The paleontologist who wore a beard to escape sexism

The paleontologist who wore a beard to escape sexism
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Ellen Currano is a world-renowned paleontologist. She is also—quite literally—the face of sexism in science.

Currano decided on becoming a paleontologist at age 6, a goal she never wavered from. After earning her post-graduate degree at Penn State, she did post-doctoral work at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and then entered the tenure track at the University of Wyoming, where she is now a professor—all before the age of 30.

And yet when Currano entered the workforce, she immediately faced gender bias. ”It’s little things adding up—death by a thousand paper cuts,” she told Quartz reporter Katherine Foley. ”You’re sitting in a faculty meeting, and you have an idea and everyone ignores you, and then your male colleague says the same thing and it’s the most amazing idea.”

Female representation in her field is particularly bad: Only about 16% of geoscience professors are women. In speaking with filmmaker Lexi Marsh, Currano says that “there are days when I wish I could just slap a beard on my face and go to work.”

So that’s what she and 100 of her peers did. In 2014, Currano created the Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science, along with Marsh and photographer Kelsey Vance. They made a documentary about women working in the male-dominated field of paleontology and released it alongside an exhibit of portraits of women wearing beards.

Currano’s activism celebrates the tremendous contributions of scientists across every field—scientists who happen to be women—without punishing men. “The goal of the Bearded Lady Project was not to call out male scientists, but rather to show the diversity of women in the field, form a sense of community among women, and to start conversations with their male colleagues,” writes Foley.

In an interview with Quartz, Currano explains how male scientists can better recognize and act on sexism, the universal importance of double-blind reviews, and why you (and your work) shouldn’t be perfect.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

The Eocene climate enigma. The Eocene is a geological epoch 56 to 34 million years ago. The early Eocene in particular was really warm (palm trees in Wyoming, crocodiles above the Arctic Circle), and the latitudinal temperature gradient (which is the difference in average yearly temperature as you move from the equator to the poles) was likely much less steep than it is today. There isn’t yet a climate model that can successfully recreate this, which tells us that there is still a lot about the climate system that we don’t know. 

One of my areas of research focuses on tropical Africa, excavating plant fossils and using them to reconstruct climate and forest ecosystems. It’s challenging to work in tropical Africa: expensive, long travel times, often difficult conditions, and vegetation covers a lot of potentially fossil-bearing rocks. So there aren’t many American scientists working there. Everything you discover is something new, which is one of the reasons I love working there! 

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

Communication skills. It takes great application essays to get into college, graduate school, and competitive internship programs. Then there are the grant proposals that fund your research, and manuscripts in which you publish the results of your research.

It’s also important to be an excellent public speaker. Academic institutions are looking for people who will be great scientists and good educators. I got an interview for my first faculty position because a member of the search committee thought I gave an outstanding talk at a national meeting. I was finishing graduate school and did not yet have a single publication, but the department that offered me that first job loved my interview talk and decided to bet on potential. Being able to communicate what you do to a wide audience is essential to success in today’s academic world.

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

Double-blind reviews. In academia, success depends on securing grants, presenting at conferences, and publishing manuscripts. All of these are contingent upon positive reviews from others in your field, and numerous studies have shown that implicit biases about who is good at science make it more difficult for women to succeed. So to whatever extent is possible, you should keep the identity of the authors a secret. I think this is the closest science can come to having blind auditions, which have been shown to be tremendously influential in increasing the representation of women in top orchestras. And to minimize fears of retribution for a justly critical review, make reviewers anonymous as well.

I wonder whether a similar procedure could also be used for job and graduate school applications: Don’t reveal names until it’s time to interview. There was a jaw-dropping study by Carol Moss-Racusin and colleagues in 2012 demonstrating that both women and men are more likely to hire, mentor, and give a higher salary to a male lab-tech applicant than a female one.

4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

There is no good time to get a dog or have a child, so don’t put those things off. If you wait until you’re tenured and have worked your butt off and earned a job for life, you’re usually over 35.

