a woman in science != women in science

I’ve been wanting to put my thoughts down on this matter for a while, so here goes. First, a little background: I’m a woman in science, but I hardly ever feel like I’m part of this Women in Science collective that is – rightly so – gaining weight (or at least has been given a voice) amongst the community. It’s an awkward position to be in, and this post is about just that.

The internet is awash with informative discussions and insights on gender biases and women issues within the academic world. If you take the time to read them you’ll find this is a serious issue, that this is driving many women away from an academic career, and that this is ultimately affecting the progress of science – not to mention these women’s lives! I feel sympathetic about this issue in principle, because I feel that everyone who is good at science should be able to pursue it as a career. But it’s a sort of distant sympathy, like that I feel for social mobility issues, or matters of social benefits.

I’ve never had to claim benefits (nor loose them), and I’ve never had to struggle with social mobility. Similarly, I’ve never had any hint, any smallest, tiniest affliction for being a woman in science. Never. The difference, of course, is that I am a woman, and I am a scientist.

So what? I’m possibly just terribly lucky. Not lucky in how I am, but lucky in the particular institutions and environments where my career has so far developed, and lucky with the people I’ve interacted. Or maybe I’m just blind, or at least less sensitive to these issues – maybe I have been a victim of gender bias and never noticed. Or could all of these women be delusional? I mean, I’m prepared to admit that the majority of the world’s population is delusional about God – would it be such a step for me to assume all these women are similarly delusional, simply grasping for a reason as to why their career in science has flopped without having to blame themselves?

No, of course not, but the question is nonetheless worth asking. And I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t at some point entertained this thought quite seriously. Until fairly recently in some ways… there, that’s my confession to you.

There’s this particularly well-written series of posts by Dr. Kathryn Clancy – whose blog I just recently started to follow, and of which this is the last instance – that hit a chord somehow. It follows a large part of the discussion of women issues in science (and also blogging – really interesting stuff) that took place at the Science Online 2011 conference. I still find it hard to personally identify myself with the stories and issues discussed, but what really hit home is the fact that so many of these people (in panels, etc) I’ve come to trust. And not just in Science Online 2011, but across the wider community too. Through their blogs, tweets, some even scientifically, where our fields of work overlap enough that this is a possibility. Most of these people’s opinions (mostly woman, but that’s beyond the point just now) credit highly in my scale. And they tell me there’s a problem – I really ought to listen.

But I’m still left to reconcile my experience with the world’s at large. Am I lucky or am I blind? Trying to answer this question induced a little bit of temporary paranoia – it’s possible that I’m blind.

As an example: I do a lot of outreach and science communication; too much – some have said. It comes to about 10-15% of my work time, even though I try to do most of it on my spare time (not that the concept of “spare time” really means much as a postdoc these days! but that’s another post). I’m pretty sure these efforts go largely un-noticed by current and future employers but that doesn’t bother me. What would bother me is if it went against me. And the more I read about how women shy away from showing themselves as having strong “soft skills” the more I worry this is damaging. And then I started asking myself: would the big bosses notice these efforts, and indeed hail them as worthwhile, were I male?

As I asked these questions I also realised how unproductive and unscientific these questions are. I don’t know, but most importantly – I shouldn’t care. If I’ve had no reasons yet to feel the weight of being a woman in academia – be it through luck or blindness – acting like that it is a problem would be the worst thing of all. And mostly unfair – both on those around me, and on myself.

Ultimately, I’m still prepared to admit I’ve been lucky, and that if my science is good enough then these issues will only manifest themselves second-order effects throughout my career. I understand and I trust the need to discuss these issues, but I hope their discussion doesn’t adversely affect those women who have been lucky to not feel the weight of their gender just yet.


5 thoughts on “a woman in science != women in science

  1. I have to say I would have agreed with everything above until last summer. I am a postdoc in microbial pathogenesis and had never felt that my being a woman in science was holding me back in any way. So what happened? I had a baby. At least for now, I just can’t keep up the work schedule that I feel is required to get the faculty position I want. Even with the most supportive husband on the planet, which I am lucky to have, I can’t seem to put in the time. This may change in a few months as my baby gets older, but it may not. Just curious – do you have children? Either way, I enjoyed your post. Definitely food for thought.

