‘Maybe if I just put a beard on my face, people would listen to me’: The Bearded Lady Project premieres at Lawrence Hall of Science

Lexi Jamieson Marsh/Courtesy

Five years ago, Ellen Currano, a University of Wyoming associate professor of paleobotany, sat in a male-dominated faculty meeting and suggested a creative proposal. The idea was met with silence from her male colleagues, until one suggested the same idea. He received immediate approval.

“Maybe if I just put a beard on my face, people would listen to me,” Currano thought.

The Bearded Lady Project was started in 2014 by Currano with the goal of whimsically upending the gender disparity within paleontology. Paleontologists around the world – including several at UC Berkeley – have donned fake mustaches and beards to call attention to themes of inequity and prejudice, which the field of geoscience has endured for decades.

The project’s 53-minute documentary will premiere at Lawrence Hall of Science on Aug. 22 in conjunction with a traveling photography exhibition of the bearded women, which will feature 15 campus paleontologists.

“I was one of those people. … I expected to go into paleontology and receive equal treatment. As a student, I was treated equally … and then when I became a professional, I started realizing that it wasn’t as easy as I initially thought,” Currano said.

The project came to campus in February 2015 when Cindy Looy, a campus associate professor of integrative biology, asked her colleagues and graduate student researchers if they would be interested in donning mustaches and beards for the project. She received so much support that she had to make an Excel spreadsheet with people’s hair color and preferred beard types. About 30 people gathered to celebrate and pose for a photo.

Gender bias in paleontology extends beyond the “blatant sexism” of the past, according to Currano. Today, it involves more subtle, unconscious biases such as “mansplaining” and receiving less press than male colleagues.

“There is a pervasive stereotype in our culture that scientists are male, and while that stereotype is slowly-changing, it still persists. In my field of paleontology, we also have the additional stereotypes of male paleontologists as portrayed in Jurassic Park and other TV and film,” Patricia Holroyd, a senior museum scientist at the UC Museum of Paleontology, said in an email. The effect of all these media portrayals is that even young children already show implicit bias. I am often asked by little girls if women can be paleontologists.”

Leslea Hlusko, a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, added that unconscious bias can also influence male-heavy panels or symposiums, candidates considered for grants, and a general sense of belonging in the field.

To counteract gender bias in paleontology, institutions can conduct quantitative analysis to check for equity and double-blind reviews, according to Hlusko. She added that on a personal level, individuals have the ability to step back and consider diversity and missing candidates that could add perspective and dynamism to a given project.

“Literature shows that the more diverse the research group, the better the science,” Hlusko said. If there’s more diversity, you start to have more definition and creativity.”

According to Hlusko, UC Berkeley looks at statistics, analyzes if anything appears amiss and then develops policies that rectify imbalances. Grants and small promotions, for instance, can be given out by deans and department chairs to balance disparity.

Indiana Jones inspired a generation of globe-trotters, thrill-seekers and risk-takers. The character also helped to inspire a gendered stereotype that festers in the undercurrents of geoscience and discovery today.

“Like every change, it will take time. … It goes slow. (With) more representation in graduate programs, we eventually will get better representation when it comes to gender and ethnic background,” Looy said.

Contact Alex Casey at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @acasey_dc.