As for what I wished I had not believed, I thought that I had to do everything myself. Over the past few years, I’ve learned to reach out and collaborate with people who are experts in the things that I am not. If a bunch of scientists had done the Bearded Lady Project, it would have had a much smaller scope and perhaps never been seen by anyone outside paleontology. But working with incredibly talented artists Lexi Jamieson Marsh, Kelsey Vance, Draper White, Ben Thomas, and others made the project great and something that appeals to a wide audience.

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

My first faculty job was at a university in a small town in a conservative part of the country. After a year or so, feelings of isolation, self-doubt, and unhappiness began building. There was no one at my university with whom I could collaborate on research, or even talk with about my research. It was my first time teaching college students and, generally speaking, the wealthy, entitled student body did not respect young female professors—particularly ones who taught science courses. I had many instances of being one of the only women in a professional setting, and it often felt like I was not being taken seriously. I wasn’t getting much positive feedback, including raises, even though I was working as hard as I could and doing parts of my job very, very well. And I was just about the only single person in the town, which contributed to feeling inadequate in all aspects of my life.

To turn things around, I took up running and—with my awesome friend Monica’s help—ran my first (and probably only) marathon. I spent as much time off campus as possible, particularly in Wyoming and in Africa, two places that felt like home. I co-founded the Bearded Lady Project to take action on the underrepresentation of women in the geosciences. And I applied for other jobs, eventually earning a position at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. I love my current job and, for me at least, Laramie is truly Laradise.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues? 

Early in my graduate school years, my advisor Peter Wilf of Penn State made a point of introducing me to top geoscientists at national and international meetings, and encouraging them to come to my talk or poster presentations. At ensuing conferences, I would make a point of reaching out to those scientists and engaging them in conversation. I really appreciate Peter’s having done this, and I try to do the same for my graduate students and post-docs.

Early in my career, I also put in the effort to get invitations to the cool parties and determine which bars the scientific “it” crowd were most likely to hang out at. For better or for worse (and it can be very uncomfortable to be the only woman around when the booze is flowing), there’s a lot of networking and collaborations planned late at night over beers. Or bourbon.

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

From Caroline Strömberg, who is now a professor at the University of Washington and curator at the Burke Museum. She told me this when she was a post-doc and I was finishing my PhD: “Follow the 80% rule. Go ahead and submit manuscripts when you are 80% happy with them.” Similarly, from my academic great-grandfather, Leo Hickey: “There are two kinds of dissertations and they are mutually exclusive ones: completed dissertations and perfect dissertations.”

Good scientists can always think of one more dataset to collect or one more analysis to make your study even better. But you have your entire career to keep taking those next steps. To succeed professionally you need to regularly publish your work, and so you need to cut yourself off and publish your work incrementally.

I think this sort of advice is especially important for women. Many of us feel the pressure of being held to a higher standard than our male colleagues because of implicit biases and even outright discrimination. You can’t just be good: You have to be perfect. But for this to be good advice for everyone, we’d probably need to institute double-blind reviews.

8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

Help everyone’s voice be heard during meetings. No interrupting. No mansplaining. Don’t feel that you need to give your opinion on everything said. When you speak out in support of someone’s idea, give credit by name to the person whose idea it was—especially when it is a woman. If you are leading a meeting, call on women. If you notice that someone hasn’t said very much, ask for his or her opinion. Perhaps try warm calling (letting people know beforehand that you will be asking them to speak on a certain subject).

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that Ohio is not part of the Midwest.

I wish people would stop telling me… that I am a great female scientist and role model for young women. Why can’t I just be a great scientist? Can I also be a role model for young men?

Everyone should own… a Luci inflatable solar light. I haven’t used a flashlight or headlamp (and the batteries for them) out camping since I got this. And when you purchase items from Luci, their nonprofit partner sends one to a person living without access to electricity.

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.