Celebrating International Women’s Day With Stories From the Stars

What can stars and planets beyond our solar system teach us about gender equity? Does it matter how we tell our scientific stories? And who do we think of when we imagine effective science? In celebration of International Women’s Day, SAGE Project Officer Dr Rachel Morgain presented her research on gender in astronomy, physics and Doctor Who to the Policy and Projects Section at Australian Academy of Science, on behalf of SAGE.


Starry Tales of Women Men and Crocodiles Rachel Morgain

As many of you know, astronomy has been in the news quite a bit in recent months, and not for good reasons, but for the terrible revelations of harassment coming out of the US.

Today, in celebration of International Women’s Day, I’m going to be taking what I hope is a more light-hearted, but no less serious, look at gender equity in astronomy, by looking at the starry tales we tell, and in particular our stories of gender in the stars.

This is based on several pieces of research I have been involved in around telling gendered stories in science.

The first part of this talk is drawn from research I am developing for a collection of essays on “Gender, Science and Wonder” called “Gendering the Cosmos: The Poetics and Pragmatics of Astronomy.”

But I am going to finish with some light-hearted tales from Doctor Who, based on some research I have done with my co-author, Dr Lindy Orthia (Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University), called “The Gendered Culture of Scientific Competence” which has just come out last week in the journal Sex Roles.

But first of all, to set the scene…


Gender ratios in Natural and Physical Sciences (2011). Data by Bell and Yates. Adapted by Rachel Morgain.
Gender ratios in Natural and Physical Sciences (2011). Data by Bell and Yates. Adapted by Rachel Morgain.

Many of you here will be familiar with this graph, the scissors graph. This one is drawn from the recent report of Sharon Bell and Lyn Yates, showing gender disparity at different levels of scientific advancement in Australia in 2011, although data drawn from any one of the last 20 years shows a very similar picture.(1)

It shows that, while undergraduate and postgraduate students now outnumber men in the physical and mathematical sciences, we see what is called the ‘post-doctoral tipping-point’, where men outnumber women, growing to a substantial gap at the highest levels. And this of course represents as well a huge loss of scientific potential.

As you can imagine, this is the bread and butter of our work in SAGE, and we identify from the research a whole raft of interlinked factors that give rise to this situation. So we look at everything from institutional factors around support for family formation and how institutions deal with career breaks, to questions of unconscious bias that has been shown to pervade recruitment and promotion decision-making.

But I want to take a somewhat different approach today, to look instead at those more elusive issues of culture, and the ideas and patterns that pervade our unconscious understandings and expectations of science. And in particular, those pervasive cultural stereotypes that implicitly associate science with maleness, and scientists with masculinity.

In particular, in my own research, I’ve been interested in looking at more culturally contextual ways of understanding implicit stereotyping, in the stories that are told about science and within science that perpetuate these associations.

Implicit association test

There is a wealth of research demonstrating that there are strong cultural associations between maleness and science that affect how many people think at an unconscious level.

Implicit association tests are designed to provide a measure of how much our unconscious minds tend to stereotypically associate one thing with another, such as science with maleness.

This graph shows the distribution of results from hundreds of thousands of web respondents over six years on the Harvard Implicit Association Test – showing the very high proportion of respondents (almost three quarters) who implicitly associate maleness with science and femaleness with liberal arts, shown in purple.

Harvard Implicit Test Gender-Science. Image via Rachel Morgain
Harvard Implicit Test Gender-Science. Image via Rachel Morgain.

This is a very common finding across many such measures. And while 18 % of respondents were neutral, only 10% were more likely to associate science with femaleness.

For young female science students, this can create a strong sense of dissonance with their majors, affecting both their performance and their choice to pursue careers.

Sapna Cheryan, looking at the fact that women in the US now outperform their male counterparts in maths studies but still don’t pursue maths-related careers, notes that:

Current stereotypes about the people and the work involved in math-related careers may be barriers to effective recruitment of women.

So stereotypes make a big difference to the kinds of careers people are willing to choose. In fact, the implicit association folks have found, implicit stereotypes linking male and science are more predictive of a student’s major (STEM or non-STEM) than even than scholastic aptitude measured in terms of math performance.

Other pieces of research have examined the interactions of girls and young women with stereotypical and non-stereotypical situations and role models, with a view to understanding how this impacts their identification with science and career aspirations.

One group of researchers found that when women are exposed to stereotypical computer science set ups that imply particularly masculine forms of ‘geeky scientist’ and reinforce stereotyped ideas about scientists being isolated, socially awkward, and technology obsessed (posters of Star Wars, Video games, scientists who wear t-shirts saying “I code therefore I am”), they found a consistent pattern of discouraging girls from computer science.

