Science is a process, and exaggerating a single person’s contributions prohibits progress — especially when that person derails women’s careers.
By Sarah Olson – The archetype of the lone male genius has always existed.
For centuries, the image of a scientist has been a stagnant one: an eccentric and intelligent man, creating inventions in a laboratory or basement. We love the idea of the solitary genius scientist because he represents a male ideal that’s celebrated in history and literature and culture. He’s the cruelly witty Sherlock Holmes. He’s the lonesome and brilliant Nikola Tesla. He’s smart-ass scientist Grandpa Rick in Rick and Morty. If you go back far enough into ancient history, he’s Gilgamesh.
The lone male genius exists in patriarchal cultures that foster ambition and intelligence in men, putting those who embody this archetype on pedestals. Often those men, admired for their inventions and accomplishments, demonstrate the toxic behaviors associated with masculinity. Toxic masculinity isn’t just dangerous for women and those who don’t adhere to gender roles; it’s harmful for men by teaching them to be cold and cruel, with fragile egos. Some of them can be charismatic and manipulative, reveling in their power.
Today, the STEM fields are experiencing a reckoning.
No longer tolerant of the poor behavior of science’s patriarchs, many in STEM are calling out men past and present for abusing their power. Darwin defended women’s subordinate position; Watson was sexist and racist; and any number of Nobel prize recipients have stolen work from women. Ignoring faults for the sake of putting men of science up on pedestals is harmful, and many within the STEM community are no longer willing to sit and allow it to continue. Groups such as MeTooSTEM have been formed to fight harassment in the sciences.
But part of the resistance those advocating against sexual harassment in STEM have experienced seems to be oriented around the idea that the work of accomplished male scientists will be torn apart during the reckoning. Recently I attended a small Diversity in STEM symposium and had the opportunity to see Dr. Sharona Gordon speak on this topic. Dr. Gordon discussed the National Academy of Sciences voting on whether members, who are elected for life, could be ejected if found guilty of sexual harassment.
Although members generally supported the bylaw change, there was some vocal resistance. Dr. Gordon quoted a prominent MIT professor who appeared in Science: “Before there is a mad rush to approve such an ejection procedure [from the NAS], it might be useful to ask whether sexual harassment by a member has anything whatsoever to do with their credibility as a scientist and the soundness of their research accomplishments — the criteria that were used to elect them in the first place.”
Although the policy was ultimately adopted, critics continue to cry out against repercussions for sexual harassers in STEM. What does this have to do with our “male genius” stereotype? A lot, as it turns out. Men who hold positions of such power and are widely admired and respected may be primed for sexual abuse.
Take, for example, Dr. W. French Anderson, the father of gene therapy. He was convicted and spent time in prison for molesting a colleague’s young daughter. He still maintains his innocence and intends to return to science — doting and sympathetic articles have interviewed him in depth. They’re difficult to read without feeling repulsed. The question is, will Dr. Anderson be allowed to return to practicing science? Keep in mind, he’s 82 years old. The law found him guilty of molesting a child. What does he have left to offer?
Perhaps this is a cruel perspective to take — shouldn’t we, in the interest of science, allow this so-called genius and gene pioneer to return to his work? While Dr. Gordon did not discuss Dr. Anderson in her presentation at the symposium, she did bring up a point that I found relevant: we are all replaceable. As much as we’d like to think these male geniuses have something more to offer, the fact is, if something in science exists, someone will eventually discover it. Perhaps allowing an 82 year old child molester to return to science is not actually in science’s best interest.
We come up with excuses for the behavior of people like Watson and Crick for how they treated Rosalind Franklin, and who derailed and discredited female scientists’ careers, for the sake of attributing the discovery of DNA’s structure to them. But had they not found it, perhaps one of the women whose careers they affected would have made that discovery. Perhaps they weren’t so special after all. Perhaps they just occupied a place of privilege and positions of power at the right time.
Speaking of power and privilege, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss also faces allegations of sexual misconduct. This misconduct — acts of inappropriate sexual behavior, what Dr. Gordon refers to as “below the waterline” — fosters a toxic environment for women in science. How many women have left STEM after encountering such horrible behavior from men in positions of power?
