Feeling Exhausted


This week I came across an article highlighting the accumulated evidence from multiple studies of the disadvantage women in science suffer, with specific reference to the fields of anthropology, ecology and evolution, the field the author – Kathleen Grogan – had most familiarity with. My own experience would suggest there is nothing unique about those fields. She identified all the reasons women fall out of the scientific pipeline (yes I know, not everyone likes that analogy, but I am simply quoting her) or suffer detriment during their careers plus some simple actions male colleagues could take to improve the situation.

It is, as is appropriate for an article appearing in one of the Nature’s stable of journals, evidence-driven and scholarly. Judging by the number of people who retweeted my original tweet about it, it nevertheless struck a chord with many readers. Although it does not spend time hand-wringing over the women whose lives were damaged, even those who ‘survived’ the system, we should not forget the huge waste of potential, knowledge and innovation implied by the aggregated loss of female time, energy and talent. Women get tired battling against the odds; I know I do.

Let me give you a concrete example. Suppose you are an up-and-coming researcher with some innovative ideas that challenge the mainstream. This doesn’t have to be anything as major as a Kuhn-style paradigm shift – even men have trouble getting such radical ideas accepted – but something which provides a different way of looking at things or a new factor that had been overlooked perhaps. Does Mary Smith find it easy to get her paper accepted if she is the corresponding author? Significantly less so than Mark Smith, according to the studies.

Any individual Mary may feel that she hasn’t argued it well enough or that the referees are right when they pick up on some detail (which may incidentally demonstrate that they haven’t even read the paper thoroughly). If she is brave enough, she may even try to get into correspondence with the editor. But this same Mary may find that two years down the line she has still not published this paper, wasting her time in endless rewrites and resubmissions, while her colleague Mark who (she secretly believes) is coming up with ideas of much less significance easily gets his papers accepted. Then she starts to think it isn’t her, so much as her name.

It is worth considering that full names are now very much the standard style so that it is not so easy to hide behind initials as in years past. (Although, thinking back to my ECR days, some journals expected women to give their names in full but men only their initials, thereby highlighting the difference. Male by default.) I am all in favour of uniformity but if we’re not going down the path of double blind refereeing maybe we should remove the subliminal message conveyed by ‘Mary’ as the corresponding author and leave it at ‘M’. (And let us remember that women may be just as unconsciously prejudiced against women as men.)

I could make the same arguments about grant applications, or promotions or salaries or job offers. I won’t because you can find these examples plus the evidence supporting them made expertly in Grogan’s article. Anyhow you get the message. If you happen to be called Mary you may start to feel after a while that the odds seem stacked against you in ways you had not expected. But what do you do then? Persistence and determination, resilience and courage are all very well, but it is undermining to confidence if your career is faltering for reasons that aren’t, as you first assumed, down to some internal flaw but instead arises from something external and systematic/systemic.

I first realised stutters in my own career might not be because I was incompetent when I read the 1999 MIT report on the Status of Women. Up till that point I felt the fact I never seemed to win an argument in my department about space or other resources was because I was useless at arguing. After reading the report I began to wonder. I can’t say the recognition that it might not be my incompetence causing the problem cheered me up.

Anger entered my lexicon then, although I hope not too visibly. I am not sure it has ever fully departed, however rosy my life may look. But I hope I have harnessed that anger to argue much more broadly for women’ status, position, rights (whatever word you like to use) collectively through taking on championing the issues. But anger can still surface when I see things go awry. And it isn’t always easy to use that constructively or even know when and whether to deploy it.

So, another emotional topic that Grogan does not touch on, is how to handle the male colleague – at whatever level – who is, intentionally or not, obnoxious. I don’t mean the predator or the openly aggressive, but the master of the smaller put-down. It is a troubling scenario. Do you make a fuss in public and hope others will join in? Perhaps even wait to see if they would leap in to defend you before you have to do it for yourself.

