7/25/2021 0 Comments
By Nektaria Riso
Do me a favour, and type “women in STEM” in your Google search engine. Trust me, go on and do it! So, how many search results do you get? You should get hundreds of millions of results ranging from newspaper articles to government statistical reports, and I’m sure they all say the same thing: the gender gap in STEM is alive and well! The gap is larger in some fields than others, especially in engineering and in computer science. According to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), only 18.7% and 20.9% of undergraduate degrees in computer science and in engineering, respectively, are awarded to women.
Interestingly, there is one STEM field that does not seem to be having this issue: forensic science. Not only do women significantly outnumber men in undergraduate and graduate forensic science programs (at an outstanding 74%!), but they also populate the workforce by claiming jobs in laboratories and big government institutions such as the FBI. So, why is the field of forensic so successful at recruiting more women while other STEM fields are not? Their success appears to be attributed to the availability of role models and the altruistic nature of the work.
What is Forensic Science?
When you hear the words “forensic science,” what thoughts initially come to mind? Most likely it is the glamorized depiction in mainstream media thanks to the abundance of popular true crime TV shows like CSI and Bones. Believe it or not, DNA matches are not processed in minutes (in fact, DNA processing can take over 50 hours!) and forensic scientists do not interrogate or arrest suspects.
A more realistic perspective can be taken from the Canadian Society of Forensic Science’s definition of the field as “the application of science, and the scientific method to the judicial system.” Forensic scientists employ lab techniques such as DNA analysis, fingerprinting, and even photography to investigate the physical and material evidence at crime scenes. Forensic science is an incredibly diverse field and includes disciplines like chemistry, psychology, anthropology, toxicology, and more!
The way forensic science is portrayed by the media might not be useful for solving any real-life crimes, but it can help us answer why women are so attracted to the grisly and gruesome world of forensic science.
Dr. Max Houck, a forensic expert and university professor, has attempted to identify the factors that motivate women to pursue careers in this field. Houck highlights that a major factor is the prevalence of intelligent and talented female forensic scientists on TV. Characters such as Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan and NCIS’s Abby Sciuto serve as role models for aspiring female scientists. Their success in this field, albeit fictional, depicts forensic science as welcoming of women. In fact, many women scientists claim to owe their decision to pursue a career in STEM due the science fiction media they were watched to while growing up. Many female television viewers are more exposed than men to the “CSI effect,” as women have been shown to watch way more true crime stories than men.
Women may also be drawn more to forensic science because it’s viewed as a meaningful career that can improve society. Forensic science is often depicted as a concrete way to help others by catching the bad guy while securing justice and closure for a victim’s family. Many helping professions are female-dominated, and although there is some controversy about whether it is because women are often socialized to be more caring, contextualizing STEM fields in real life does increase women’s presence within them. Unlike other STEM fields which can seem more theoretical or isolated from society’s big social issues, forensic science has a clear altruistic purpose and is presented as connected to real-life.
Frances Glessner Lee, the “godmother of forensic science”
We should not be too surprised that the majority of forensic scientists are women considering that it was indeed a woman who transformed the field into what it is today. Frances Glessner Lee, nicknamed the “godmother of forensic science”, had quite an unconventional path to crime scene investigation. Born to a wealthy family in 1878, she became intrigued by police investigations as an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes books. However, women were not allowed to pursue forensic science and instead she was encouraged to engage in more appropriate activities of the time, such as crafts and music. Hoping to fulfill the roles expected of her by her traditional family, she became a wife to a successful lawyer and a mother of three children.
But things changed in 1929 when 51-year-old Lee, now divorced and retired from her business in antiques, became newly inspired while recovering from surgery. She recuperated at Mass General hospital alongside her long-time friend and a prominent medical examiner George Magrath. During their stay, Lee and Magrath had many conversations about the lack of adequate training for medical examiners and detectives who often resolved their cases based on intuition rather than crime scene evidence. Upon her release from the hospital, Lee knew she had to do something. But what could she, as a woman with no formal training in the field, do to legitimize the field?
Donations and Dioramas
First, Lee, who was incredibly wealthy, chose to gift Harvard University with $250,000 (a whopping $4.6 million today!) to establish the Department of Legal Medicine with Magrath as its head. She spent long hours doing her own independent research on the field, reading hundreds of books and manuscripts and later donating over 1,000 books to create the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine. For many years, Lee tirelessly defended the necessity of legal medicine for unbiased crime scene investigations and developed close relationships with police officers and experts in the field.
In 1943, Frances Glessner Lee became the first female captain in the New Hampshire State Police (and the first female police captain in US history!). Around this same time, she decided to use her craft-making skills to foster police officers’ investigative skills during training. She took the traditionally female pastime of dollhouse-making and gave it a macabre twist by creating 20 dioramas, each depicting a crime scene. Lee’s “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” were based on real-life past crimes and featured an unbelievable amount of detail. From mini cigarettes and carpet cleaners to blood-stained sheets and hammers, her dollhouses had one important goal: to train future police officers to solve a crime by carefully observing the material evidence.
In 1945, Lee first introduced her dioramas to her biannual Frances Glessner Lee Seminars on Legal Medicine. These week-long seminars were opportunities for forensic experts and police detectives from all over the country to network and share their knowledge, and later undergo a training exercise using the dioramas. Each participant was given 90 minutes to study each dollhouse, and had access to a flashlight, a magnifying glass, case notes, and witness statements. Lee’s Nutshell Studies were used to train detectives even years after her death in 1962. Today, despite the dissolution of Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine, her dioramas are still employed as a training tool and reside in Maryland at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Applying Lessons Learned from Forensic Science
The increased presence of women in the field of forensic science proves that there are ways to make STEM fields, including engineering and computer science, more inclusive and welcoming of women. The representation of real (and even fictional!) women in STEM is crucial to filling the gender gap – after all you can’t be what you can’t see. Additionally, let’s not forget that an approach to STEM that connects learning to real-life issues attracts and keeps women in STEM. Watching reruns of CSI and Bones might be a guilty pleasure for some viewers, but there’s a valuable lesson in repeating the message that women can and do belong in science.
Want to see Frances Glessner Lee’s dollhouses for yourself?
Check out other influential women in forensic science!
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