Better Than The Best

One side effect of tokenism — letting one or two representatives from non-majority groups stand in for their entire group, as with Marie Curie — is that it truly sets standards far higher than are reasonable. Curie was an outstanding scientist by any standard, as was Lise Meitner, as was Emmy Noether. But here’s the deal: each one of those women stood head and shoulders above the vast majority of their colleagues, male or female. Caroline Herschel, Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, and so forth are justly remembered for achievements that outstripped many of their male colleagues, who often actively opposed their advancement.

Let’s face it: the majority of scientists aren’t the Nobel laureates, the ones who get remembered in textbooks. For a male scientist to be remembered in the past, it was often enough to make a minor discovery; for a female scientist to be remembered, she had to be better than all her colleagues in addition to overcoming the sexism endemic in academic life. Personally, I wish I could be half as noteworthy as Noether; who wouldn’t aspire to that, male or female?

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