You know the kind of comment: the one that implies you’re ditzy, ignorant, naïve or incompetent without actually being openly hostile. The ones that leaving you feeling bullied or harassed without being quite specific enough to lead to a formal complaint (and who wants to go down that route with its even greater cost?). The kind that leaves you thinking ‘did that guy really just say that?’ Do you write to him privately afterwards (as I described in one of my earliest blogposts) and hope he will see the error of his ways. It might just inflame the situation if you can’t find good allies. Do you avoid him like the plague in the future, so that you are the one who loses out on opportunities to do good stuff, look after your team, get more space or whatever it might be? The time penalty in even thinking how to handle such casual put-downs costs you whatever action (or inaction) you choose. And, of course, if it happens enough it may push you out of science.

I feel exhausted when such situations arise. And they still do – to me as to every woman (and every minority scientist I’m sure). Not as often as when I was younger but often enough that the memory of the accompanying hassle does not fade.  The soul-searching – did I deserve that?; the soul-searching, friend-asking, sleep-losing hassle of how do I stop this guy getting away with such behaviour to me,  my colleagues and the students he may teach. We have to keep up the good fight. Adducing scholarly evidence is necessary if the collective world is going to take note, but each woman who is impacted is reduced by that impact and the world loses out. We should never forget.

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7 Responses to Feeling Exhausted

  1. Mary says:

    I’m a Mary (thanks mum) and I’m exhausted too!

  2. Mary says:

    I am Mary – and by any standard mid-career. Why does reviewer 2 characterize me and my fellow editor – also Mary- of a volume as junior researchers? Why does my older male colleague, with whom I have co-taught several times, make menopausal jokes. Why do all male associate profs have their own office, while all female associates share? Why do they offer me a significant admin role without any form of compensation or promotional perspectives, with the classic ‘but you would be so good at dealing with the colleagues’? And it just goes on and on and on. I am so tired.

  3. Ana Pombo says:

    Wonderful piece.

    I’d love to hear solutions that colleagues have come up with to at least exit the situation without feeling stupid.

    My own tactic whenever possible, to the obnoxious colleague, when I am immediately aware of what is happening is to politely ‘reflect’ it back with discredit, leaving them a ‘gracious’ exit. ‘X, Did you just say … to me? It seems that you are saying …’ ‘did you offer me this opportunity (smile) knowing that it has limited career value. I selflessly serve our department with x, y and z…’, ‘what shall we say to our female candidates if they ask us why all female assoc. prof. share offices?’

    Leaving the situation with the ‘offender’ knowing that you were aware of what was going on, without accusing them, is already quite healing. Others around you listening to the exchange may learn to recognise and to act on the same behaviour elsewhere, either when applied to them or others.

    other tips?

  4. Emma Smith says:

    I’m Mary, having struggled for ten years to pursue a career in Science, being knocked back for a PhD and reduced to being nothing more than a glorified cleaner, I’m learning bookkeeping and starting something new.

  5. Melinda says:

    I am Mary. As each paper nears completion, the feelings of despair about the weeks of pushing back against reviewers’ patronising, unevidenced comments begin. How ironic that the ways in which science is assessed are so unscientific. This is not just bad for women and other minorities. It’s bad for science.

    Brilliant piece. Thank you for speaking up for all of us.

  6. Janelle Jacobson says:

    I’m Mary. I’ve spent the early part of my limited career, building a program that has been dropped in my lap and struggled with the expectations of doing this with no budget or resources. And having lost momentum on another project because of a person who made decisions about my project without me and without understanding the full impact of those actions. And my scholarship taking a backseat because of the first 2 things. I’m tired, but I’m actually kinda pissed. So I’m going to try to push back and get this stuff done.

  7. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    Thanks Athene. This really captures it in terms of what discrimination looks like in the semiconductor industry in the United States and Canada. We don’t submit papers, but do have design reviews, meetings, and performance reviews. These are all fraught with interactions which are aptly described by your post. And the endless mental calculating of how to navigate through and around these behaviors is exhausting. Often (not always) the perpetrator is someone I admire and want to work with. How to communicate that the behavior in inappropriate, while preserving the relationship? not hurt their feelings? not be labelled as a trouble maker? Regardless of the communication style adopted, it is mostly impossible to correct these biases . . . and it is very difficult to navigate around someone once you are on their wrong side. Like quicksand. Like you, I had been struggling for a decade trying to understand these behaviors. The 1999 MIT Report on the Status of Women you mention was illuminating for me as well. Yes, you hit the nail on the head here Athene. I hope you had a great Lise Meitner day today. Best to you.

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