On women in science

I am always in 2 minds about Women in Science. There is something about that title that reminds me of the Muppet Show and I can hear the announcement line sounding like ‘Pigs in Space’ – and it just sounds silly..

I am, after all, a woman in science though I haven’t really ever thought of myself as that. I don’t mean I think I am not a scientist (I am) and I am pretty clear that I am a woman, but those things don’t seem like they should be mutually exclusive to me. The term Woman in Science actually points out that that subject (women) in Science is something somehow different.

I have always thought, in my job why does (should) it matter that I am a woman? Other than I obviously use different washroom facilities. My position on this as a graduate student was a follows: I am training to be a scientist, and I am just as good (or bad) as the next guy or gal, I should be judged on my merits not on my reproductive equipment. So I was adamantly against participating in any society which highlights the fact I am different – I didn’t want to be a part of women in science groups, full stop, which to me seemed divisive and separates women even further from a male dominated profession.

It is true that women are under-represented in many sciences, especially the physical sciences, and they did not participate in professional science (except on the sly) until fairly recently. There are some pretty amazing stories about women who worked in science against all of the odds. There are amazing individual stories about Rosalind Franklin, Caroline Hershel and so many others that worked in science before they were really ‘allowed’ and yes it really was ‘allowed’.

And we love these stories! I do, they are great, and impressive. In the UK they love an underdog, and in the US they love the pioneer American dream spirit – against all odds! These amazing forerunners fought the system and won. Individually this is powerful stuff. But should you really have to fight against the odds just to have a job in science? And what about all of the women who probably fought the good fight and still failed, or had to give it up, or quit to have children (as a lot of people did, as it was “normal”) who knows about them? My mother (who is a social worker) always told me that if she had it to do all over again she would be a wildlife biologist, or a park ranger. But my mother was born in the 30’s in Southern US and as she said – that’s just the way it was, women were either nurse’s, teachers or social workers – so she didn’t even KNOW she had a choice, really.

And some of the women, I am sad to say, who have succeeded against all odds are the worst about repressing other women, just like some of the most conservative people about social equality are the very ones that could have used a leg up, simply because they themselves fought ‘against the odds’ and therefore think ‘why can’t everyone else?’

I really don’t want to be and hope I am not like that, not that I have a startling Nobel prize winning career, but I don’t want to be intolerant of people with different backgrounds (be they women or whatever under-represented portion of the population) who didn’t do what I did. No one’s life is the same. I also think by excluding people you cut your base, you necessarily limit what can be done, just like only funding the elite. And while —– (insert whatever under-represented group you like) aren’t ‘excluded’ in any formal sense these days, they may well be excluded in an unconscious manner, unconscious bias – and this can sting, and in some instances be so discouraging, people just think – forget it, I can’t (or don’t want to) deal with this.

I think about some of the things that have been said to me in my scientific career, for instance:

When I got my first independent fellowship from NSF, I was ultra-excited, and a senior (male) professor told me –
“You only got it because you are a woman” ?!?!

When I was on an interview panel with a male colleague who said (in response to a question I asked the candidate)
” She just thinks that because she is a woman”

Thankfully, these instances, at least in my career, have been rare. Most people don’t think or at least don’t say things like this.

So here is the two minds bit – bias still exists, and I truely believe that all people, regardless of race, gender, etc. should be encouraged not discouraged, so maybe a women in science group is the way to do this? But I still don’t want to be a member, because I don’t want to classify myself as different, but I think, as I didn’t used to think, there is a place for this, whether or not I want to participate myself.

So if you want to join a women in science (or whatever group) I have one thing to say –

you go girl!

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
This entry was posted in science ethics, women, women in science and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On women in science

  1. As a senior woman scientist I entirely understand your ambivalence. When younger I felt as you did, that I was a scientist who happened to be a woman, not a woman scientist. But as I have progressed I have seen just how many women have been deterred for the ‘wrong’ reasons, and so I have slowly but surely turned into a woman who works – indeed leads – such groups. It is regrettable they are still necessary, but they are. And institutional culture change is a necessary part of that. I have the opportunity to try to push some of these activities in my new role as the University of Cambridge’s gender equality champion (so much broader than just science). And I have just started a blog http://athenedonald.wordpress.com to cover some of these issues, because they do need airing. I would hope to encourage the next generation, or those who feel in need of it, but it will take time to turn things around. And personal anecdote is not enough, however much incidents may hurt. Organisations change, as the 1999 MIT study showed, by hard facts being put on the table. Boring but true.

