Black Hole Backlash

STEM industries don’t necessarily have the best reputation for gender diversity and equality in the workplace, with a recent study by Pew Research Centre revealing women in STEM industries experience high levels of gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. With this in mind, it is always disheartening to see hostility directed at a woman who is succeeding in science.

The woman in question is Harvard postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Katie Bouman, who has been credited as being part of the team of scientists who captured the first image of a black hole. A collaboration between internationally located telescopes, known as the Event Horizon Telescope, last month produced an image of the black hole at the centre of Messier 87 galaxy, 55 million light-years away from Earth.

Eight telescopes were involved in the project and were operated together to form a virtual telescope the size of our planet. The nature of black holes means that they cannot be seen, however the shadow of the black hole is illuminated by the bright gas burning around it, showing us the historic first glimpse of these great masses of gravitational pull.

While many marvelled at the significance of such an image, many internet trolls decided the world needed their opinion after Dr. Bouman became the face of the event, a recognition that some decided was undeserved. They felt that the praise being heaped on Dr. Bouman was disproportionate to her contribution after finding that she had written less code for the algorithm than her colleague, astrophysicist Andrew Chael. However, many pointed out that quality over quantity is what matters when it comes to coding and Chael, her colleagues and Dr. Bouman herself stepped in to make it clear that the project was a team effort and everyone involved played an important part.

While heroeing Dr. Bouman as the sole scientist responsible for the image was an exaggeration, the eagerness of the internet trolls to play down Dr. Bouman’s achievements highlights just how much women in STEM careers still face discrimination, both in their workplace and in the public sphere. With more women now being encouraged to enter STEM careers, let’s hope this kind of backlash against females achieving in male-dominated industries is quickly diminished.

Image credit: NASA/CXC/Villanova University/J. Neilsen