Do you REALLY want "more women in science and engineering"?


On April 10th, 2019, the first “photograph” of a black hole was made public. Minutes after that, another photograph has started to be used as a flag to inspire women worldwide… in what I fear is a limiting way.

The facts

Here is what is happening, as I understand it now:

1: Starting from when she was a grad student, Dr. Kate Bouman led the development of one of the algorithms that turned telescope data into the historic photo released on April 10th.

2: Soon after the public release of that image, Dr. Bouman published this photograph on her Facebook wall:

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with this caption:

“Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed.”

3: immediately after that post, Dr. Bouman published this other photograph:

Do you REALLY want "more women in science and engineering"? /img/kate-bouman-team.jpg

writing (emphasis mine):

“I’m so excited that we finally get to share what we have been working on for the past year! The image shown today is the combination of images produced by multiple methods. No one algorithm or person made this image, it required the amazing talent of a team of scientists from around the globe and years of hard work to develop the instrument, data processing, imaging methods, and analysis techniques that were necessary to pull off this seemingly impossible feat. It has been truly an honor, and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you all.

Dr. Bouman also told CNN that “No one of us could’ve done it alone… It came together because of lots of different people from many different backgrounds.”. To summarize, Dr. Bouman lead one essential part of a groundbreaking scientific project, and now is (rightly!) extremely happy and proud of her own job and of being part of a great team. No questions here.

4: Meanwhile, the Internet and media went wild after that first photograph by Dr. Bouman, and its implications (quoting at random from Twitter and assorted websites):

  • “She’s the computer scientist, to whom we owe the first photograph of a black hole ever. She developed the algorithm…
  • “Dr. Bouman, #blackhole image-detecting rock star, brings smiles and science enthusiasm to planet earth… Thanks for the inspiration, dedication and discovery, Dr. Bouman!”
  • The young female scientist… Dr. Kate Bouman has done something few others have: made history.”
  • “Kate Bouman… devised a system to accomplish a task that no one ever thought might be remotely possible: to photograph a BLACK HOLE.”

As I write this post, that first photograph of Dr. Bauman, together with her great work in the EHT project and her whole career, is being pushed worldwide as inspiration for all girls and women to pursue careers in science, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in general. And this is what I find limiting. I am not sure I really care for more “women in science and engineering”. Allow me to explain:

More female scientists and engineers? Is that all?

Here is what I think:

  • Only a failed byproduct of evolution could still believe in good faith that women cannot be top {scientists, programmers, whatever}
  • Dr. Bouman is an outstanding scientist who is doing an outstanding job
  • “Emphasis” on her career and her contribution to the EHT project (which is not her fault, see above!) is no surprise at all: both individuals and media want to simplify.
  • The same emphasis is useful and necessary. People need specific individuals as role models they can identify with. In this case, girls and women worldwide who may pursue a STEM career surely benefit from the concrete example of Dr. Bouman and many other women. So, just sticking to Italy, let me add Fabiola Gianotti, Samantha Cristoforetti and Rita Levi-Montalcini
  • I am sure that there still are less (probably much less) women in STEM careers than there should be, because too many girls are still being told the crap that “STEM is for boys”. This has to end.
  • I will be happy if in the next decades there will be many more women working as engineers, astrophysicists, programmers and so on. Still, what I really want is something else

I want more women IN POWER

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All women "computers". Except the boss

Dr. Bouman has become rightly famous for working on image processing algorithms in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Almost 150 years ago, just a walk from her office, the director of the Harvard College Observatory hired and directed, just to ANALYZE IMAGES the women “computers” in the wonderful photograph above, which makes exactly my point. More women doing STEM jobs is great and overdue, but in and by itself changes very little where it really matters:

  1. I want many more women in the control seats, with a specific mission: make science, engineering, economy, society… less dystopian than they are today
  2. Concrete example: Silicon Valley “tolerates” gender discrimination? That must end, but having crap like Juicero or Facebook produced in equal numbers by male and female programmers would really be not much of a progress. We need more women changing what Silicon Valley produces much more, and much more ugently, than just “more women working in Silicon Valley”
  3. In other words, I believe what we all should strongly and most urgently demand is: women that rise to the top because they bring to the table, as only women can and must be enabled to do, the competence, pluralism, sanity and right priorities that too many powerful men are failing to deliver today. Not women that just copy the worst of most men in charge today
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PS: all of the above obviously applies also to other disadvantaged groups

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