For the past week I’ve spent more time than I’d care to admit staring into the depths of the first-ever image of a black hole and contemplating my insignificant existence in the face of this void.
As the image of the black hole rapidly spread across the internet another picture spread with it: a smiling Katie Bouman. Bouman is a postdoctoral fellow at MIT and a member of the team that captured the image. As she is lauded for her achievement, she is also recognized as a role model for young women who are interested in science. The field remains male-dominated even in 2019, not least because rampant sexism keeps women out of it.
Many major scientific breakthroughs were only possible because of the hard work of women whose names and faces were later erased from history. We’ve all seen Hidden Figures. We’ve learned about the female mathematicians who calculated flight trajectories but got no recognition for their brilliance and dedication. So being able to witness the public accolades of Bouman shows that we’ve managed to progress a bit since the 1960s.
But, apparently not enough.
There is also a dark side to all of the attention she’s been receiving.
An army of trolls amassed on Twitter, Reddit, and other platforms to denigrate Bouman and diminish her contribution.
Unable to handle the idea of a woman achieving such an amazing feat of science these trolls did what men have been doing for decades. They claimed that one of her (white, male) colleagues was the true genius who developed the necessary algorithms that made the image of the black hole possible.
Andrew Chael, the colleague labeled as “the true genius” by the internet misogynists, quickly came to Bouman’s defense and told the trolls on Twitter to “go away”.
He recognized, and called out, the “vendetta” against Bouman and did what he could to ensure that her contributions weren’t lost in the sea of sexist vitriol. While it’s not ideal, it is vital that men stand up for women and defend our accomplishments. Because when we try and do that for ourselves our voices are silenced. Society needs to progress to a point where there is no need for a man to defend the work of a female colleague. But we aren’t there yet. And the allyship of men like Chael is heartening.
Had MIT chosen to share an image of one of the male scientists on the team and focus on his contributions it’s unlikely that anyone would be trying so hard to find some proof of dishonesty. It’s a testament to how far misogynists will go in their hatred of women.
Bouman was quick to point out that she didn’t write the hundreds of thousands of lines of code on her own and that science is almost never the work of a sole genius.
But it’s hard to imagine that a man would have to make the same sort of statement regarding his accomplishments.
When men (particularly white men) achieve greatness, it’s assumed that they did it all on their own and that they deserve every bit of praise they receive. When women achieve greatness the exact opposite happens. Their work it belittled— which is what happened to the female coders who worked for NASA in the 60s— or men assume that they’re lying.
Those sexist attitudes make it almost impossible for women to advance. How are we supposed to prove our mental or physical ability if every time we do men are sitting in the wings ready to drag us down and trivialize our work?
What I find most disheartening about the patriarchal response is that I’ve almost come to expect it. This is pretty much par for the course for women. Not just in science, but in art, literature, history, math, politics… you name it, there are sexists trolls on the internet decrying women’s contributions to it.
I’m happy Bouman got to be recognized for her work and that her contributions, and those of the other female scientists on the team, won’t be lost to history.
I hope that the next time a woman is being celebrated for her talents and effort, the trolls find better things to do than waste their time ranting into the endless void that is the Internet. And when a woman accomplishes something amazing, whether it takes place in a NASA lab or in a local classroom, our first instinct shouldn’t be to prove her wrong or find some flaw in her work. Let’s allow women to bask in their accomplishments the way that men have had the privilege of doing for hundreds of years.