But this is something that can be changed, and the reverse is also true. For example, research by Young et al. on women students with female professors found that:

For women, viewing a female professor as a role model [i.e. both seeing her as effective and identifying with her personally] was linked to increased implicit sense of science identity and decreased implicit science stereotyping.

In fact, women students in this study who strongly identified with a female professor were generally fit into that rare category of people, that 10 percent, who implicitly associate science with femaleness rather than with maleness.

There has been a wealth of research of this kind on role modelling, showing that having women as role models, particularly if girls and young women can relate to them and see them as realistic role models for themselves, can have a substantial effect both on these women’s identification of with science and on their aspirations for a career in STEMM.

In my research, I’m interested in taking a slightly different angle on these kinds of questions, looking not so much at living role models, but at the scientific stories themselves, and the ways in which they do or don’t give women the sense that they belong in science.

Naming the ExoWorlds

One of the things I have been looking at is the recent exercise, run last year by the International Astronomical Union, on naming of ExoWorlds. In the last several decades, astronomers have identified over 1000 planets outside of our solar system.

The IAU decided that it was time to give names to 20 of these planetary systems and their associated stars (where these were not already named).

This was run as an internet poll, where any club or non-profit organisation from around the world with access to the internet and reasonable command of English could put forward a naming proposal, based on a few simple guidelines, for one of these planets or planetary systems.

Members of the public were then able to vote for their favourite names for each of the systems.

Ostensibly, this system is democratic, although of course it privileges those in wealthy countries with English-speaking traditions and a strong level of internet access. So there were large voting blocks from India, the US and Europe, but not so much from East Asia, South America, the Middle East or Africa, and this as we can see is reflected in many of the names.

But the results also reflect the cultural legacies and unconscious biases that inform collective decision-making on a massive scale. And we see this strongly reflected in the patterns we see.

ExoWorlds Gender Distribution. Image: Rachel Morgain
Gender distribution in naming of Exoworlds. Image: Rachel Morgain.

In my preliminary analysis, I’ve gone through the confirmed names, and where these are historical or mythical figures with readily identifiable genders, I have assigned these a gender. This graph shows the gender distribution, male (blue) female (red). The neutral category is for things like place names. As you can see, there is a huge disparity between genders in the final attribution, and the p-value for a chi-squared test assuming an expected division of 50:50 confirms this as highly significant.


Exoworlds Cultural Region Distribution. Image: Rachel Morgain
Distribution of cultural origin of IAU Exoworld names. Image: Rachel Morgain.

And here is the distribution of these ExoWorlds by the cultural region from where these names were drawn. Here, we can see the dominance of European cultural traditions over all others, with almost three-quarters coming from European and Euro-American contexts (many of them Latin and Greek).

In fact, many people nominating from non-Western countries, such as Japan, nominated names from European traditions, particularly Latin and Greek. And I would suggest that this is both because of the associations widely made between science and European history, and the legacy of the fact that many of the star systems and stars associated with these new worlds have Latin or Greek names.

One of the things that is very interesting in the ExoWorld naming exercise is the notable difference between the mythical and historical naming of stars and planets.

Many of the female names were in fact drawn from mythical stories, particularly those from non-Western contexts.

And so when we separate these out, we find only a slight, non-significant bias towards male characters in these mythical stories. This is especially true of the mythical figures drawn from non-Western traditions.

By comparison, only one of the 12 historical figures among the ExoWorlds was female.

ExoWorlds Myth-History. Image: Rachel Morgain
Gender ratios in mythical and historical naming of IAU Exoworlds. Image: Rachel Morgain.

But it’s not just about the demographics in the sky. As on Earth, the actual stories matter as well.

Just as the work of some early feminist historians of science (and other fields!) has been to draw out the stories of women from amidst the seemingly overwhelming dominance of men, and just as telling stories of women and gender minorities is central to understanding the story of science as a whole today, it is useful to uncover some of the stories behind these numbers.

Maculinity: The Crocodile King

Chalawan Taphao thong Taphao Kaew. 47 Ursae Majoris. Image: NASA. Adapted by Rachel Morgain
Chalawan Taphao Thong Taphao Kaew. Image: NASA. Adapted by Rachel Morgain

So now we turn finally to the promised crocodiles. The first story I want to draw out is the story of Chalawan, Taphao Thong and Taphao Kaew.

This is a story from Thai tradition, in which Lord Chalawan is a mythical crocodile king from Thai folktale, who kidnaps one of two sisters Taphao Thong, and is witnessed by her younger sister Taphao Kaew. Lord Chalawan keeps her among his wives, until she is rescued by a male hero (Krai Thong), who marries the two sisters.

