Challenging Stereotypes: Hedy Lamarr

Since we were discussing the stereotype that women (particulalry in STEM fields) can’t be both attractive and cerebral at the same time, I thought many of you might find this woman inspiring.

Meet Hedy Lamarr…

Hedy Lamarr

Originally posted on “A Mighty Girl”

Born in Austria in 1914, the mathematically talented Lamarr moved to the US in 1937 to start a Hollywood career. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, she was considered one of cinema’s leading ladies and made numerous films; however, her passion for engineering is far less known today. Her interest in inventing was such that she set up an engineering room in her house complete with a drafting table and wall of engineering reference books.

With the outbreak of World War II, Lamarr wanted to apply her skills to helping the war effort and, motivated by reports of German U-boats sinking ships in the Atlantic, she began investigating ways to improve torpedo technology. After Lamar met composer George Antheil, who had been experimenting with automated control of musical instruments, together they hit on the idea of “frequency hopping.” At the time, radio-controlled torpedoes could easily be detected and jammed by broadcasting interference at the frequency of the control signal, thereby causing the torpedo to go off course. Frequency hopping essentially served to encrypt the control signal because it was impossible for a target to scan and jam all of the frequencies.

Lamarr and Antheil were granted a patent for their invention on August 11, 1942, but the US Navy wasn’t interested in applying their groundbreaking technology until twenty years later when it was used on military ships during a blockade of Cuba in 1962. Lamarr and Antheil’s frequency-hopping concept serves as a basis for the spread-spectrum communication technology used in GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices. Unfortunately, Lamarr’s part in its development has been largely overlooked and her efforts weren’t recognized until 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave her an award for her technological contributions. Hedy Lamarr passed away in 2000 at the age of 85.


More on Women in Academia: Sexy…or Cerebral?

Can women be both date-able (that is, attractive) and cerebral? Stereotypes tell us no, as Dr. Eileen Pollack commented during her campus lecture when she spoke about the still-abysmal numbers of women in STEM fields.

Popular sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory don’t necessarily help, using the female characters, for example, to place an unequivocal divide between desirable attractive women like Penny and the smart women like Amy.

Penny (left) and Amy (right) from sitcome "The Big Bang Theory" reinforce stereotypes of women in science.

Penny (left) and Amy (right) from sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” reinforce stereotypes of women in science.

About a week ago, during Halloween, received quite a lot of attention via social media when several women in academia responded to the sale of Delicious brand “Lady PhD” costume.

"Women's PhD Sexy Darling" costume, sold on this Halloween causes quite the stir among women academics.

“Women’s PhD Sexy Darling” costume, sold on this Halloween causes quite the stir among women academics.


But the women who commented on the costume didn’t shy away from having great fun while conveying what they thought about the PhD Sexy Darling” look. An article on featured a selection of the satiric responses and reviews posted by women academics:

“First things first, I am a lady Ph.D. Like all lady Ph.D’s, I frequently ask myself: ‘How could I be sexier?’ Delicious costumes has come to my rescue! I can now lecture in my 5 inch gold spiked heels and ‘barely there’ regalia while giving nary a thought to the male gaze and it’s implications on the prevalence of rape culture in our society. I fully expect my chili pepper rating on RMP to go through the roof once I begin to greet my students in this costume. Hopefully I can keep my post structural hegemony’s from engaging in some wardrobe malfunctions. Then again, who cares? I’m sexy! Forget about the 7 years I spent sweating out a dissertation and engaging in innovative research! SEXY!!!!”

“I spent 6 years working hard to get my PhD, which was extra hard because I am a lady, and it hurt my ovaries to think so much. After obtaining this advanced degree, the only position I could secure, like the majority in my field, was an adjunct position teaching for less than $2000 a course. Then I got this LadyPhD regalia and my life immediately changed! My department, full of esteemed and very prestigious senior male tenured faculty, saw me walking in the hall, invited me into the department meeting, and right there on the spot, immediately voted to make me a TENURED FULL PROFESSOR. Sadly, the next morning, I found out it was NOT a faculty meeting that I had wandered into, just professors having an office cocktail party and I was not tenured after all. I WANT MY MONEY BACK. I have student loans to pay off!!!”

So what do such representations of smart women in STEM fields, and in academia in general, tell us about femininity and intelligence? Despite the increasing numbers of women entering college, why do we continue to see performining femininity and acting on our intelligence as incompatible?

What do the images of women at Purdue, as a STEM-heavy, male-dominated campus, tell us about women…or about smart women? The images below appear in the Marriott Hall Lavazza cafe and were voted on by students in the HTM major:

Marriott 2


Marriott 1


If we want to address this issue, one thing we must examine is the ways in which women are socialized that make them vulnerable to accepting such behavior and representations and, in some cases, hesitant or afraid to confront them, lest they call attention to themselves as one of the few women (or African Americans or Latinas) in the room (or major). Women are generally raised to be more quiet and more polite. One study revealed that men were over 80% more likely to interrupt their female colleagues than their male colleagues.

Whether intentional or not, the impact and cumulative effect of such behaviors can be profoundly discouraging.

The Huffington Post featured an article exploring this phenomenon, titled “10 Words Every Girl Should Learn” , and offering a simple way to challenge the behaviors of men or women who might discourage, interrupt, or otherwise talk down to women and minorities, particularly in the workplace.

Purdue’s “This is Engineering”: Looking at the Disciplines Through a Feminist Lens

Last spring (2013), Purdue’s Office of the President footed the bill for the “This is Engineering” video, which is now posted on Purdue’s website. The video, which features a group of Purdue engineering students rapping to the music of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s hit song “Thrift Shop,” came under some fire recently.

Put on your feminist lens, watch the video, and see if you can understand why, after listening to Dr. Eileen Pollack’s lecture on Tuesday.




Now read the editorial from the Journal & Courier written by a Purdue graduate student, Aria S. Halliday and Professor of American Studies Bill Mullen, both from the Purdue Anti-Racism Coalition (PARC). You might also check the comment feed on the video that directly attacks the editorial, as well as Aria, though remember a white man also co-authored the letter (he’s never mentioned in the attacks). What’s also interesting are the attacks on the academic discipline of the writers, who both hail from the College of Liberal Arts.