Speaking out for women in science

Jessica Cantlon
Cognitive neuroscientist
Carnegie Mellon University

Jessica Cantlon, featured in 2016, studies the evolution and development of complex mathematical thinking, including the traits that set humans apart from other primates. In 2017, she was recognized as a Time Person of the Year, as a “silence breaker” speaking out against sexual harassment during the height of the #MeToo movement.

What has been the most notable progress in your research since 2016?
We’ve expanded our repertoire to compare people across different cultures, who have different educational practices. We’ve been going to Bolivia to work with this group of people called the Tsimane, who live in rural parts of the Amazon forest. They don’t have the rigid, formal schooling where kids go through these particular curricula to achieve mathematical cognition. Instead, education there is more organic and more deeply connected to their way of life. That allows us to try to understand what effect does a particular type of education have on numerical thinking.

There was one study that we did, comparing species — nonhuman primates and humans — to understand the evolution of these concepts. Across all species and stages of development and cultural groups, there’s this bias that when you’re looking at a set of objects, and you’re trying to quantify it, you think about that set numerically. And you don’t have to; you can think about that set of objects spatially, as an amount of stuff, you can think about how much surface area is there, or the perimeter around it. But primates, including humans, [tend to] think about that set as a set of discrete objects, and count them up.

What is something that excites you right now in your work?
We’ve looked at the similarities and differences between boys and girls as their brains develop. We’ve done some of the first, early studies comparing children’s brains that can truly allow us to collect evidence on the trajectory of similarity between boys and girls…. We’ve shown that very early in development, between around 3 and 8 years of age, there’s evidence during mathematical processing that most of the brain — over 95 percent — shows functional similarity in that processing between boys and girls.

But as we know, much later on in development, we see a severe underrepresentation of girls in mathematics-related fields. What’s happening? There’s evidence in the field … that what happens in late childhood and adolescence is that children’s interests are shaped culturally.

What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced since 2016?
In 2016, [some of my colleagues at the University of Rochester and I] filed a sexual harassment complaint against a faculty member in our department who was sexually harassing women — undergraduate and graduate students and faculty. It became this situation that hijacked my career for a number of years.… We went public with our complaint, partly to protect ourselves, but also partly to let people know at other universities that this kind of thing is happening to students, and it’s affecting women’s career paths in ways that are discriminatory and unequal.

Ultimately, it was really important. Our complaint went public in September of 2017. In October 2017, the Harvey Weinstein story came out in the New York Times, and that kicked off a series of reactions that ultimately culminated in millions of people saying #MeToo, which I think was really powerful and important, and was something that we got to be a part of.

I’ve had dozens of women reach out to me for advice, about how to file a complaint at their university, how to take legal action, if that’s what they’re thinking, what the risks and benefits are. And so, part of my career now — and I’m excited by it, and I think it’s really important work — is to be an advocate for women who are experiencing discrimination and harassment at universities.

One response that we thought was really great was that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine did a full study on sexual harassment in the sciences…. It has a lot of ideas about what might effect larger-scale change.

— Interview by Aina Abell