The Thai Astronomical Society put forward this nomination, explaining that the constellation in question – described on the IAU website by the Latin designation Ursa Major – is known as the Crocodile stars in Thai.

So on the one hand, here are two of these ExoWorlds named for female figures in folklore. Notably, the nominators chose not to put forward the name of the male hero for one of these two planets. On the other hand, what we can see here is a pattern repeated among a number of these successful nominations in these star systems, whereby the central figure, the star, is given the name of a male figure, while a female name or names are attributed to the associated planet(s). It is perhaps understandable why this was the case in this situation, but it is notable that a similar pattern is also repeated across many of the nominations.

I certainly admit that I don’t know the complexities of how this story is told or understood in Thai tradition, but in the rendition of this story given as part of the nomination, the two sisters are described in a passive role rather than standing as active central figures in their own right.

Femininity: Hypatia

Hypatia. Image: IAU. Adapated by Rachel Morgain
Hypatia. Image: IAU. Adapated by Rachel Morgain

The second is the story I want to tell is of the single female historical figure represented among these ExoWorlds. The nomination of Hypatia was put forward by the Hypatia Student Society in the Physics Faculty of the Complutense University of Madrid, which describes its aims of promoting cultural, political and scientific education with the aim of “reducing the scientific illiteracy of the capital and fighting for human rights from a scientific perspective.”

Hypatia herself was a famous Greek astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher, and was head of the Neo-Platonic school at Alexandria in the early 5th century. She taught Pagans and Christians alike, and was a respected scholar who drew students to her school from many places in the years she taught. Embroiled in a period of political turmoil in the city, and central to a movement supporting a more moderate political and Christian leadership for the city, she was brutally murdered and dragged through the streets by a Christian mob in the year 415. Whether she was targeted primarily for her Pagan religion and her political involvement, or also for her gender, is unclear. Many Christian scholars later condemned the murder of this moderate and religiously tolerant scholar. But the language of the Bishop of Nikiu, writing three centuries later, suggests it could be read that way:

And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles. And the governor of the city honored her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom. But he went once under circumstances of danger. And he not only did this, but he drew many believers to her, and he himself received the unbelievers at his house (Chronicle 84.87-103).

So the story is a sad one. But it is also a heroic one, a story of a capable, influential scholar who was also an active political leader. Just as the presence of relatable, scientific women in universities can act as role models for aspiring scientists, I would suggest that such stories told in the stars could do the same.

Strange gender and science connections in Doctor Who

I now want to turn to some other kinds of stories that well tell – the stories that our culture tells about science and about scientists.

And this material is drawn from research I co-authored with Dr Lindy Orthia from the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, on science stereotypes in the science-fiction series Doctor Who.

This has just come out in the journal Sex Roles, and looks at the way incidental scientist characters – those who appear in only one story-lineare depicted over the first fifty years of the show.

As far as popular fiction goes, Doctor Who offers quite a good litmus test for understanding cultural ideas about science. It has screened since the 1960s, with only a hiatus in the 1990s. And it has had many, many authors, directors, script editors, producers and show runners over that time, highlighting a diversity of perspectives that offer us a kind of cultural read on popular ideas – and unconscious stereotypes – around science.

And of course it is focused on science, so it has consistently featured numerous scientist characters throughout its duration.

We performed both a quantitative and a qualitative analysis of these scientist characters, comparing across genders on measures of scientific competence – things like whether they were shown doing science on screen, or were accorded a scientific title like “Doctor” or “Professor” rather than “Miss” or “Mister”, or whether they were attributed a specialist field like physicist or medical doctor.

What we found in the quantitative analysis surprised us, in that other than their sheer numbers – there were many more male than female scientists over all the decades up until the most recent one – there were actually very few measurable differences in the depiction of men and women scientists over the course of the show.

This is in contrast to arguments made about science stereotyping in other literature, and we attribute this in large part to the ideological commitment of many of the shows writers, producers, directors and so on, to consciously depicting women as effective scientists.

But in working through this quantitative analysis, this also highlighted an intriguing trend – a tendency to depict some very woefully incompetent scientists through troubling gender stereotypes.

These were not scientists who were mad or bad, not ones misguided by hubris or the thirst for power. These were scientists whose science was just simply hopeless.

Cultural Stereotypes: The Failed Scientist

Dominators Dulcians Doctor Who. Image via Rachel Morgain
Dominators and Dulcians from Doctor Who (1969). Image via Rachel Morgain.

Taking an example from the story The Dominators (1969), showing scientists from the planet Dulkis.

The back story is that this planet was once ravaged by nuclear war and periodically sends a team of scientists to the irradiated badlands to monitor the effects and levels of radiation. When our story begins, unbeknownst to these Dulcian scientists, a couple of radiation miners have come from another planet and sucked up all the radiation in this area. So when the scientists investigate, they find none.

