conflation of female participation and “look! babes!” — the kind of response I’d expect from a bunch of adolescent gamers to a girl attending one of their game nights. Only if there’s irony or high camp involved does this avoid being demeaning, and I haven’t seen any evidence of either.

(For all I know the calendar itself is all right — I haven’t seen it, and don’t know how much pulchritude is involved — but including it in a discussion of women’s participation in the reptile community is decidedly off.)

And if you think that this bit of cringeworthiness is limited to amateur herpetology, well, then, you’ve never heard of the Celestron girls. Telescope manufacturer Celestron had ads during the 1980s that, Ed Ting recalls,

show[ed] pretty women (some in dresses and high heels) posing provocatively at the eyepiece. Most of them looked as if they had never been anywhere near an astronomical telescope before that morning’s photo shoot. Many astronomers I’ve talked to still resent these ads today. “I’m insulted” is a typical comment. What they were silently saying was “I’m buying a Meade — they respect my hobby.”

Celestron girls

In other words, when women are seen as more or less the equivalent of a trade show model, there’s a problem. One that doesn’t do much to encourage more women to take up the hobby, or make those who are already in the hobby feel like they’re being taken seriously, I’ll bet. Clearly, the science-based hobbies have not had a good track record on the gender front. But it could be worse: it could be model railroading.