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  • Writer's pictureBecca Dzombak

Alcohol culture perpetuates hyper-masculine stereotypes that keep geology white, male, & able-bodied

After seeing a thread on Twitter this morning, I got to thinking about alcohol culture at geology conferences. I know other fields - and really, academia in general - has a problematic relationship with alcohol; it seems like every field wants to claim, "No, really, we drink the most!" This goes hand-in-hand with toxic work culture more broadly (glorifying overwork and, generally, misery), but in geology specifically, it's also tied to the hyper-masculine stereotypes about what a geologist looks like.

The classic "draw a scientist" study may be improving with time, but I'd be willing to bet my dissertation that if you asked people to draw a geologist, a white, bearded man in dorky-yet-rugged field clothes (battered hiking boots, dusty hiking pants, and an intense tan) would be the norm. And while it's good to see a range of geoscience getting mainstream media coverage, the stories that make a big splash can be pretty problematic in terms of perpetuating the image of "who's a geologist." Take, for example, the paleontologist who got a lot of coverage for a purportedly big find around the K-Pg extinction and tsunami. Aside from more academic issues I had with that particular incident, a few different articles described him (white, male, able-bodied) essentially as Indiana Jones - sweaty and shirtless in a pit, smoking a pipe in the field, with a giant knife strapped to his belt, drinking whiskey around the fire at the end of a long day, etc. The epitome of a man's man, a geologist.

That may have been the case in the 1800s, when geology was limited to independently wealthy Englishmen and Scots and a few Germans traipsing around the mountains, speculating about how old the Earth was. (For more on that, I recommend Great Geological Controversies - currently reading and it paints a hilarious-yet-problematic image of the history of geology.) But today, "geology" casts a wide net; we have field geologists, yes, but we also have chemists and biologists and modelers and mathematicians. We're more likely to be in a lab or in front of a computer than camping in the desert, so you don't need to be in love with roughing it in the wilderness or be able to hike 20 miles a day to "be a geologist."

Drinking, of course, isn't inherently a gendered activity; anyone can love a chilled rosé or a neat scotch. But there are other issues with the pervasive drinking culture in geology (and academia more broadly). Drinks are at the center of many social activities (department socials, happy hours, interviews, etc.). The tweet that sparked this trail of thought was specifically about conferences. Wandering around a poster session with a clear (often filled to the brim) plastic cup of wine or a beer bottle dripping with condensation is a big draw for some people; alcohol relaxes us, makes us friendlier, gives everything a chill atmosphere.

Except... sometimes it doesn't.

The internet is filled with horror stories of people (often women) who have been drunkenly hit on, harassed, and berated at conferences by dudes. It's filled with tales of being put down by peers and interviewers who judge someone for not drinking, saying they "not fun" or "don't know how to loosen up." What's overlooked is someone's desire to stay in control and appear professional - the latter being especially of concern for scientists in underrepresented groups who tend to be judged more harshly than their white peers. Or what if they're just sober, or can't drink for health reasons? It's easier for me to just carry around the same slowly-warming-to-body-temperature cup of cheap merlot and take tiny sips every now and again than explain my dumb chronic problems to people I'm trying to talk science with. I have to choose between my physical comfort and health and just 'blending in.' (Plus, red wine + fancy professional clothes = guaranteed stains.)

Geology's drinking culture is just one facet of this cumulative, masculine image, though. Because of its strong associations with being in the field (many programs have a field camp requirement), it's incredibly ableist. The focus on field components may also make people who grew up without safe access to outdoor spaces feel unwelcome. While the camping/hiking aspect of geology does appeal to many students, giving the impression that someone needs that experience, and to be comfortable in those spaces, to be a successful geologist is (a) not true, just ask my (amazing) former labmate who is not a fan of the outside but is currently a successful postdoc at McGill, and (b) exclusionary to people who could do well even if they have no interest in owning a pair of hiking boots.

Geology fieldwork is also very oriented towards white people who, in short, are far less likely to be aggressively questioned or attacked for simply being somewhere. (In Wyoming last September, my (white) labmate and I met a white, male geologist at the outcrop by chance. We were both very quick to notice that he had a handgun in a belt holster and, despite the fact that he was very nice, we were glad he was leaving the field area that evening. I can't imagine the stress that would have caused for a scientist of color.) Black geoscientists (follow #BlackinGeoscience) are less likely to feel comfortable in the field, particularly in rural areas where they may be threatened by the inhabitants. While many of us, at some point, have done something questionable in the field, Black geologists have the additional weight of presidentially-condoned systemic racism to worry about. I worry if I'll cut my hand hopping a fence; a Black colleague might worry about getting shot.


While bragging about how much alcohol we consume at conferences might seem like a small problem, it adds to the pile of factors - small and large, individual and systemic - that result in the geosciences still being extremely white and male. If we keep putting out this image - a swaggering, drinking-all-the-time, Indiana Jones-esque white dude - that's who we'll attract. It's madness to do the same thing and expect different results.


Geologists in tv & film

Other people have done comprehensive lists of geologists in movies & tv, so I'm not going to recreate that. This list from Earth Magazine found one (1) example of a Black geoscientist in a movie (the classic 2012). Clearly, there's room for improvement. (At least we're not usually depicted as evil.)

Clockwise, from left: There Will Be Blood, one of the more rare 'evil geologist' incidences; 2012, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as geologist Adrian Helmsley; South Park's rudest USGS scientist, Randy Marsh; and ... one of the Ocean's movies, the ones were women are mostly mediocre plot devices.

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