In 2013, paleontologist Lee Berger led an all-female team of excavators in a trip into a small chamber in a South African cave to retrieve thousands of bones later determined to belong to a previously-undiscovered species of human: the Homo naledi.
Last week, The Observer (owned by The Guardian) published an article by science editor Robin McKie, criticizing that project for “rushing” findings under the scrutiny of National Geographic cameras which led to several errors. Among its stated errors? Hiring only women as a so-called “publicity stunt.”
The fact that Berger used women cavers to retrieve Naledi bones—on the grounds that they were the only ones small enough to get into the chamber—has only irked his critics even more. One said: “There are many male cavers who could get in there, but that would have spoiled the publicity stunt.”
What might have been an interesting examination of doing a delicate science while under the spotlight has now become an essay in which a white, male science editor perpetuated sexism in the scientific community by anonymously quoting some bitter, possibly unemployed archaeologist. (Although since McKie doesn’t identify his source as anything more than a critic, it could be literally anyone. For example, it could be Rush Limbaugh, or a ghost from the 1800s.)
First of all, Berger’s original Facebook posting is still available, and mentions nothing about the wish to hire specifically women:
Dear Colleagues - I need the help of the whole community and for you to reach out to as many related professional groups as possible. We need perhaps three or four individuals with excellent archaeological/palaeontological and excavation skills for a short term project that may kick off as early as November 1st 2013 and last the month if all logistics go as planned. The catch is this – the person must be skinny and preferably small. They must not be claustrophobic, they must be fit, they should have some caving experience, climbing experience would be a bonus. They must be willing to work in cramped quarters, have a good attitude and be a team player. Given the highly specialized, and perhaps rare nature of what I am looking for, I would be willing to look at an experienced Ph.D. student or a very well trained Masters student, even though the more experience the better (PH.D.’s and senior scientists most welcome). No age limit here either. I do not think we will have much money available for pay – but we will cover flights, accommodation (though much will be field accom., food and of course there will be guaranteed collaboration further up the road). Anyone interested please contact me directly on email@example.com copied to my assistant Wilma.firstname.lastname@example.org . My deadlines on this are extremely tight so as far as anyone can spread the word, among professional groups.
Berger has since responded to a number of McKie’s points in a lengthy Facebook post.
“The idea that the six primary excavators, who just happen to be women, were chosen for their sex as some sort of publicity stunt is insulting,” he wrote. “It’s insulting to our large team of scientists, it’s insulting to these extraordinary scientists who literally risked their lives daily to recover these fossils, and it’s insulting to female scientists in general.”
Berger noted that of the initial six selected scientists, one was male, but he didn’t meet the physical requirements of the job.
“So by that one chance the six scientists we chose were all women and all the best qualified to do the job, meeting all the requirements we set out at the time.”
Sexism is common in the larger scientific community, and in fieldwork specifically. Last year, a Survey of Academic Field Experiences study found that 71 percent of female respondents had been harassed while doing fieldwork, that they were often targeted by their supervisors and other senior researchers, and that they were generally unaware of any mechanisms to combat the harassment.
In an article about McKie’s piece published on Medium, paleoanthropologist John Hawks points out that McKie has a record of sympathizing with sexist scientists, pointing out an especially patient profile of Tim Hunt, the nobel laureate who spoke about the “trouble with girls” in a speech last summer.
“The named critics in McKie’s story are among the most prominent scientists in the field,” Hawks wrote. “McKie surely knows that the anonymous source in this story would rightly be criticized for making such a baldfaced statement of sexism, and he kindly provided confidentiality to the source who made it, to cover the smear.”
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