The XX Factor

50 Years After Silent Spring, Sexism Persists in Science

When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring 50 years ago this week, she kick-started the environmentalist movement. Her critics countered with their own lasting campaign against women in science. Those who disagreed with Carson’s findings about the dangers of agricultural pesticides dismissed her personally as “a spinster,” “hysterical,” and “an uninformed woman speaking of that which she did not know.” One reader’s letter published in The New Yorker said, “As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs!”

Even support of Carson was lodged in sexist terms. In Linda Lear’s 1998 biography of Carson, she compiles the gendered praise of Carson’s earlier, less-controversial book, 1951’s The Sea Around Us. “I assume from the author’s knowledge that he must be a man,” one reader complimented. Her fellow science writers piled on, complaining that she had not printed a photograph of herself on the book’s jacket. “It would be pleasant to know what a woman looks like who can write about an exacting science with such beauty and precision,” Jonathan Norton Leonard wrote in his glowing New York Times review. Reporters rushed to uncover Carson’s appearance. They were pleased when they discovered her to be, as the New York Herald Tribune reported, “attractive,” thin, and blue-eyed. “You are such a surprise to me,” one editor told her. “I thought you would be a very large and forbidding woman.”

Today’s scientific critiques are rarely so obviously sexist. But the twin gendered responses to Carson’s work—one used to criticize, the other to praise—speak to tropes still wielded against women in science today. If we disagree with her scientific findings, we lean on the idea that women are irrational thinkers. If we accept her conclusions, we express surprise that one outlier has broken through the limitations of her gender—and we wonder if she isn’t a little bit like a man. In fact, feminized terms are still used to discredit scientific work, regardless of the gender of those conducting it. In Slate, Carson biographer William Souder noted that the current debate over climate change appears much like the one over pesticide use half a century earlier: “On one side of the environmental debate are the perceived soft-hearted scientists and those who would preserve the natural order,” he wrote. “(O)n the other are the hard pragmatists of industry and their friends in high places, the massed might of the establishment.” Science is still a fight between soft hearts versus mighty pragmatists, even if the battle is one largely waged by men.

And 50 years on, prominent female scientific figures like Carson remain rare. The ranks of women in scientific fields have improved markedly since Silent Spring’s publication, but that’s not saying much. In 1966, women made up just .9 percent of engineers, 3.4 percent of physicists, and 8.2 percent of chemists. By 2000, they comprised 10 percent of engineers, 14 percent of physicists, and 32 percent of chemists. Only in the field of biology have women achieved equity by the numbers. By 2006, women earned nearly 50 percent of doctorate degrees in biology and made up more than half of the workforce in that field. (Even in 1966, a third of biologists were women.) Today, women make up half of all medical students but only 4 percent of full professors of medicine.

The low representation of women in science is often dismissed as a product of women’s own interest or aptitude, but a new study by researchers at Yale University suggests that institutional sexism is a likely candidate. The study found that both male and female science professors—in fields from biology to physics—ranked female students lower than their male peers, even when their qualifications were identical. The average starting salary offered to the female candidate was $4,000 less than that offered to the man.

The Yale scientists told the New York Times that their results “probably reflected subconscious cultural influences rather than overt or deliberate discrimination.” Conscious or not, it’s often pretty obvious. Dr. Jo Handelsman, one Yale biology professor behind the study, said that many of her peers dismissed the work, guessing that “scientists would rise above” sexism “because they were trained to analyze objective data rationally.” Handelsman’s data disagreed.