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.