    1. Hi – thanks! No, I don’t and this is an important point!

      Having been around a few people who are recent mums and scientists (and others who aren’t scientists but who look equally tired!) I can only image how much of a problem it can be. And from the little I read, I see that family reasons are top of the list when women decide to leave academia. But whereas this is a serious problem it seems like we, as a community, ought to be able to come up with ways to level the field. What I mean is that it’s at least clear what we – the scientific community, not just women – should be fighting for.

      In my post was referring more to the attitude towards women (mothers or not) in science. The not being taken so seriously as men, the double standards for getting faculty jobs, fear of showing soft skills (like blogging!), even the public attitude towards women scientists when compared to men scientists. These are almost certainly less important issues when it comes to gender bias, but also harder to fight in a way. And this is the sort of behaviour that I’ve never seen at play.

      But you’re right, I should have made the distinction explicitly. I hope things do change as your baby gets older, or that the playing field changes soon and that you can fight for those faculty jobs on the same terms as everyone else out there. I definitely worry about having to worry about it in the future…

  2. Rita – your readers might be interested in the series of interviews of women in astronomy I did in 2009 (for IYA2009) which I recently summarized here: http://blogs.zooniverse.org/galaxyzoo/2011/01/07/shes-an-astronomer-did-we-really-need-that-series/

    In that there was an interesting trend in women’s perceptions of bias. Most of the young women in research careers saw no problems at all which is absolutely wonderful. Up until about half way through my first postdoc I felt the same way. I cannot tell if the change for me was due to the birth of my first child, or becoming “more senior” (it was around the time I started trying to get more permanent jobs and applying for longer term fellowships as well), so it’s a bit murky for me. But unfortunately I do now think there is a (small) bias. It won’t affect the real superstars, but as we know the line between getting that job and not getting it has become so fine lately that I think it will affect many of us. And as we talked about the feedback is so murky and vague that it will never be clear if it’s just that we’re not good enough or some kind of bias. That’s one reason it’s so insidious.

    We’ve been discussing this on Twitter and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. In your last tweet you said (about women choosing to blog anonymously because they fear it will affect their career prospects through bias lumping them in “soft skills” categories): “it’s bad if that fear is justified and just as bad if it isn’t.”

    I think that’s an interesting statement, and it’s made me think about the consequences of (a) bias and (b) being scared of bias which doesn’t exist.

    As a female astronomer with (now 2) small kids I often get uncomfortable talking female students and younger postdocs. Some women clearly see me as an example that it is possible to do both (ie. have a family and a career in research). Everything in me wants to shout about how tough it is though, and that for their sanity they’d be better off doing things a different way (not to mention that I’m still a postdoc, so not such a great example of success yet). But I try really hard to bite my tongue – I honestly worry a lot in my interactions with young women and try really hard not to scare them off. Perhaps my “tired” look which Rita has picked up on is enough anyway though (my most recent child is not a good sleeper).

    But the (sad) point I want make here is that I think all these young women will eventually face a situation where they question their skills and ability to have a research career. I would like all of them at that point to consider if it might have been a result of (probably unconcious) bias – which has been demonstrated to exist in many social science studies so I refuse to debate its existence. If they don’t know about unconcious bias they will not be able to think that, and will put it all on themselves. That’s why I think it’s so important to talk about it and make (everyone – men and women) aware of it.

    And the impact of children – well wow that’s hard. Until you’ve been there you will never understand the impact of months and months of not having quite enough sleep. Or just how tired being pregnant can make you – try working at full productivity with a massive meal in your stomach and you get a tiny taste of that. Consider that listing or not listing a maternity leave gap on your CV is something we must worry about. If it’s there you declare your kids and “mother bias” is even worse than ‘gender bias’ – or so they say. If it’s not your publication rate looks “adequate but not excellent”, and in fact even if it is there people sometimes don’t link it to your publications and calculate rates based on years since your PhD.

    But this risks being a rant. Thankyou for the excellent and thought provoking post. I think this is definitely something which should be debated.

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