Last week National Public Radio aired an interview with astronomer and California Institute of Technology professor, Shrinivas Kulkarni. In the interview, Kulkarni made an off-the-cuff comment that he probably didn’t expect would cause a social media storm:
“We astronomers are supposed to say, ‘We wonder about the stars and we really want to think about it’ …Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call ‘boys with toys,’” Kulkarni told host Joe Palca.
The interview hung on those words for a minute “boys with toys,” and Kulkarni came in and said “you’re not supposed to say that.” What he meant was that you aren’t supposed to say astronomers are just nerds who like to play with fancy equipment; they’re supposed to be more erudite than that. But what he also said—implicitly and definitely not maliciously—was that he sees scientists as male by default.
Female scientists on Twitter jumped in to kindly remind Kulkarni that many of those “boys with toys” are actually girls with toys. Female scientists started tweeting photos of themselves doing science under the hashtag, #girlswithtoys shortly thereafter.
— klon peags (@tembeep) May 18, 2015
— K.E.M Lindblom (@the_egghunter) May 18, 2015
— Carolina 🥑 (@Karolniai) May 18, 2015
Kulkarni has yet to acknowledge the Internet’s reaction to his comment, but chances are he already regrets making it. Like the shirt depicting busty women worn by Rosetta mission scientist Matt Taylor that set off a Twitter #shirtstorm in 2014, Kulkarni’s comment wasn’t an overt decision to be sexist. In all likelihood, Kulkarni is a nice, reasonable person who does not hate women or actively stand in the way of their advancement. Rather, Kulkarni made an offhand comment that reflects the culture of his male-dominated profession.
Kulkarni’s comment and Taylor’s shirt both were tone deaf decisions in a field where women often feel marginalized and ignored. Taylor’s decision to wear the shirt was ignorant of the idea that it might make some of his female colleagues uncomfortable, perhaps causing them to worry if he saw them in the similar, objectified light as the women on his shirt. (He did tearfully apologize for the offense his shirt caused).
Kukarni’s comment implied that scientists are just that—all boys, with toys. Obviously “boys with toys” rolls off the tongue more easily than “people with toys,” but a simple acknowledgement that there are women and nonbinary people out there in science after the initial comment would have gone a long way.
STEM is a difficult field for most women to break into. Almost from the get go, women are encouraged to pursue other fields. Here’s Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining the gender disparity through his own experiences. (Though we’re just going to skip right over the thick, thick irony that he answered the “where are all the chicks?” question even though there was a woman sitting right next to him that perhaps could have answered herself.)
“All I could say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist and astrophysicist was, hands down, the path of most resistance through the forces of society. Anytime I expressed this interest, teachers would say, ‘Don’t you want to be an athlete?’” deGrasse Tyson said.
Many women describe similar experiences on their road to becoming scientists.
Of course even if they do get into academia-level science, the pipeline toward tenure-track professorships and other advanced stages of career is notoriously leaky. If they manage to overcome the cultural pressures against getting into science, then they may find that their male peers advance in their careers while they stagnate in their own.
They may find that their research is less likely to be published than research by their male counterparts. Their peer reviewers—anonymous scientists who examine a study up for publication for errors—may even suggest they add a male author to their study in order to be “taken more seriously,” as geneticist Fiona Ingleby recently did.
Their own advisors may be less likely to mentor them, because they assume that women are going to leave their careers to pursue families. Or some buy into the idea that women are genetically predisposed to be worse at science and math. They may be sexually harassed, even assaulted, while working on field trips.
All of those issues can conspire to make women feel invisible and ignored in their field. That scientists often pride themselves as rational and unbiased doesn’t help them see their own failings in this department. So it’s important that scientists continually call out their more tone deaf peers on their sexist nonsense—even if it seems small and innocuous—so that ultimately the whole field can move toward a place of greater awareness and inclusiveness.
Screengrab via NIH/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)