Women don beards to highlight gender bias in science

August 15, 2019
By: Robert Sanders
Leslea Hlusko wearing a beard
Leslea Hlusko, a paleoanthropologist, with primate skull casts in Berkeley’s Human Evolution Research Center. (Lexi Jamieson Marsh photo courtesy of Bearded Lady Project )

When you picture a geologist or paleontologist tramping through steep, eroded badlands in search of rocks or bones, does that scientist have a beard?

For many people, including women, the answer is yes, which spurred dozens of paleontologists around the world – all of them women – to glue on beards for photos now being exhibited at the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) at the University of California, Berkeley. The ironic message of the Bearded Lady Project is that, contrary to the persisting stereotype, you don’t have to be a man to love fieldwork and contribute to science; in fact: many field scientists are not.

UC Berkeley’s Leslea Hlusko, interviewed for a documentary film about the project that premieres Thursday, Aug. 22, at LHS, voices that love of field work: “For me, being in the field with the wind blowing in your face … at those moments, I feel like me.”

The photo exhibit, which has toured the country for more than two years, captures 15 UC Berkeley paleontologists, three of whom are also featured in the 53-minute film, titled “The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science.” Admission to the premiere, which begins at 4:30 p.m. with an introduction by the project’s founders, is free with pre-registration.

Another interviewee, Carole Hickman, really did wear a mustache while working in a rough area of the Australian outback 37 years ago. She insisted on having her photo taken with the very mustache she purchased in 1982, though she admits to having worn it only once before tossing it aside as silly.

Paleontologist Carole Hickman wearing a mustache
Paleontologist Carole Hickman, who studies gastropods, wearing the mustache she bought and briefly wore in the field in Australia 37 years ago. (Copyright Kelsey Vance, photo courtesy of Bearded Lady Project )

For her, the Bearded Lady Project, she said, “was kind of a joke. But not entirely.” A UC Berkeley professor emerita of integrative biology who specializes in the evolution of animals that leave behind fossilized shells, Hickman feels that women in the field are conspicuous, because they are not the kind of scientists most people expect to encounter.

She recalled that during her graduate student years, oil company representatives would drop by to hire men for mapping parties in remote areas of Alaska, jobs that seemed like fun.

“But they didn’t want to interview a woman, and I insisted on being interviewed, even though I wasn’t really interested,” she said, laughing. “And they kind of hemmed and hawed around about why having a woman in a field party was not a good idea. And I would say, ‘Well, you don’t hire men of high integrity?’ just to try to make them feel uncomfortable.”

Hlusko, a professor of integrative biology who attempts to link genetic changes with evolutionary changes in humans and animals, admitted that, at first, she didn’t get the point of the project.

“While I happily agreed to participate, I never could quite get my head around why there should be anything symbolic about putting on a beard,” she wrote on her website. “I totally get the issue though, and deeply.”

Trailer for the Bearded Lady Project, which includes shots and interviews with UC Berkeley paleontologists Lisa White, Cindy Looy, Carole Hickman and Leslea Hlusko.

She added that male paleontologists, when they learn she works in the field in Eastern Africa, react as if “the places where I work must be the easy places to get to, so it isn’t really fieldwork and doesn’t count.” Despite the slights and dismissals over the years, which still sting, she wrote, “I do the fieldwork because it is challenging, exciting, unpredictable and makes me feel so very alive.”

“The real genius of The Bearded Lady Project, to me, at least, is that it brought out this sisterhood within my profession that I’d never really appreciated before,” Hlusko added. “I am often the only woman in the field, or one of just two, maybe three. Always a very significant minority. In those situations, I have learned to play down my gender, attempt to be as androgynous as possible. I am definitely not one of the guys, and I quickly learned the different set of rules by which I need to play.”

Paleontologist Lisa White wearing a beard
Paleontologist Lisa White of the UCMP was one of many Berkeley women scientists who jumped at the chance to put on a beard to “change the face of science.” (Copyright Kelsey Vance, photo courtesy of Bearded Lady Project)

Fitting the mold

The project is the brainchild of Ellen Currano, a paleontologist at the University of Wyoming who studies ancient forest ecosystems. Five years ago, she lamented to filmmaker Lexi Jamieson Marsh that she sometimes felt she wasn’t accepted in the field, and proposed putting on a beard just to fit the mold. Marsh thought it was a great idea, and together they launched the project, which they subtitled “Challenging the face of science,” and occasionally followed with “one beard at a time.”

“With some well-placed facial hair, any female scientist can be perceived as equally rugged, tough and determined,” they state on the project website.

They brought onboard photographer Kelsey Vance to take black and white portraits of female paleontologists around the world and created a traveling exhibit and, now, a film.

Paleobotanist Cindy Looy, a UC Berkeley associate professor of integrative biology and good friend of Currano’s, was so taken by the project that, when the group came to Berkeley to film in 2015, she assembled more than 30 professors, graduate students and museum research staff to pose for the cameras. The Bearded Lady team had to purchase extra beards and mustaches to accommodate them all.

Nine of the exhibit’s photos capture 15 of these paleontologists in the field and the lab, including Looy, who requested a Big Lebowski beard.

“The response of a lot of people has been, ‘Why would you do that? Isn’t that strange?’” Looy said. “But then again, when you do that, people start talking about it. The portraits are tongue in cheek, but they make short work of the burly, bearded male stereotype that has dominated the professional landscape of field-going scientists for far too long. If the women portrayed would have had beards to better fit the existing stereotype, would their work be better known?”

bearded ladies
Paleobotanist Cindy Looy, center, wearing a Big Lebowski beard, helps other Berkeley women scientists get the right look. (Draper White photo courtesy of The Bearded Lady Project)

Patricia Holroyd, a vertebrate paleontologist at the UC Museum of Paleontology (UCMP), immediately got the point of the project.

“I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is something I relate to,’” she said.

Attending graduate school in the late 1980s, she and other women knew that, unlike earlier generations of women who were denied access, they could succeed in the field of paleontology if they persisted. For the most part, Holroyd let sexist slights roll off of her.

“We came in expecting there would be some degree of discrimination, and that we would have to adapt to a male-dominated academic setting. There were often times where you knew you were going to be expected to behave like one of the boys,” she said. “Even (when it came to) things like how you dressed, you had to actively subvert feminine stereotypes.”

Holroyd recalls that, in graduate school, she denied she could cook, despite winning 4-H ribbons for baking in high school, to avoid being perceived as having skills other than those suited to research in paleontology.

Today, she says, young women entering the field expect to be treated equally and are truly shocked when confronted with discrimination.

Paleontologist Patricia Holroyd wearing a beard
Vertebrate paleontologist Patricia Holroyd in her lab in the UCMP. (Copyright Kelsey Vance, photo courtesy of Bearded Lady Project)

“Things like the Bearded Lady Project are still relevant, because we are fighting the stereotype,” said Holroyd, who will join Currano, Marsh, Hlusko and UCMP scientist Ashley Dineen for a panel discussion following the documentary screening.

To the extent that the Bearded Lady Project promotes discussion of sexism in science and society, it will have achieved its goal, Holroyd said, hopefully banishing the white male stereotypes — still current today — established by movies such as Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park.

Hickman sums it up: “When people ask me about being a woman paleontologist or geologist, I will say, ‘I am a woman, and I am a paleontologist, but I am not a woman paleontologist.’”