Yesterday, CNN highlighted Katie Bouman, a grad student who developed an algorithm that helped the Event Horizon Telescope project take the first photograph of a supermassive black hole. CNN did not highlight any of the other women whose contributions made that first photograph possible.
It’s not my goal here to take down CNN for not being “woke” enough in highlighting one woman instead of more. I’m not going to tell CNN to stop recognizing women in STEM. What I want to do is to use CNN‘s coverage to ask why, so often it seems, the contributions of women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and people whose labor is underpaid or unpaid, go under-recognized in STEM fields.
It took decades for the contributions of Alan Turing, Grace Hopper, Margaret Hamilton, Sophie Wilson, or Wendy Carlos to get the recognition they eventually got for what they did. Think of all the other names that we’ve collectively forgotten, without whom the modern world wouldn’t exist in the way it does. How many other grad students worked on the Event Horizon Telescope?
“No one of us could’ve done it alone; it came together because of lots of different people from many backgrounds,” Katie Bouman told CNN. If that’s true, if that’s true of scientific progress in general, why don’t we hear from those lots of different people more?
Oh right, patriarchy ‘n stuff.
There’s a reason initiatives to diversify STEM fields, professionally and academically, have gained attention; STEM fields need it. While the number of women in STEM has certainly increased since the 1980s, the gap is still there. Looking at Computer Science (CS) data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of women earning bachelor’s degrees in 2015 was about equal to the number of under-represented minorities earning those degrees: about 17.5 percent each.
Combined, women and people of color were, at most, 35 percent of CS graduates. The idea of STEM being “hard science” work more suited to the rational, analytical male than the flighty, emotional female is a tough one to crack. And we can’t forget the history of racial segregation that only legally ended 50 years ago which discouraged people of color from seeking employment or education in white-dominated fields.
The issue of diversity is hard for any institution to tackle. Plucking one woman, one trans or queer person, or one person of color out of a predominantly cis, straight, white, and male group and putting them in the spotlight isn’t going to fix it. It’s not that CNN shouldn’t have given the spotlight to Katie Bouman; she deserves it.
Visibility does matter, but visibility isn’t the same as diversity. Visibility doesn’t change the systemic issues that allowed STEM fields and STEM coverage to be dominated by a relatively homogeneous group of people.