It’s that time of the year again: Happy Ada Lovelace Day everyone! This is a celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. And what better way for a book blogger to celebrate it than with a fantastic book on the subject?!

Reading The Madame Curie Complex confirmed just how protected I’ve been by choosing a career in an area – communications – generally considered safely within the “feminine realm”. I don’t remember ever being positively or negatively discriminated in school or work, but was shocked recently when a marine biologist friend of mine (my age) remembered a professor of hers telling the class that he didn’t believe physics was a field for women.

This fascinating book is filled with examples like this, but smartly avoids the victimization of the women it approaches. They were/are all intelligent, resourceful scientists who dealt with their circumstances in different ways and made extraordinary contributions to the advancement of science (even if those contributions weren’t recognized).

Julie Des Jardins calls the “Curie Complex” the general belief that women, to be able to compete with men in science (and probably other fields as well?), have to be twice better and work twice as hard. They need to be rational geniuses in the lab and the perfect mothers and wives at home. Only in this way can they gain respect at work and prove that their anti-natural tendencies to pursue a career in science has not undermined their femininity:

Meloney [an American journalist who helped form the Curie myth] had created a schizophrenic figure: a serious scientist (a masculine type) and a sacrificing woman (a maternal typo), both inherently incompatible. In the minds of male employers women would always fall short of the ideal, and women who internalized their alleged deficiencies could not move forward. If Meloney’s portrait of Madame Curie was supposed to inspire women, it may have done the reverse.

One of the most popular ways for women scientists to deal with this is to sacrifice their “maternal” side. Not only decades ago…

Even the most accomplished women scientist in the 1950s and 1960s continues to insist that the key to success was to perform head and shoulders above male competitors, sacrificing family, health and sanity for research.

… but also today. One of the most compelling statistics in the book for me were studies from 2009 that show that 70% of male science faculty were married with children versus only 44% of women at the same career level. This is incredibly telling, especially because it’s not the choice of many of these women: more that 40% of the women interviewed regretted that they hadn’t more children, “in their minds, it was still not possible for them to have it all.

The book reads like a novel and I whizzed through it. Des Jardins tells us about the lives of many women scientists since the late 1800s and their way of accepting, coping, maneuvering or challenging the glass ceiling. The biographic details were fascinating, and despite being so different, Des Jardins was able to put these women’s lives together under the same “Curie Complex” light, and create a powerful argument.

She begins with Marie Curie (the canon), then moves on to Annie Cannon and the women who worked at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s, inexhaustibly cataloging and measuring stars. Next, the women of the Manhattan Project, that seem to have been erased from history. She finishes with the “Lady Trimates” (Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikos) who made the field their laboratories, blurring the borders between science and the home, finding alternatives to the “detached” science we practice and challenging the way we see science:

Many feminists then and since have warned of the dangers of overdetermining gender differences, for stereotypes of “universal woman” can be as troubling as time-honored notions of “universal man.” Sociobiology, a biological rationale for gender difference, was especially polarizing when it grew in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s the question of creating a “feminist science” was rephrased: “Do women do science differently?” And in 2004 new debates ensued in Science over whether or not there was a “female style” in the lab.

The debate is still on and it’s just as important.

Des Jardins wrote a book that is not only clearly well researched, but rich in hundreds of little insights into the women she writes about. The perfect choice for the Ada Lovelace Day celebration.

Credits: Hark! A Vagrant!

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