The CSI Effect, Part II: Women In the Sciences

The forensic sciences are exploding in the US right now. New forensic techniques are constantly being developed, and they’re being relied upon more heavily in courtrooms than ever before. Alongside that come concerns about the rise in forensics and questions about the validity of some of these techniques; Frontline’s ongoing investigation into the use of forensic material is really fascinating and I’d highly recommend it if you want to learn more about the problems with forensics in this country and some of the ways we might be able to fix them.

With the corresponding rise of forensic techniques and demands for technicians, there’s a boom in forensics training; which is in fact part of the issue, as Frontline points out, because a number of for-profit institutions are hoping to cash in on the boom. Meanwhile, people are placing heavy weight on forensic evidence when they sit on juries, and they’re expecting to see that evidence presented when they hear a case. That’s thanks to what’s known as the CSI effect.

What’s the CSI effect, you ask? It’s the phenomenon of juries expecting more forensic evidence in criminal cases, and also demanding perfection from that evidence. The CSI effect has also contributed to the way people present and discuss evidence in court, because people want shiny animations and courtroom displays, not dry posterboard and dull expert witnesses. It may come as no surprise to learn that prosecutors hate it and defense attorneys love it. It’s enough of an issue that the US DOJ commissioned a report on it. (Conclusion: ‘Our criminal justice system must find ways to adapt to the increased expectations of those whom we ask to cast votes of “guilty” or “not guilty.”‘ Zing.)

Now we’re seeing another aspect of the CSI effect come into bloom, and it’s one I’m actually excited about: an increase in the number of women in the sciences. Women are flocking to forensics training, and taking a leading role in collecting, processing, preserving, and presenting forensic evidence. I might be inclined to call it the Bones effect, since that’s probably the most notable show with a female protagonist—and she’s based on a character developed by a real-life woman forensic anthropologist, to boot.

Whatever you want to call it, it means that more women are pursuing science careers, and that is good news. It also bucks gender stereotypes when it comes to who is involved in criminal investigation and who has the capacity to ‘handle’ potentially gruesome or emotionally distressing crime scenes. As women flock to training across the country in institutions ranging from highly respected colleges and universities with top-notch forensics programmes to more dubious diploma mills, one thing is for sure: people who say science isn’t for girls are obviously wrong, and this generation of women is going to show them exactly how serious they are about science.

It’s my hope that this will also encourage interest in other areas of the sciences, of course. Women who are introduced to science through forensics dramas might end up taking a slightly different track, even if they start with forensics in mind; perhaps they get intrigued by dendrobiology and end up working in forest conservation, or end up pursuing research on ancient human remains as a result of studying physical anthropology. However they get to their end careers, forensics dramas may be pointing them along the way, by showing them competent, dynamic women in science who are also getting respect from their male colleagues, and having fun on the job.

There is of course a certain sexification of science that comes up on these shows; complex results that come back in minutes, people wearing heels and slinky dresses in the lab, tailored lab coats, and other, uhm, artistic licenses taken with the original text. It’s safe to say that working in a lab isn’t nearly as glamorous as it looks on television, but at least unlike the European Commission, major television networks haven’t been tasked with producing videos to get women involved in the sciences. They’re here to entertain us and we all understand that as viewers.

Viewers encountering the dirty and slow aspects of real-life forensics might find themselves frustrated in training and decide to drop out, but that won’t be the case for everyone. Especially for young women, forensics shows are providing an opportunity to grow up with the automatic assumption that of course women belong in science and are capable of completing potentially complex and difficult educations; Bones, for example, has scores of publication credits, attends conferences, and talks about her intellectually demanding and varied work. She’s not afraid to flash her degrees when she needs to (any more than Addison on Private Practice, who is fond of reminding everyone that she’s double board certified).

These are women who have worked hard for their careers and are proud of them. They’re not underplaying their accomplishments or undermining themselves to make male colleagues look better. They’re confident and self-assured and they take charge, and they know how to work the science to get results. In the real world, those results aren’t quite as easy or as simple as they look on the screen, but the core message to viewers remains the same: here are ladies. They are doing science.

Deal with it.

And if you want to, join them.