Saturday Speaker: The Invisible Woman: Pop Culture and the Scientific Divide

March 10, 2018
11:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

From cheaply printed black-and-white etchings found in the 1890s Review of Reviews to the brightly colored panels of Wonder Woman comics, how does pop culture view the place of women in scientific fields?

Thanks to the professionalization of science and the rise of the periodical beginning in the mid-19th century, we have lots of images of scientists as depicted in pop culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. Join us to examine a range of images, from cheaply printed black-and-white etchings from the 1890s Review of Reviews, to the glossy pages of the Saturday Evening Post, to the brightly colored panels of Wonder Woman comics. These scientists appear as an Objective Expert, wearing a white lab coat; a Mysterious Wizard with magical powers; and even a rugged and Masculine Hero.

But how does pop culture view the place of women in scientific fields? There’s a tension between a woman’s role as a scientist and her gender role. Take Dorothy Simon, a rocket scientist profiled in a 1959 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, who felt a woman scientist’s greatest achievement was in “proving that women can be as effective as men in a man’s field and still remain women.” Women scientists were usually dismissed in pop culture as the invisible technician or the male scientist’s assistant.

How the public views women scientists, and scientists in general, is still relevant in our era of lightning-quick news and social media as women scientists try to take control of their own public image. Although recent movements, such as the #distractinglysexy Twitter campaign, have attempted to change the public conception of gender and science, the scientist is still, according to the public imagination, a man in a white lab coat.


About the Speaker

Megan Steves is a PhD student and Schriesheim Distinguished Graduate Fellow in the Department of Chemistry at Penn State University. Her research uses ultrafast laser spectroscopy to probe the dynamics of photonic nanomaterials. As an active scientist with a background in the humanities, Megan is interested in the ways that historical attitudes and biases shape the scientific community and its interaction with the public. Images in particular can be a powerful indicator of scientists’ self-perception and the expectations the public has for scientists.

Combining her love for art and science, her previous experience includes working as a conservation intern at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and investigating a 16th-century painting by Alessandro Allori, through a collaboration with the University of North Texas and the Dallas Museum of Art, to uncover a hidden underpainting using X-ray fluorescence. Megan has a BA in chemistry and art history from Messiah College.


About the Saturday Speaker Series

Dive into fascinating stories of science with our Saturday speaker series!

Every month a speaker will offer a short talk on an intriguing scientific topic, followed by a Q&A or discussion over complimentary tea and coffee. Afterward, feel free to mingle with other guests and the speaker, or spend time visiting our free museum. This year we’ll be discussing everything from the history of chocolate, to how stress affects our DNA, to the ways artwork inspires scientific discovery. 

Admission is free, and no reservations are necessary.