If when you hear the word “Entomologist” your mind instantly jumps to a Victorian man brandishing a butterfly net and carefully pinning glittering beetles, I can’t entirely blame you. Entomology took off during the 19th and 20th centuries and, with Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace famously interested in Entomology, its image has remained stuck in that time. Entomology wasn’t and isn’t just eccentric old men with big beards (although there are a fair few of them) and as today is International Women’s Day, I thought I would research a few historical ‘Lady Entomologists’ and to look to the present day to see how equal entomology really is.
We start with Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), a German-born naturalist and illustrator who published many illustrations of insect metamorphosis some of which we saw at the Royal Entomological Society. So prolific is her work that the Sibylla genus of mantises, the Cuban sphinx moth (Erinnyis merianae) and the cane toad (Rhinella meriane) have been named after her!
Moving closer to home, Lady Eleanor Glanville (c. 1654-1709) collected large numbers of butterfly specimens around her Somerset home which are now some of the earliest in the Natural History Museum. After separating from her second husband, Eleanor pursued her interest in Entomology, distancing herself financially from her immediate family, who disapproved of her interest.
“Some relations that was disappointed by her will, attempted to let it aside by Acts of Lunacy, for they suggested that none but those who were deprived of their senses, would go in Pursuit of butterflies.” – Moses Harris, 1776
In the field of Agricultural Entomology, Eleanor Anne Ormerod (1828-1901) published a series of articles on pests and beneficial insects in the Gardeners’ Chronicle and the Agricultural Gazette. She worked as an honorary consulting entomologist for the Royal Agricultural Society (she was NOT paid) from 1882-1892 and lectured on scientific entomology at the Royal Agricultural College. She was recognised throughout Europe, receiving gold and silver medals from the University of Moscow for models of pest insects and known for carrying out “brave” natural history experiments including one where she put a live Great Crested Newt in her mouth, presumable to test its toxicity.
“The first effect was a bitter astringent feeling in the mouth, with irritation of the upper part of the throat, numbing of the teeth… holding the animal, and in about a minute… a strong flow of saliva. This was accompanied by much foam and violent spasmodic action, approaching convulsions, but entirely confined to the mouth itself. The experiment was immediately followed by headache lasting for some hours, general discomfort of the system, and half an hour after by slight shivering fits.” – Gadow, 1909
Evelyn Cheesman (1882-1969) “the Woman who Walks” initially wanted to be a veterinary surgeon but was unable to because at the time (1906) the Royal Veterinary College did not accept women. She later studied Entomology under the Professor of Entomology at Imperial College at the time, Harold Maxwell-Lefroy. In 1917 she became the Assistant Curator of Insects at London Zoo and, in 1920 became the first female Insect House Curator, recruiting local children to help her restock the dilapidated Insect House. From then she started her lifelong passion for scientific expeditions, including eight solo trips to the South Pacific, collecting over 70 000 specimens. Cheesman worked as an unpaid volunteer for the Natural History Museum for many years until her death, writing and classifying specimens and in 1955 was awarded an OBE for her contributions to Entomology.
“We drop down, or get run over, but we never retire.” – Evelyn Cheesman
In America Annette Frances Braun (1884-1978) was a leading authority on Microleptidoptera. She was the first woman to earn a PhD from the University of Cincinnati in 1911 before working for 8 years as a zoology teaching assistant. Throughout her later private research career she described and named over 340 species, often illustrating her own field observations. She served as vice-president of the Entomological Society of America in 1926.
It’s easy to look at these women, who were pioneers in their field, and to put them into a time bubble of “long ago” where historical context excuses the discrimination they faced but is the situation really ‘fixed’?
A study published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America in October 2018 found that, despite women making up 40-50% of PhD graduates in Entomology in the last ten years, the percentage of female Entomologists in postdoctoral academic and government positions decreases with increasing rank more than for men. Women are more likely to hold low-ranking positions within a faculty such as instructors or lecturers, a situation not that different from when Annette Frances Braun could only work as a teaching assistant despite holding a PhD. The author of this study, Karen A. Walker, was quoted in Entomology Today as saying “Citizens tend to equate being an entomologist with being a man, and I have been referred to as ‘the bug lady’ before, as though it is remarkable that a woman would want to work with insects”.
It seems socially acceptable to be repulsed by invertebrates, especially for girls and women which, along with other societal pressures and gender stereotypes around STEM subjects, may explain why fewer women study entomology. After all we know that men have no innate ability in STEM subjects. It seems that there are barriers stopping female entomologists progressing into STEM careers. Women are as likely as men to want to stay working in STEM after completing a PhD but less likely to be able to get a job in research. That combined with the fact that women and people of colour are likely to have a significantly lower mean salary than men makes high-tier STEM positions seem unachievable to minority groups.
This glass ceiling will never be shattered in one blog post or at one university or in one year, it’s a global issue which is going to take a time to resolve but we are well on the way to future equality. In the meantime we can encourage prospective entomology students, support women already in the field, and to increase visibility scientists from every background.
“You cannot be what you cannot see”
Links to organisations:
- Athena SWAN charter which aims to “encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM)” (https://www.ecu.ac.uk/equality-charters/athena-swan/).
- WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) for “gender balance in STEM, from the classroom to the boardroom” (https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/).
- The British Federation of Women Graduates which fights to get women from all academic backgrounds into post-graduate jobs (https://bfwg.org.uk/bfwg2/).