When British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield became the first woman to give the UK’s prestigious Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 1994, journalists at the time focused on her path-breaking achievement.
But they also reported on something else: how she looked.
The Times of London wrote that in the televised lectures she wore “a blush pink silk blouse and leggings to bring a ridiculously long tradition of bow-ties and tweed-jackets to its overdue end.”
Greenfield was then a credentialed, expert speaker–an Oxford academic who specialized in neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, and her talk explained the workings of the physical brain.
But The Independent also guessed that, for the Royal Institution to choose her as speaker, her “infectious enthusiasm, the striking outfits she favours, her brown eyes, blonde hair and wide smile will not have gone unnoticed.”
Female scientists face well-documented career obstacles, such as glass ceilings, work-life balance and sexual harassment. But for women like Greenfield, who become public intellectuals and celebrities like Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, another obstacle is evident: the problematic way the media routinely portray female scientists.
As the science writer and scholar Alice Bell wrote last year in The Guardian, this repeated reporting of a female scientist’s appearance has gotten in the way of a “robust critique and celebration of female scientists for decades.”
Never Just a Scientist
The 1994 Royal Institution lectures marked Greenfield’s first major foray into public life. The coverage set the themes that would recur over her career, as she moved out of the lab and into the limelight to become a researcher that Nature hailed as a “celebrity neuroscientist” and Science described as “science rock star” who comes “alive in the spotlight.”
I wrote about Greenfield at length in my book on scientific fame, The New Celebrity Scientists, which examines how our media-driven celebrity culture produces popular scientific stars.
Since her 1994 lectures, Greenfield’s accomplishments and accolades include her appointments as professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford and head of the Royal Institution (the first woman to hold the post), winning of a Michael Faraday medal from the Royal Society for her science communication efforts, and publication of several popular science books.
In those two decades, she has also been called “Britain’s most famous living female scientist” by The Independent, a “mini-skirted media celebrity” by The Daily Mail, and “a dolly-bird boffin of tabloid fame” by The Sunday Times.
To be sure, Greenfield is one case, but her treatment is emblematic of wider trends in popular culture. In the words of literary scholar Elizabeth Leane, “a scientist who is a woman is then always a woman scientist, not simply a scientist.”
Profiling Physical Appearance
In study published in 2010, communication researchers Mwenya Chimba and Jenny Kitzinger examined the media portrayal of female scientists in the UK.
When the media broke from their usual pattern of marginalizing female scientists, coverage focused on the scientists’ physical appearance.
Chimba and Kitzinger studied how 51 scientists were profiled in British newspapers and found that, “Half of the profiles of women referred to their clothing, physique and/or hairstyle whereas this was only true for 21% of men.”
They wrote that their work focused not on the complex question of how many profiles were published, but more on how women scientists were portrayed–a logic I also followed in my book.
This pattern of coverage is not restricted to UK media. A 2000 study of The New York Times found women were used as “tokens” in science stories, with a strong emphasis placed on their roles as wives or mothers.
On television, women researchers were largely invisible in documentaries or dramas, science historian Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette argues in her brilliant 2012 book Science on American Television. Up to the turn of the 20th century, when women were featured, she wrote, they were largely presented as superwomen consumed by their careers, or as romantic adventurers like Margaret Mead or Jane Goodall.
These problematic portrayals have historical roots. Between the 1920s and 1980s, Chimba and Kitzinger wrote in their study, women scientists were judged on the quality of their baking or sewing skills.
As scholar Dorothy Nelkin observed, for example, Barbara McClintock won the 1983 Nobel Prize in medicine. That year The New York Times told readers she also baked with black walnuts. And because the scientist never married, Newsweek labeled her “the Greta Garbo of genetics” – “always preferring to be alone.”
That style of reporting has changed somewhat since the 1980s. Chimba and Kitzinger argued that since then, there has been a movement in recent years towards judging female scientists based on criteria of “beauty, fashion and sexiness.”
They list various potential consequences of this shift in media reporting. It might show female scientists as “fashion-conscious, contradicting the image of scientists as frumpy or ‘masculine,’” they wrote.
It might also, however, “draw attention away from the scientist’s professionalism to her physical appearance, and there may be the implicit accusation that she is being manipulative and using her sexuality to attract attention.”
Turning Bias to Advantage?
This points to another dilemma for women scientists in the public eye, one that Greenfield dealt with in her career: how does a scientist work within, or challenge, these patterns of media portrayal to gain a public platform for her ideas?
Greenfield told The Independent in 2000, for example, that the facial features she likes best are her lips. “They’re quite full, and lips can’t age too much,” she said. “In terms of dislikes, it has to be my nose. It’s too beaky.”
As Chimba and Kitzinger note, there is a thin line for all scientists between being praised for promoting science and being accused of self-promotion. “Our research suggests that, for women, any such endeavor can be particularly risky.”
But it is risk women scientists must negotiate if they plan on a public career. As writer Elaine Showalter once noted, “the modern feminist heroine cannot deny fame or flee from it; she has to understand and use it.”
There are signs of change. Digital media with its dense networks of users can generate what researchers have called “micro-celebrity”–a type of localized fame where people become popular over the Web using video, blogs and social networking. Micro-celebrity could play a role in challenging established patterns of portrayal of female scientists.
Greenfield is an interesting public scientist because of her role as an entrepreneurial scientist, who saw early the trends towards partnerships between science and industry. She has also received vociferous criticisms for her controversial views that living online is changing our brains.
But older styles of representation still remain. In 2014, 20 years after her Royal Institution lectures, The Observer ran an interview with Greenfield accompanied by a large photo of her. The piece once again focused on her appearance (read the second paragraph). As she told me in an interview for my book: “That would never happen to a middle-aged man in a suit.”