Picture a paleontologist. Walking through the fields, looking for traces of ancient life, analyzing the samples in a lab, maybe even teaching a class. What does this paleontologist look like? Does he have a distinguished, grey-white beard? Or is he tall and rugged, nimble as he looks for fossils?
Imagination results may vary, but the paleontologist is probably not a woman, is it?
For some reason, paleontology and beards seem to go hand in hand, and like many scientific pursuits, this is still regarded by many as a male-specific field — this needs to change.
In an intriguing project (also published in a book), artists and scientists hope to change the face of science. They call it the Bearded Lady Project, because, understandably, it features a photo gallery of “bearded ladies” — women working in the natural sciences equipped with a beard prop.
In 2014 Dr. Ellen Currano and Lexi Jamieson Marsh met for dinner. They were both feeling unhappy with how they were treated in male-dominated fields — Currano in paleontology, Marsh in filmmaking. Jokingly, they said that maybe if they put a beard on, men would take them more seriously.
It was a joke, but it caught on. Obviously, a good scientist doesn’t need a beard — yet somehow, the two go hand in hand. The beard itself is a symbol: it’s something that, barring exceptions, only men (and traditionally, distinguished men) can achieve. It is a symbol of masculinity, yet it also became associated with endeavors that are not masculine — often at the expense of women in the field.
Anecdotally, there’s no shortage of stories of women struggling to succeed in a male-dominated field, and the field of science is no exception. The figures also back the anecdotes up. In the US, just 16% of geoscience faculty are women, and the median salary is 12% lower for women. You’d probably struggle to find a woman in science that hasn’t been confronted with sexism in one form or another, the problems ranging from minor but persistent nuisance to career-ending. For many women, succeeding in science — especially in areas that involve rugged fieldwork, such as paleontology — is a constant uphill battle.
Yet some do succeed. The Bearded Lady Project aims to tell their story in a unique and striking way. The book features dozens of classic, black-and-white old-school photos. The classic “scientist in the field” take, but with a twist: beards. The intent was to shed light on how ridiculous it is that women (or everyone, really) should fit into a stereotype to be accepted — challenging the face of science, as the authors say.
The participants in The Bearded Lady Project aren’t attempting to pass off as men at all. There is no make-up or prop or anything to make them seem more masculine. The beard is strapped on to a clearly feminine face. Yet the visual impact of this simple prop is striking. I knew I was reading a book that would have “bearded ladies”. I was completely aware of what was coming — and yet, for a split second, whenever I was looking at a new photo, my brain was tricked into thinking it’s a man. It’s an interesting trick that hints at how deep our subconscious biases are, and how gender bias sometimes creeps in even when we’re not aware of it. It’s also a good way to dismantle biases. The photos force you to look, take a moment, and then look again.
The book tells useful and insightful stories. You get to learn a bit about paleontology, a bit of how old environments are reconstructed, and even a bit about filmmaking. The whole project started out supported by friends and funded by family, writes Marsh, and it shows: the conversation is now expanding and growing, yet The Bearded Lady Project still feels like a heartfelt endeavor, and it succeeds at making the reader think and ponder. It challenges persistent gender biases and puts the spotlight on underrepresented geoscientists — both in the field and in the lab.
As an Earth scientist and a science communicator, I was thrilled by this project, and I loved the book. The vintage-like photography is stunning, the stories are charming, and the message is more important than ever. But while The Bearded Lady Project focuses on palaeontology, its scope reaches far beyond Earth science, and beyond science in general. It’s an excellent blend of art and science, with lessons that can be applied universally in our society.
The quality of the photos alone are worth it. The stories are equally compelling, and the overall message is not only important, it’s necessary. The Bearded Lady Project has my support.