To Be or Not to Be?

Pnina G. Abir-Am, Resident Scholar, WSRC, Brandeis University

Editor’s note: Bias and marginalization take many forms, sometimes subtle, and the HSS Newsletter is pleased to present a first-person account by one of our long-standing members, Pnina Abir-am, about how certain publication decisions—in this case to not feature on the cover a collective portrait of women scientists which captured the essence of her article—can unintentionally exacerbate bias. While the American Scientist has a policy of not repeating internal artwork on their covers, they wished to publicly acknowledge Dr. Abir-Am’s concern that the omission of the women scientists’ collective portrait from the cover contradicts the very goal of rescuing them from oblivion, and therefore published her letter to the editor in their January-February 2021 issue.

When a historian of science writes an invited article for a widely circulated science journal on a hot topic such as women in science, and when the article’s key message is that women who made a major discovery—RNA splicing—are still unrecognized for it more than four decades later, it is understandable that the author hoped that some, if not all, of these women would be proudly displayed on the journal’s cover.

Artistic rendition of a collective portrait of five women commissioned by the American Scientist to accompany Pnina Abir-Am’s article about these women in their September/October 2020 issue. Image used with permission of American Scientist.

Artistic rendition of a collective portrait of five women commissioned by the American Scientist to accompany Pnina Abir-Am’s article about these women in their September/October 2020 issue. Image used with permission of American Scientist.

It was a challenging case study, which involved several competing teams, major rival institutions and famous directors, many co-authors, and especially problematic, often partial, memories, which have been filtered for decades by complex social and power relations. Indeed, the sheer effort required on the parts of both the author and the journal editors, given that the article was arguing against the conventional wisdom—namely that the discovery was made by two male Nobel laureates—suggested that the journal was interested and invested enough to advertise the piece on its cover. The fact that the journal commissioned an impressive artistic rendition of a collective portrait of these women scientists and told its readers that this article was the top article in its September-October 2020 issue, could be seen as encouraging signs. 

Imagine then, my shock and disbelief when on receiving my copy of the issue, there was no sign of any of the women on the cover. Instead, there was a dingo, an Australian wild animal resembling a dog. Now, I am well aware of various constraints, technical, artistic, commercial, and others, that often prevail in the process of determining the cover choice. Nevertheless, I had difficulty understanding why the journal missed the opportunity to display women scientists who personified both great accomplishment and ethnic diversity and thus, address two of the key issues that undercut the implementation of gender equality in science: the lack of role models for girls and the lack of mentors for women.

There are additional reasons, of special interest to readers of the HSS Newsletter, for my anticipating that this article would make the cover. 

First, it featured a rare instance of a significant presence, no less than half-a-dozen women of considerable ethnic diversity—from China, India, Israel and the U.S.—in key roles of a major discovery. Moreover, they represented a variety of professional ranks, including independent staff scientists, postdocs, laboratory technicians, and graduate students. One of these women, a staff scientist on her own funding, who further served as the first or “lead” co-author, was not only ignored for decades, but also egregiously excluded from the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which was awarded for this discovery. One of these two Nobelists—a man—was in fact, one of three other co-authors in a publication following her in the seminal report for the discovery. Consequently, the story was a perfect case study for exploring the impact of gender bias in science.

Another reason that my article and its treatment by the journal is of particular interest to our community is that it focused on a discovery in the under-studied but highly revelatory topic of RNA splicing. The trajectory I followed, of dissecting the discovery’s public memory as an outcome of epistemic injustice, had an aura of novelty. The long-term prevalence of the way in which recognition has been accorded or withheld, raises key issues about the persistence of systemic social mechanisms that continue to render women scientists invisible despite the passage—almost half a century ago—of affirmative action legislation that mandated equal opportunity in education and research-based careers, regardless of gender or ethnicity.

Given this rich context, surely the best way for ending decades of oblivion for these women scientists was to display their collective portrait on the cover, as the only part of the journal seen by not only readers but also casual passers-by. Such an exposure, it was hoped, would have not only drawn readers to an extremely interesting case-study, but also have further stimulated the scientific community to restore epistemic justice by providing the recognition withheld from some of these women for decades.

In my experience, a cover story always garners the lion’s share of a journal’s readership. Not being on the cover could therefore mean that the story reaches a smaller fraction of the journal’s readers, typically only those interested in the specific scientific topic discussed in a given article. The choice to feature the dingo over the women’s portrait seems to me to have undermined the journal’s own professed goal of exposing all its readers to the topic of “women in science”; and this, after they invited me to write specifically on women in science, rather than on my other topics of expertise in the history of science, such as molecular biology, public memory, and science funding.

In seeking to justify the decision not to feature the collective portrait on the cover, the editors at American Scientist stated that they tend to avoid portraits on the cover because such a practice might lead to celebrity promotion. But as I pointed out in my letter to the editors, the legitimate concern with the portraits’ potential for celebrity promotion need not have obscured the double standard behind this concern: men don’t need to be on the cover to signal their role in major discoveries. For them such a role is culturally assumed, and touted even when, as my article shows, their claim to sole credit for the discovery was anything but self-evident. In contrast, persistent gender bias has long prevented women from being recognized for their key role in various discoveries, including the one discussed in my article. 

How can these women scientists be rescued from oblivion, as makers of scientific discoveries, if they are a priori banned from the wide public exposure which only a cover can provide? If the journal really wanted to signal that “women’s discoveries matter!”, then the collective portrait should have been on the cover. Such action would have been appropriate much in the same way that many journals and magazines put people of color on their covers, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which stimulated such choices as both just and timely. 

The question that finally persists is whether the non-use of the collective portrait of women scientists on the cover signified an editorial decision overwhelmed by double standard fears of celebrity promotion; or whether it was influenced by the perception that some influential figures would not welcome the possibility that these women scientists might be finally accepted as their equals. Since my article has clearly named the men involved in the injustice that it seeks to repair, one wonders whether someone else should write another article to explore how the marginalization of women is not limited to allocation of credit in science alone, but also extends to efforts to recover their contributions for history and posterity. 

In conclusion, there is no way to restore justice without looking in the eyes of those who personify long-standing injustice. This is why the evocative portrait of these women scientists should have appeared on the cover. All the readers who may have never seen such a contingent of women scientists, at the core of a major discovery, deserve to become acquainted with these six enigmatic, subdued, Mona Lisa-like smiles, reflecting a lifelong experience of scientific accomplishments invariably filtered through gender bias. As Jill Lepore (History, Harvard) said in her recent review of Wonder Woman 1984, in The New Yorker, “It’d mean more if she wasn’t alone, and was part of a bigger fight—a fight for justice.”

More from the April 2021 Newsletter