Unfortunately, because scientists often “demand evidence they can see for themselves,” writes The Atlantic, “in Krauss’s case, [they may] decide to handle allegations of sexual misconduct as a hypothesis to be investigated, dissected, and proven.” Without proof, the burden is left on the shoulders of the victims to avoid the harasser, or leave. But as we’ve seen in Dr. Anderson’s case, even with evidence, people may refuse to believe some men would be capable of such morally repulsive behavior.
Even physicist Richard Feynman is not faultless. He’s been focal point of discussions surrounding whether science can be separated from the scientist. Many people, desperate to defend their hero(es), swear their work is what really matters. But can we truly separate men’s actions into neat categories, splicing them into boxes of what is acceptable and what is not? Take a look at this excerpt from “Surely You’re A Creep, Mr. Feynman”, by Leila McNeill:
In “Surely You’re Joking”, Feynman details how he adopted the mindset of a pick-up artist (an outlook he also claims to have eventually abandoned) by treating women as if they were worthless and cruelly lashing out at them when they rejected his advances. He worked and held meetings in strip clubs, and while a professor at Cal Tech, he drew naked portraits of his female students. Even worse, perhaps, he pretended to be an undergraduate student to deceive younger women into sleeping with him. His second wife accused him of abuse, citing multiple occasions when he’d fly into a blind rage if she interrupted him while he was working or playing his bongos.
After reading this, it might be more difficult to say we can simply take Mr. Feynman for both an excellent physicist and terrible misogynist. But my partner, a physics major, still adores his 3-volume set of Mr. Feynman’s Lectures on Physics. Perhaps it’s easier to separate the scientist from his science when you’re not, and never will be, affected personally by misogyny and sexism.
Unfortunately, many women in STEM are adversely affected by misogynists and sexists when those men are highly regarded and respected within the scientific community. After all, sexual harassment isn’t really about sex — it’s about power. As Dr. Gordon phrased it in her presentation, having that power allows harassers to “punish those who violate gender norms.” Whether by using their words to demean, bully, and patronize, or using their body to sexually harm or defile women, their power and prestige is what gives them the excuse.
These men believe that their power will keep them safe. The problem is, it often does.
But by stripping sexual harassers of their positions of prestige and by reprimanding them by removing their power, these so-called male geniuses are forced to face repercussions. Their scientific contributions are devalued by the careers they derail with their behavior — not to mention the mental harm suffered by their victims. In addition, being complicit with inappropriate sexual behavior taints the reputation of science, as we’re now seeing with the Jeffrey Epstein debacle. Apparently having “the mind of a physicist”, despite not being one, allowed scientists to make excuses for Epstein’s perverse sexual behavior.
But perhaps you disagree, and you think that combating sexual harassment by stripping perpetrators of their esteem is a strong position to take. Then I ask you this: what’s worth more, the contributions of a lone male genius who assaults and harasses and discriminates against women, or the contributions of a large scientific community unhindered by a misogynistic and unsafe environment?
As advocates of science, our answer should resoundingly be the latter. The fact is, we are compromising the truth and value of science by allowing harassers to perpetuate an unacceptable working environment for female scientists. We are all contributing toward scientific progress. To allow a sexist male “genius” to derail that progress for the sake of upholding a toxic ideal is absurd.
Geniuses aren’t all that special, anyway. Science is the great equalizer — we are all replaceable. If one scientist hadn’t made a special discovery, surely another eventually would have made the same one. This is why I believe it’s time to take a zero-tolerance stance on sexual harassment. Unhindered by sexism and patriarchy and abuses of power, science will thrive and progress will come that much sooner.
About The Author
Sarah Olson is an undergraduate student at Oregon State University where she is majoring in microbiology. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and reviews popular science books on her blog, readmorescience.com. In addition to advocating for science literacy, Sarah frequently writes about feminism for Medium and other outlets, exploring the intersection of science, religion, and feminism. You can connect with her at saraholson.net and through Twitter and Instagram. She lives in Oregon with her partner.