Beards, Disparity, and the Sciences: Western's Tesla Monson takes aim at gender discrimination through Smithsonian exhibit

Hanging in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. is a portrait of Western Washington University Assistant Professor Tesla Monson -- with a beard.

Monson, a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology at Western, is a part of the Bearded Lady Project, a scientific outreach program designed to increase awareness about gender disparity and discrimination in paleontology and the sciences.

The project, which was started in 2014, is ever evolving, but currently includes a feature length live-action documentary, a scholarship fund for female paleontologists, and a touring art exhibition.

Dozens of women scientists across the country have participated in the project in different ways. Monson decided to participate in the project when they reached out to women paleontologists at UC Berkeley, where Monson was studying for her doctorate.

“I have always been strongly committed to scientific outreach and education, particularly pertaining to women in science,” Monson said. “Any chance that I have to engage in outreach on this issue is one that I take seriously.”

She had her portrait taken with a beard, and wrote up a summary of her research and outreach activities. Both are currently on display in the Smithsonian until April. Monson also is featured in several clips of the feature-length documentary by the Bearded Lady Project.

Monson said she thinks that almost every woman who has pursued a doctorate in science has a few stories about discrimination, inequality, or unfair treatment in the academy. One instance that stands out for her is when she was a senior male faculty member at Berkeley told her that she was not capable of achieving her goals or succeeding in science, and told her that “she did not have the mojo to make it in academia.”

“It was a clearly gendered statement that negatively affected me on a deep level,” Monson said. “I was able to use these experiences to motivate me and drive me further, and I feel very comfortable with my level of success in academia today.”

Other women have been subject to even more extreme levels of criticism, exclusion, and discouragement, which is why Monson always makes it a goal to encourage and give positive feedback to students, and to generate confidence and motivation in them, she said.

Monson, whose research is focused on primate evolution, life cycles, and reproductive ecology, chose to teach science at Western because she is strongly aligned with the mission of the university. She said that she believes that teaching is one of the greatest ways that scientists can have an impact on the local community, as well as on the larger society.

“I am committed to training students to be socially responsible citizens that are dedicated to community engagement,” Monson said. “And for me, teaching science at Western is the best way that I can achieve these goals."

For more information on the Smithsonian’s Bearded Lady Project, contact Tesla Monson at