When asked to imagine a typical scientist, most people picture a man with wild hair, like Albert Einstein, or with a bow tie and lab coat, like Bill Nye.
A peek inside a laboratory today would reveal that, yes, women work in labs, too! That said, women seem to disappear from science as we look farther up the ladder. And the situation for women of color is much worse.
Why is this happening?
The importance of role models and mentors is clear. The limited number of women at the top makes mentors scarce. Sure, men can be great mentors to women, but it’s never easy to work in an environment where you are considered “other.” Role models show young girls that yes, they can make it, too.
The more role models, the better.
One of the reasons I write picture book biographies is to shine light on women whose scientific contributions were ignored or forgotten. Both boys and girls need to know that women have been contributing to scientific discovery since the dawn of man (and woman).
Joan Beauchamp Procter, the subject of my picture book biography, Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor, knew from an early age that she would devote her life to the study of reptiles. She found a great mentor in Dr. George Boulenger, curator at London’s Natural History Museum. He realized her genius early on.
When Dr. Boulenger retired, Joan took over as curator, but many of the men were uncomfortable with a woman in charge. To them, Joan was “other.” They wanted to hire a less-qualified man to supervise Joan, so she took another job at the London Zoo in 1923.
Joan Procter regularly challenged people’s presumptions about what women could or should be. When interviewed by newspaper reporters, she often insisted that they focus on the animals and not her gender. “Why shouldn’t a woman run a reptile house?” she asked. Still, the newspaper headlines always managed to sneak the words “girl” or “lady” into the headline.
Joan even challenged people’s presumptions about the animals under her care. She presented papers that dispelled myths about the size and temperament of Komodo dragons. Perhaps Joan felt a deep connection with Komodo dragons because, like her, they were also misunderstood in a world that considered them “other.”
As a Latina scientist, I’ve often been in situations where I might be considered “other.” I’ve had difficulty finding good mentors throughout my career. I hope someday that women and people of color will occupy more rungs at the top of the ladder.
To paraphrase Joan Procter: Why shouldn’t a woman run the world?
Patricia Valdez is an author and scientist who loves writing for children. She earned her Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley, and currently works at the National Institutes of Health. Originally from Texas, she now lives in the Washington, D.C. area. Her first picture book, Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor, is a 2019 NCTE Orbis Pictus Recommended Book. Find more at patriciavaldezbooks.com and follow her on Twitter @Patricia_Writer