Fabiola Gianotti Takes The Helm | Vol. 3 / No. 8.5

Dr. Fabiola Gianotti at the LHC | Photo: Claudia Marcelloni De Oliveira, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Dr. Fabiola Gianotti at the LHC | Photo: Claudia Marcelloni De Oliveira, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Today’s post happens to be our 300th here at This Week In Tomorrow, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate it (on Christmas Day, no less) than with some good news about a female scientist taking the helm of a world-class scientific organization. Lindsey explains.


My father has always held out hope that one day I’ll turn out to be an engineer. He’s an engineer himself, and he always did his best to encourage my interest in science and math. To a certain extent, he succeeded. I like science, and I’m tolerant of the fact that math must exist. (I’m trying.) But science never “spoke” to me the way that literature did, and my interest in it has always been more of a hobby than a calling. My father, and my bank account, are probably both a little bit disappointed. However, to a certain extent, my own failure to become an engineer actually troubles me when I’m discussing gender construction and nature vs. nurture. Why? Because you basically have to overcome a metric ton of discouragement, stereotypes, and other BS to become a woman in a STEM field. I have a good number of incredible lady friends who did overcome this to go into STEM fields, and I could not be prouder of them, but I sometimes wonder if my turn towards the language arts is at least partially due to those external forces. I wonder if I pursued English partly because, outside of my parents, I was discouraged from pursuing science.

Study after study has shown that girls are discouraged from STEM fields starting at an early age. Teachers score boys more highly on science assignments than girls. Experts in various fields are shown to have an inherent (if politically incorrect) belief that men are better at high level STEM work than women. The stereotype that boys are inherently better at math than girls means that even when girls score well in mathematics in middle and high school, they don’t pursue the subject in college. And there is a serious lack of representation for female scientists. If you do a Google image search for “scientist,” there’s an encouraging scattering of women in lab coats, but men still outnumber women 3 or 4 to 1. (And some of the images of women scientists are super NSFW, like this gem). LEGO only finally made a female scientist line after two years of a campaign for them to do so

The only fictional female scientist I remember seeing when I was a kid was Dr. Barbara “Babs” Blight, the pink jumpsuit-wearing baddie on Captain Planet. She and Sally Ride were about it in terms of “women in STEM” inspiration. Today we have some much better lady scientist role models on-screen, though we’re a little bit slower when it comes to off-screen awesome women in STEM—only about 24% of STEM occupations are held by women. But thankfully even that is changing, sometimes in big ways.

Starting on January 1st, a woman will be in charge of one of the most important scientific facilities in the world. Dr. Fabiola Gianotti is taking the helm of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, aka CERN (sometimes your acronym is based off of the French version of your name and then you confuse people). She’ll be the first female director-general that CERN has had since its founding in 1954. Gianotti has some epic credentials for the position, including being at the helm of the Atlas Project, which found evidence of the Higgs Boson particle. (She also used Comic Sans in her presentation announcing the particle, which I frankly find hilarious.) She also seems very aware of what her new position will mean for women in STEM fields. As David Castlevecchi reports,

On the topic of women in science, Gianotti said that women who are highly successful researchers and managers can provide inspiration for young girls who might be interested in having a career in science. “We will have to be very vigilant that young female scientists have the same opportunities as their male colleagues,” she added.

I’m very excited by the idea of a generation of girls being inspired by Gianotti, and by the idea of Gianotti working to ensure that other young women have the chance to do what she has done.

I’ll never be able to know for certain why I directed my attention to English while some of my friends persevered to become awesome lady scientists. I’m happy in my field, and with my choices, no matter what doubts I might still feel. But it makes me feel better to know that Gianotti and others are making it more likely that STEM-inclined girls will get to see their interests and desires represented in fiction and in real life. Perhaps future Lindseys will get to be closer to 100% certain that they chose a field because they wanted it, and not because they were discouraged from doing otherwise.


Lindsey Hanlon is a writer and educator living in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as well as a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not discussing the slow proliferation of new role models for girls interested in STEM fields, she studies gender in comics and popular culture.