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Blackhole Backlash

Natalie Tongue voices her contempt towards the misogynistic attack against Katie Bouman, responsible for the first ever photo of a black hole

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It’s funny how the image of a successful women seems to be such a controversy. Breaking the glass ceiling and flourishing never seems to come without bitter traditionalists picking up those shards of glass and throwing them towards the woman. Particularly in the fields of business, politics and STEM, usually dominated by men (more specifically, white middle-class men), women’s successes has been viewed uncomfortably. This has been the case with Katie Bouman, who, in the words of Mary Griggs writing for The Verge, has been subject to a “sexist scavenger hunt”.

Bouman is a 29 year old computer scientist, soon to be an assistant professor at Caltech. Bouman led one of the four teams that turned an array of hard drives into the first ever image of the black hole. This instrumental development put something 6.5 billion times greater than our Sun into our sight and yet online voices would rather criticise a woman celebrating an instrumental development she helped to produce, than join the joy and marvel in its glory. The backlash she received claimed to be “fairly” questioning her contribution, as she did work as part of a team. Along with an Instagram post of Bouman celebrating the photo, MIT congratulated her lead in the creation of the algorithm that led to this momentous moment, which gave the impression that her algorithm and work alone led to its creation.

online voices would rather criticise a woman celebrating an instrumental development she helped to produce, than join the joy and marvel in its glory

In response to the abuse, Bouman has emphasised that “the spotlight should be on the team and no individual person. Focusing on one person like this helps no one, including me.” While it is easy to agree that the whole team who contributed to the photograph should be given the credit they deserve, I can’t help but question if such a passionate foray of criticism would have been raised in defence of each team member had a man been inadvertently made face of the project. It seems a frequent phenomenon that the bitter voices of Twitter come to the defence of the whole, only when sole public credit is given to a woman. I won’t be subtle here, this online reaction was undoubtedly a product of the misogynistic discomfort at a woman succeeding in STEM. How many scientific developments announced under a male face and name have received this level of backlash?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rightly congratulated Bouman on Twitter, “take your rightful seat in history”. The sentiment here should speak to every young woman and remind us that the criticism Bouman receives does not undermine her achievement, and cannot take away from her success. Ocasio-Cortez herself is an emblem for women fighting for change, and is a constant reminder that the ceiling is only glass, and we do have the ability to break through it. Women in STEM are less common than any other subject (for sociological reasons I will spare you from hearing about here), and while government initiatives have been launched to encourage girls to engage in the field, they remain the minority. Bouman marks a valuable and long overdue role model and serves as an inspiration that women can and will succeed in this field. The more women do, the less power the bitter responses to seeing women take their place in the spotlight will have.

this online reaction was undoubtedly a product of the misogynistic discomfort at a woman succeeding in STEM

It is scary to think that our actions and our achievements in the future have the potential to pave the way for the girls of the generations that will follow, and it is scary to think that our successes will come under unforgiving scrutiny. But we will take our seat in history, and we will accomplish great things for women and for all.

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