Magazine article Newsweek

'This Topic Annoys Me'; after Years of Fielding Questions about the Role of Gender in Her Career, One Fed-Up Astrophysicist Explains Why She's Done Talking about Being a Female Scientist. Forever

Magazine article Newsweek

'This Topic Annoys Me'; after Years of Fielding Questions about the Role of Gender in Her Career, One Fed-Up Astrophysicist Explains Why She's Done Talking about Being a Female Scientist. Forever

Article excerpt

Byline: Janna Levin; Janna Levin teaches physics and astronomy at Barnard College in New York City. She is the author of "A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).

I don't ever want to talk about being a woman scientist again. There was a time in my life when I was fixated on the subject. People asked constantly for stories about what it's like to work in a field dominated by men. I was never very good at telling those stories because truthfully I never found them interesting. What I do find interesting is the origin of the universe, the shape of space-time and the nature of black holes.

At 19, when I began studying astrophysics, it did not bother me in the least to be the only person in the room with two X chromosomes. I was happy to lose myself in austere calculations and gave no more thought to gender (mine or anyone else's) than I did to eye color. But while earning my Ph.D. at MIT and then as a postdoc doing cosmological research, the issue started to loom large. My every achievement--jobs, research papers, awards--was viewed through the lens of gender politics. So were my failures. People seemed unable to talk about anything else. Sometimes, to avoid further alienating myself from colleagues, I tried evasive maneuvers, like laughing the loudest when another scientist made a sexist remark. Other times, when goaded into an argument on left brain versus right brain, or nature versus nurture, I was instantly ensnared, fighting fiercely on my behalf and all womankind. I was perpetually inflamed and exhausted. …

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