Palaeontologists with beards: some shocking news

Mary Anning, now something of a feminist icon, combed the foreshores and undercliffs of the Jurassic Coast of southern England for fossils, including those of marine reptiles. Self-taught, she unearthed, prepared and described the first ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs known to science. Being a working class woman – and she did work in the early 19th century – she was not allowed to publish. Instead, she provided fossils to notables like Owen, Buckland and Cuvier who published and got the credit, only rarely acknowledging her as the collector. In 1964, during my induction as a fresher in the Lapworth Library of the Geology Department at Birmingham University, the ‘Prof’ Fred Shotton declared to the 14 young men sitting meekly before him, ‘There will be no women students in this department while I am its Head’. By my final year, Fred had relented and the first ever female undergraduate enrolled. When I left with a PhD in 1970, there were more and now my guess is the proportion is around 40%.. But professional geoscience is still largely a man’s world. In the US, where geoscience is still  a major science – it has declined in Britain as a result of ‘rationalisation’ of UK Earth science departments that followed the 1987 Oxburgh Report – a mere 16% of faculty are women; female PhDs are paid 12% less than males; fellowship of learned societies is below 20%, and there is a host of other issues in which women are ‘less favoured’. It’s much the same, although perhaps a little less blatant, in most sciences. Being in a discipline that is still largely focussed on field work by individuals, female ‘lone workers’ in often remote places sometimes face worse problems.

Three of the presenters in the Bearded Lady project pose on the foreshore at Lyme Regis - note Golden Cap in the background. (Credit: Kelsey Vance)

Three of the presenters in The Bearded Lady Project pose on the foreshore at Lyme Regis – note the weathered Cretaceous Upper Greensand forming Golden Cap in the background. (Credit: Kelsey Vance)

Asking themselves a few rhetorical questions, such as, ‘What comes to mind when you hear the word “palaeontologist”?’ or ‘List as many female scientists as you can’, three women professionals – a palaeontologist, a performance art director and a photographer – decided to challenge a few stereotypes. Their project is a feature length, live-action documentary plus a series of photographic exhibitions to inspire young women to become geoscientists. It centres on what most ‘geos’ really enjoy; field work conducted exclusively by women. It is as realistic as the common perception of field geology might suggest, yet at some point each of the presenters has a beard or moustache. Hence, The Bearded Lady Project! Part of the film is to include footage shot at Lyme Regis, as a tribute to Mary Anning, the whole project covering many different aspects of practical geoscience.

For British readers: The Bearded Lady Project’s portrait exhibition is planned to be in Exeter.

See also: Witze, A. 2016. Q&A: Lexi Jamieson Marsh and Ellen Currano: Face to face. Nature v. 538, p. 316.

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