Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, died last week of cancer aged 87.
“RBG”, as she became known to her fans, was a giant of the legal profession – but her legacy extends much further than jurisprudence.
From a science perspective, what makes her such a compelling figure is her rise to the top of a profession that was rooted in chauvinism and discrimination when she joined it. Despite studying at Harvard and finishing top of her class at Columbia in 1959, she was unable to get a job upon graduation.
Like law, science remains a male-dominated profession. Despite gender parity at the undergraduate level, gender ratios remain skewed at subsequent links in the career chain, and for the fine words and initiatives that have been touted in recent years, things are not changing fast enough.
Female pioneers in male-dominated professions, such as law and science, often have to repress or subsume or even deny their gender. Like Lady Macbeth (“Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here”), there sometimes seems a passive expectation or requirement to prove that they are as tough, as aggressive, and as masculine as men – something clearly a symptom of a toxic environment, where membership of the gender majority brings automatic benefits that are denied to outsiders, and who consequently have to prove that they are even more committed than their colleagues.
What makes RBG such a remarkable figure is that she made it to the top of the legal profession without every denying or diluting her femininity. She founded journals devoted to women’s rights, she launched the Women’s Rights Project to fight against gender discrimination, and she tirelessly campaigned to ensure that men and women are treated equally under the law. Her femininity was front and centre to her career: it was celebrated.
It takes a rare and brave and confident personality to achieve that kind of feat, to provide a positive alternative, an aspirational counter-narrative. As in all tilts against inequality, it also requires a profound and unshakeable belief that the way things are (and have been) is not necessarily the way they should be.
It’s noteworthy too that even as she campaigned for equality under the law, she practised equality at home. The Bader Ginsburg marriage was light years ahead of its time in terms of equality and division of labour.
In science, we all too often treat female scientists as having an innate biological disadvantage whose redress requires either the handicapping of their peers through affirmative action or generous initiatives to compensate for their difficulties – a distinction that is nowhere more pronounced than in the question of parenting.
On the contrary, we should perhaps instead see scientists – usually male ones – whose partners assume the majority of parental and domestic tasks as enjoying a bizarre and anachronistic advantage. Too few of such men acknowledge the enormous contributions made by their spouses to enable and facilitate their careers, often at the cost of a diminution or even loss of their own independent occupations. This should not be treated as normal – scientists profiting from such an unequal domestic arrangement should be viewed as privileged and outrageously fortunate to have their spouse do so much on their behalf.
Not only that, but we should be viewing male scientists who do not shoulder any of the domestic burden – regardless of what profession their spouse has – as falling short. As we’ve noted before, one of the simplest ways of evening up gender imbalances in science would be if more men took extended parental leave on a par with that taken by their partners.
In any partnership, no person should ask the other to do a task that they wouldn’t want to do themselves. Scientists who have been able to achieve a lot while their spouses have enabled their careers at the expense of their own often do not acknowledge that sacrifice enough. There is already good evidence that during the coronavirus pandemic, female scientists have been doing more of the heavy lifting when it comes to childcare and domestic upkeep than their partners.
Science exemplifies a career in which – in theory – gender, race, and country of origin are irrelevant to professional performance, and it has progressed farther along this arc than many. We owe it to pioneers like RBG to promote these ideals alongside our research, and practise the same.