Photograph by Jim Lo Scalzo, European Pressphoto Agency

Read Caption

Rita Colwell speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in 2011.

Photograph by Jim Lo Scalzo, European Pressphoto Agency

Why Is a Woman Who Loves Science So Surprising?

Some fans shocked at gender of I F**king Love Science founder.

All she did was join Twitter.

But when Elise Andrew, the brain behind the popular Facebook page I F**king Love Science, posted her Twitter profile picture there last week, some of the page's 4.3 million fans were shocked to learn her gender—even though Andrew's identity as a woman was no secret.

"Holy sh*t you are a chick? MARRY ME," Raul James wrote in one of the hundreds of comments on her Facebook post. "I'll admit it, I was surprised that IFLS was run by a woman," wrote David Peterson. Most of the comments were posted by men.

By posting regular science-related jokes, quotes, and memes, IFLS highlights "the funny side of science," according to the page, as well as "anything your admin finds awesome and strange."

The flood of Facebook reaction attracted amused attention from the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper and The Escapist, an online gaming magazine (Woman Loves Science, Astounds Facebook). But it left Andrew, a social media content manager for LabX Media Group, which publishes The Scientist Magazine, dismayed.

"I was absolutely astonished by an onslaught of comments expressing their absolute shock that IFLS is run by a woman," wrote Andrew, who's in her early 20s.

"It's a sad day when a woman being funny and interested in science is considered newsworthy." (Read about National Geographic's women explorers.)

We talked to molecular biologist Rita Colwell, distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and former director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, about why the idea of a female science guru is so surprising.

What was your reaction to this?

I didn't really like the title [I F**king Love Science] because I'm old fashioned and don't think expletives are necessary to make a point emphatically. I also didn't like, but wasn't surprised about, the nonsense that it's a big deal because it was a woman who loved science and wrote about science. I thought it was absurd and clearly indicates [that] although we've made progress over the past 40 to 50 years, we haven't made that much progress in behavior and attitudes.

Why is it so surprising that the founder of a science Facebook page would be female?

There is a tendency to think that if anyone is interested in the exquisite details of science that they must be a nerd, and nerds are supposed to be male. That's too bad because there are a lot of women who really love all of science. Part of this reaction may be due to socialization in our culture that suggests girls are only interested in "soft" science like psychology and not interested in "hard" science involving mathematics. That's a pity.

Does this highlight certain hurdles that women still need to overcome?

Yes. There was a publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently that showed that when the same application for a job as a laboratory manager was sent out for response with a man's name and with a woman's name, the man got the offer with a higher salary, and the [application with the] female name was ranked lower.

That's disheartening.

It's very disappointing, and even worse that women scientists in the PNAS study also ranked the woman lower: That was the tragic part of it.

Why don't women scientists support other women, in your opinion?

There have been several reasons offered to explain this phenomenon. My best guess is that it is a cultural attitude that women "don't do science" that, of course, is totally erroneous.

Are you still treated differently as a woman?

Certainly. I still have to tolerate it. It doesn't stop; it never stops. It's just that now it's more covert and not overt.

Can you give an example?

There are too many examples to even begin to enumerate.

During your career, have you seen changes in how women scientists are viewed?

I think there's an awful lot of lip service paid. If you look at the rosters of universities, you see a triangle with the top being male senior professors and the bottom ranks being women—it's still very skewed. It's the same thing with boards of Fortune 500 and even biotech companies.

What's your advice to women starting out in science?

My advice is to pursue your dream—a science career is wonderful. If you work hard at your science you'll do OK in the long run. Being a woman in science is not as precluded as it was a hundred or more years ago. But today you still have to be twice as good to get half as far.

As for Elise Andrew, she tweeted on March 24: "Curious: why do YOU think people were so amazed by my gender? Ignoring the sexist morons, there was a lot of genuine surprise. Why?"

What do you think, readers?

This Q&A has been edited for length and content.