Here is an exchange from that investigating team:

Student Teel: It doesn’t seem logical somehow, sir. We all know that there’s been a steady uniform decrease in radiation during the past 172 years. Now suddenly it’s all disappeared.

Educator Balan: Well it has happened. Therefore it is a fact. We now know that the effects of an atomic explosion last for 172 years.

Student Teel: But why sir?

Educator Balan: Oh, I daresay our atomic experts could provide a reason. But it seems pointless to spend time searching for reasons to prove facts. A fact is a truth!

I think you can see from this how hopeless their science is meant to be. This lack of scientific credibility is a consistent theme throughout the story, despite their kind natures and peaceful society. The Dulcians, though mixed in gender composition and led by men, have a strange gendered appearance. The men wear pleated dresses, have soft features and gentle mannerisms.

They are counterposed to the Dominators, whose masculine features are so exaggerated as to be ridiculous – big shoulders, heavyset brows, dark hair, square jaws, rugged features. The Dominators are evil, but they are also scientifically competent, something which seems to be implicitly associated with rugged masculinity.

Penley Clent Ice Warriors Doctor Who. Image via Rachel Morgain
Penley and Clent from Doctor Who story The Ice Warriors (1967). Image via Rachel Morgain.

And in fact this is a theme we see developed across multiple stories. This is another example from the same era, in the climate change dystopia of The Ice Warriors (1967). The incompetent scientist Clent has soft features, is balding, paunchy and fair, and walks with a walking stick. His scientific prowess is sharply counterposed to that of the the effective scientist Penley, who is also bearded with dark hair and rugged features.

So what we started to find is this repeated pattern whereby scientific incompetence was being marked with less masculine or more effeminised features and mannerisms in male scientists.

Hobbes Midnight Doctor Who. Image via Rachel Morgain
Hobbes from Doctor Who story Midnight (2008). Image via Rachel Morgain.

And lest you think this is confined to the 1960s, another failed scientist from the recent series, Hobbes, whose dogmatic insistence that the planet Midnight is uninhabited nearly gets them all killed, shows a marked lack of scientific discernment that is also associated with his unmasculine cowardice, when another male character asks him “What sort of a man are you?”

I’ve focused here on incompetent male scientists. The incompetent women (along with many of these men) tell another, more complex kind of story, about the implicit associations of failed science with matriarchal dominance and social traits such as pacifism that are culturally coded as feminism.

And so what this reveals, we suggest, is a still widespread cultural association of failed science, of failed efficacy, with a lack of masculinity.

And perhaps because of the overt commitment among many of Doctor Who’s creators to depicting gender equity in science, and these consistent attempts to present positive and effective female scientist role models throughout the show, this has perhaps led to these examples of scientific incompetence being consistently displaced onto these kinds of effeminised male characters, and onto effeminised social regimes.

And in the absence of this kind of ideological commitment, femininity in women seems to be also judged to be a marker of lack of scientific credibility. Another recent piece of research called “But you don’t look like a scientist!” shows that when people were shown photos of scientist women and men chosen at random, women who were viewed as more feminine were also judged as less likely to be scientists.

This I think really complements the work we have done, highlighting the enduring pervasiveness of these cultural stereotypes that continue to link effective science to masculinity, and to traits culturally coded as masculine, such as competitiveness and rugged individualism.

And this has powerful implications, we would suggest, not only for women in STEMM careers, but for gender minorities and for men who don’t easily fit into normative masculine stereotypes.

How we tell our stories matters

The point I want to make here is that, when we are looking at gender equity in science, it is important to look beyond just the institutional and structural factors – the lack of support around career breaks or flexible work practices, the presence of women on panels or leadership bodies. These things are certainly important, and there is a lot of work to be done, undoubtedly, around these issues.

But we also need to turn our attention to the cultural issues, and those more unconscious cultural assumptions we carry about gender and science that continue to shape expectations and experiences around who fits, and who doesn’t.

It matters what kind of stories we tell, both in science, and about science. Paying attention to these stories, listening to what they reflect about our assumptions, and perhaps thinking about how we could tell them differently, and to what different kinds of stories we could choose to tell, is going to be important if we are to make a difference for the experiences of women in STEMM, and to improve not only how we might achieve gender equity and inclusion, but how we could do better science.

It matters what kind of stories we tell, both in science, and about science. - Rachel Morgain
It matters what kind of stories we tell, both in science, and about science. – Rachel Morgain


Lindy A. Orthia and Rachel Morgain (2016), ‘The Gendered Culture of Scientific Competence: A Study of Scientist Characters in Doctor Who 1963–2013,’ Sex Roles.


1. Axis labels have been corrected from the original report.