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Women wear beards to challenge gender bias in science

The lack of female representation in science leads many to incorrectly believe that men are better in the field, says paleontologist Ellen Currano.
Dr. Ellen Currano
Dr. Ellen CurranoDraper White

About five years ago, Dr. Ellen Currano, a paleontologist at the University of Wyoming, felt like she was wasn’t receiving the same opportunities as her male colleagues. “I had to work harder to be recognized for what I was doing,” Currano told Know Your Value.

Currano was having dinner with her friend Lexi Jamieson Marsh, a documentary filmmaker, and was venting about the challenges in her male-dominated field. Marsh could relate, because her industry is heavily male as well. Currano recounted a faculty meeting where she shared an idea, which was dismissed, and then five minutes later, a male colleague offered the same idea, which everyone deemed amazing. “Maybe if I just put a beard on my face, people will listen to me,” Currano told Marsh.

Paleontologist Rebecca Hunt-Foster's Bearded PortraitDraper White 2017

“Oh, that’s such a good idea! We should do this!,” Marsh exclaimed. And just like that, "The Bearded Lady Project," a documentary film and photographic project that celebrates female paleontologists and highlights the obstacles they face, was born.

"The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science," is an intriguing photo exhibit of about 40 female paleontologists in the field and in the lab posing with a beard on their face. The exhibit has toured the country for two years and will be displayed in the Smithsonian this fall. The ladies also launched a website to feature the portraits, have a feature-length film and are working on a book with photographs and essays that share the perspectives of female scientists.

The Bearded Lady founding team from left to right: Lexi Jamieson Marsh (director), Dr. Ellen Currano (Lead subject & producer), Kelsey Vance (portrait photographer)Draper White 2015

The goal of the project is to start a conversation about the challenges that women scientists face. Currano said she hopes to help pave a smoother journey for future female paleontologists. Throughout her career, she has at times felt very isolated and as though she was in her own bubble. “There weren’t people who looked like me or had feelings like me in my field, so I felt very alone and demoralized,” she said.

“Gender bias ... we all have it,” Currano said. “It’s not just men, it’s women as well. A number of studies show that we as Americans are used to seeing men as scientists both on college campuses (as professors) and when we turn on the TV.” She explained that the lack of female representation leads us to believe that men are better at science and belong in science. “I think it’s really important to have the media and Hollywood blockbusters show women and people of color as scientists,” she added.

Dr. Catherine Badgley surveys the Barstow Basin in southern California, April 2015.Kelsey J. Vance

The project has helped raise awareness about the obstacles women face, particularly to men who might not have noticed otherwise. It is also helping to build a powerful community of female scientists. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of these people better and have been inspired by their science and their personal experiences,” Currano said.

“Now we have all our bearded ladies ... the sisterhood of the traveling beards,” Currano added.