    • sylviamclain says:

      Thank you for your comment – I am in favor of hard facts, institutional change and evidence for that change. I don’t find the MIT study in 1999 dull by any stretch of the imagination, for the same reasons that I believe in Affirmative Action programmes in the US, real changes some times need to be enforced and we all need an advocate at times. However this being said, what I am in two minds about is the balance between that real focused change and alienation of yourself as a group. For instance if I set up a women’s discussion group for a journal club, would it be justified for the men in my university to have a similar men’s group? I realize this is a somewhat naive example, however how do you fight this? How do you balance assimilation with segregation? How do you have people feel included if they mark themselves as exclusive? Conversely, I see the need for forcing change and the existance of such groups (which is what I hope I said in my post), supplied of course by facts and hard truths.
      Again, thank you for your input and your blog link, which is fantastic and very interesting. I also started my blog to air things – of a somewhat similar nature, and this post is something I have been thinking about for a long time. Will my mind change? Not sure, but I seem to be in the process at the moment, and I can say I wholeheartedly support what you do.

      • I agree that segregation in a formal sense is likely to increase not diminish alienation. However, hen and stag parties apart ,most activities can be open to all, even if they may help and be more attractive to women than to men.. For instance, our WiSETI careers workshops for PhD students were aimed, as our advertisements said, primarily at female PhD students. We had a few men come along and they were welcome and I hope they got something out of it. As I said in my recent post on my blog ‘actions that help everyone are likely to help women proportionately more’ – this is standard mantra..

        Nevertheless there is a time and place for women getting together and networking, and sharing their concerns, because the dynamics of single sex meetings are so different, and these things are probably best done informally. I was uncertain about the etiquette of this myself when an email went round the group I work in recently (about 100 strong) inviting all the women to get together for a drink. I can’t remember now if it started with the students or the secretaries, but it struck me it could potentially cause resentment amongst the men. My husband told me not to worry, that he entirely saw it was reasonable, and I certainly heard no complaints from men or women, But I agree, if this was done in reverse I’m not sure it would be well received: come on blokes let’s go down t he boozer is exactly the sort of thing that causes resentment and a feeling of exclusion for the women (and the men who don’t drink).

        However, there is no doubt that it is helpful sometimes to get together with other women and say ‘I can’t believe what happened today, I was told….’. So, as I say, I share your ambivalence. Nevertheless there is plenty of work to be done to create the proverbial level playing field.

  2. Teresa Gryder says:

    I love your rationale for not participating in “women’s groups”…sounds familiar. I also have avoided involving myself in gender-based groups because I want it not to be an issue. But it is.

    I remember when I was the only female guide among a pack of muscled men at the put-in for a dangerous stretch of river, how crew after crew of rafters would pass by me and choose a man for their guide. I would only get a crew after all the men were taken. Later my crew would discover that I was highly skilled and that some of those sculpted bronze boys were mere beginners at the river thing. I had to steel myself on a daily basis not to be offended by the ubiquitous sexism.

    Lately I have been noticing how differently patients treat male vs female doctors. I spend a lot of time in clinic just observing. Male docs can speak softly and be heard, whereas female docs may have to push their way into a conversation, even though it is their advice that is sought. Patients are far more likely to barrage a female doc with an assortment of minor complaints and also to interrupt her. The differences in how we are treated by gender run deep, perhaps deeper than culture. Perhaps it is in our biology as well.

    So what I have determined to do, for my own medical practice, is to dress and behave in a fairly masculine manner. This is not hard for me as I am tall and muscular of build. I put my hair away, wear collared shirts, unisex shoes* and a white coat, smile less, and I get more respect. People pay more attention when I speak, and defer to me more as a physician than just as some girl. Perhaps we “shouldn’t” have to play these games, but when you really want to do your job, whatever you can do to ease people’s kneejerk reactions to you could be beneficial.

    *Sexy shoes are a real handicap for a woman who is attempting to play a professional role. This is my observation, I have seen no studies about it. Want to be treated according to female gender instead of by profession?–>Wear seductive heels.

    • sylviamclain says:

      I remember that from our raft guiding days as well, and comments like ‘You’re too little to guide this thing aren’t you?’ and are you sure you can lift that. I however always just assumed they were ignorant and that I could do anything. I think one of the points I wanted to make in this post is its not about me! Women (or people for that matter) react in different ways to different things and and and…

      and yes it IS an issue. But I don’t think it has ANYTHING to do with biology, in many animals which exhibit sexual dimorphism, the female is very dominant, I think we have to be careful about linking what humans socially with biology because we don’t have enough info and we have a different social structure –

      Thanks for your input!

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