Thursday, July 17, 2014

What it's Like to be a Woman in Science

As a scientist, a woman, and a feminist, I get really angry when people think the barriers keeping women out of science aren't real, or are self-imposed.  This morning, I read a post criticizing the idea that women and girls shy away from science because they're biologically predisposed to not like science.  Naturally, my brain exploded from infuriation at the original article, and at the comments, and that this isn't the first such article I read this week. I thought I'd share with you some of my personal experiences with being a woman in science, and why I left scientific research immediately after I got my PhD.  I'll also get into some of the myriad studies that have shown, time and time again, that there are VERY REAL barriers for women in science, particularly in academia, that go beyond having babies and/or not wanting to touch yucky stuff.

Really guy who took an undergrad class in biology, you
sat between two women and so you felt outnumbered?
That means there is no disparity between women and men
in science.  Really? (p.s. someone has used this EXACT
argument with me before).
One common misconception about the lack of women in science is the idea that because the undergrad science (excluding engineering) population is at or near parity, then obviously getting women into science is not a big deal.  In fact, the proportion of women in all STEM fields is closer to 40% (according to a 2010 NSERC study).  The proportion of women in STEM fields at the graduate level decreases, even between the Master's and PhD level.  It's much much lower when we're looking at full, tenured professors with research programs who are women.  In my department, there are 30 faculty members with their own research programs.  Of those 30, 5 are women (that's 17%).  It is even more difficult for women to be considered "elite" scientists. Female scientists receive less funding, publish less, and have fewer opportunities overall.

Many of the women with undergraduate educations in science leave to get jobs, go to medical school, go into pharmacy or dentistry, that's true.  Many men also do those things.  But I think there's more to the disparity between the levels of men and women in graduate science programs.  A 2012 study from Princeton showed that faculty members, whether they are male or female, hold a bias against female applicants.  When the same resume was sent to faculty members - the only difference being a male vs. a female name - faculty members were much more likely to find "John" more competent, offer him a higher starting salary, and were more willing to mentor him.  With the same resume, "Jennifer" was rated as less competent, and they were less willing to mentor her.  This is a huge, and VERY REAL barrier to women gaining access to graduate-level training in science.

A new study, published Wednesday, found that female graduate-level field researchers were 3.5 times more likely to have experienced sexual harassment and sexual assault during their field studies than men.  The women who were harassed or assaulted were more likely to experience this from men who were senior to them, while the men who experienced harassment and assault received this treatment from peers.  The women experienced greater reductions in satisfaction and commitment to work than the men did because the aggression came from superiors rather than peers.  Further, a reduced commitment to work, particularly as a graduate student, can lead to increased harassment and bullying from faculty members, creating a fairly vicious cycle.

Mental health is an important comorbidity to the graduate school affliction.  Harassment and bullying is what led me to seek other career alternatives besides research; I personally experienced sexual harassment from one of my peers, and was bullied by another.  My friend has experienced sexual harassment, intimidation, and bullying from both peers and professors.  She has been told that potential post-doc supervisors will be more willing to hire her because she's pretty, that she has to be careful of their advances, and that people will always assume that she "slept her way to the top" (I wish I was joking).  We have both been sexually harassed and intimidated by students.  I was not very close to other women in my department, but I have no doubt that our experiences were quite common.

And of course, there's the constant reminder that science is not for women, but rather that it a male thing that women participate in.  Remember when the internet "discovered" that IFLS creator Elise Andrew is, in fact, a woman and lost its collective mind?  Suddenly all anyone could talk about was how attractive she is, and how great it is that there's a woman who is both smart and attractive - as if the two are mutually exclusive.


So next time you see an article or a comment from a politician talking about how women are biologically afraid of science and big numbers or that we self-select out of science, consider this: it's not my tiny, fragile female brain that kept me from pursuing a career in scientific research, it's the INSTITUTIONALIZED SEXISM that made being a female scientist so goddamn hard!  It's the fact that Marie Curie is the only female scientist anyone knows about, and that Europe decided women could be interested in science too because bunsen burners look like lipstick tubes.  It's being told that I can't possibly have been serious about my PhD research because I wore heels to school, and my friend having peers grab her hair and smell it in the middle of an experiment.  It's being quizzed about my research to make sure I'm not a fake science girl and the look of surprise when I actually know what I'm talking about.  It's having my own project mansplained to me, and supervisors and committee members not wanting to mentor us because they think we're less competent.  It's undergrad students assuming I'm doing a Master's but asking my male colleague about his PhD, and professors looking at my boobs while I'm talking to them.  It's senior proctors asking my friends to table dance during an exam, and conference attendees going on about how pretty the keynote speaker is.  Maybe we leave science not because we can't handle it, but because of the bullshit that comes along with being a woman in a male-dominated field. *drops mic*

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