Scientists, window-washers and gender

By David Poulson
I was a bit surprised this week to get a press release from the University of Michigan titled, “Female scientists to sample plastics in all five Great Lakes.”
Here’s the lede:
“ANN ARBOR—Female scientists from the U.S. and Canada will set sail Aug. 20 on all five Great Lakes and connecting waterways to sample plastic debris pollution and to raise public awareness about the issue.”
 Microplastics pollution in the Great Lakes is an important story. It’s one that we’ve often covered on the Knight Center’s environmental news service.
And this certainly seems like a story:
“Teams of researchers will collect plastic debris on the five Great Lakes, as well Lake St. Clair-Detroit River and the Saint Lawrence River. Data collected will contribute to growing open-source databases documenting plastic and toxic pollution and their impacts on biodiversity and waterway health, according to event organizers.”
But isn’t it the substance of the endeavor that’s newsworthy – rather than the gender of those implementing it?

Years ago, in a newsroom far, far away, I once proposed profiling a woman whose publicist called her the first female high-rise window washer. My female colleagues chastised me for falling for a pitch that the mere fact that this person was a woman justified a profile.
Their thinking was that a woman is capable of doing anything. When she does it, that shouldn’t be remarkable or newsworthy in and of itself.
Of course not. I got the point – one that stuck. Although to be honest, I was far more interested in what it was like to wash the windows of a high rise than I was in the gender of the washer.
Fast forward about 30 years. What to make of this news release? There are many brilliant scientists who happen to be female. Is it counterproductive to point out their gender?
The research is even referred to as “eXXpedition Great Lakes 2016,” which I assume is a reference to chromosomes.
It’s tricky.
The gender thing crops up in an important reference:

“The all-female crew members on the seven lead research vessels also aim to inspire young women to pursue careers in science and engineering.”

Obviously if that’s an important part of the mission, it doesn’t work unless young women know that female scientists are running this program.
So I’m thinking, maybe this is OK. But words are important and this is an issue I’ve treaded around carefully for an entire career.
I’d like to hear what you think.

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