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A woman’s place is in the research lab

The Oscar-nominated documentary Jane on the revolutionary work of primatologist Jane Goodall was shown on the National Geographic channel Monday night. The piece, directed by Brett Morgen, took more than 100 hours of previously lost footage and put together an amazing work showing us Goodall’s early years studying chimpanzees in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Not only did Goodall, now 83, change the world’s thinking about chimpanzees, she also led the way for women researchers in all fields.

While the documentary is filled with footage from her work with the chimpanzees, it also features scores of newspaper headlines from the 1960s when she first went to Tanzania. And for those of us looking at them from a 2018 perspective, it was rather shocking. Shocking, but not surprising. “Comely Miss Studying Chimps” was just one of the seemingly exhaustive list of typical newspaper headlines that ran at the time about Goodall’s work. They were often peppered with subtle, other times not-so-subtle, quips at her work because she was a  young woman.

At the time, in the 1960s, it was almost unthinkable for a young female to do that job, but Goodall never considered that an obstacle. “I wasn’t brought up that way. Everybody else laughed at me, but Mom didn’t. Women weren’t scientists. When I was growing up, you could be a nurse, a missionary’s wife, a secretary, and then, oh how exciting, you could be an air hostess. A lot of people said to me, don’t you want to be an air hostess?”

Goodall said in the documentary that as a child she dreamed as a man because “in her world women didn’t do the things she wanted to do, like go on adventures in Africa and live among the animals.” The documentary, while showing the wonderfully complex and tight-knit community of apes, also shows us how important strong parental bonds are, especially those of a mother. It was Goodall’s mother, Vanne, who is credited  as giving her the confidence to ignore the rampant sexism of the time. Unlike practically everyone else, her mother didn’t  discourage her from going into science.

And the world should be thankful.

The secretary turned nationally-renowned scientist has gone on to make tremendous contributions to our world, including founding Roots and Shoots, a youth service program that empowers and encourages youth of all ages to pursue their passion, mobilize their peers, and become the leaders our world needs to ensure a better future for people, animals and the environment. Not the least of her contributions is being a female leader in science.

Women now comprise more than 40 percent of researchers in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, the EU, France, Portugal, the UK, and the US. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of women varies widely across STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) job types. Women are underrepresented in some STEM job clusters, but in others they match or exceed their share in the U.S. workforce overall. In fact, women comprise three-quarters of health care practitioners and technicians, the largest occupational cluster classified as STEM in this analysis, with 9 million workers – 6.7 million of whom are women, according to Pew. And women’s gains since 1990 in the life sciences (up from 34% to 47%) have brought them roughly on par with their share in the total workforce (47%), a milestone reached in math occupations (46%) as well. Women remain underrepresented in engineering (14%), computer (25%) and physical science (39%) occupations, according to Pew statistics.

Along with other female scientists like Virginia Apgar (a pioneering anesthesiologist) and Dr. Barbara McClintock (Nobel Prize winner for her genetics research), Goodall helped pave the way for women in the sciences. 

This is one trend that needs continuing. At last week’s STAR banquet, this year’s valedictorian and STAR student (the PHS senior who scored the highest SAT score), Hannah Ballard, said she plans to become a biomedical engineer.