We talk a lot about the problems of bias against women in science, sexism of both the dramatic and the everyday varieties, the difficulty getting girls into science to start with, the very leaky pipeline along the way, the problem of having a family while keeping up with a profession that can demand so much of our time and attention. We should be (and will continue) shouting and screaming about these – they are all important and difficult questions that we are not close to solving.
But what about the flip side? Are there positives to being a woman in science?
This question came up at a conference recently, and we began talking about things that had been advantages, or upsides, for us. A graduate student approached afterwards and thanked us, saying it was good to hear that there were good things, that she had only ever heard of the problems of being a woman in science. This made me really sad.
This has been an interesting post to write, in part because many (including my scientist mother) have responded with “um…what?” seemingly surprised, at first, that there are any upsides to talk about. There are also a couple of caveats: first, YMMV. Not all of these will be true for everyone. Second, and related, none of the following list are unambiguous advantages. They all have a dark side too. Often the determinant of whether these will be an advantage or a disadvantage lies in the third caveat: they are only upsides if one is in a supportive environment with relatively little ongoing sexism. Fourth, of course these are generalizations, and as is true in most of life, personality matters more than gender.
Like Drmsscientist I sincerely believe that the positives are an important part of the discussion of being in science generally, and being a woman in science more specifically. This side of the discussion often gets lost as we focus on trying to solve the problems. I don’t believe that talking about the good along with the struggles, minimizes any discussion about problems related to being a woman in science or in academia. So to
poke the bear start the discussion, here are some things, in no particular order, that I believe are/can be upsides of being a woman in science.
- We get to do science. This is THE reason people stick with it. When you’re in the lab, or at the computer, or reading an article, doing bench work or analysis or just reading, all that matters is that you’re a scientist. And that is a thoroughly kick-arse thing to be.
- You stand out. Whether it’s a department full of men, a job interview where you’re the only female candidate, speaking at a conference where more than half of the speakers are men, or sitting on a grant review panel with >50% men. You are different, and therefore noticeable and memorable. Capitalize on it.
- Tokenism can get your foot in the door. This requires the (not trivial) assumption that women are taken seriously. Many committees, organizations, are eager to have (and/or require) women on board, which means that there will be opportunities for experiences that others won’t have access to right away, and the opportunity to network with people that you may not have otherwise met. These can also be opportunities to get your foot in the door, always a big part of the battle.
- We are allowed to express emotion. Yes, there can be issues with crying. And yet, imagine the fall out if a man were to cry. But it’s not just crying – women have much more leeway to express excitement and happiness, and yes, in many cases, cry (or admit to crying) out of sadness, frustration, or anger, too. It would be advantageous for this to be more true, and for men as well as women.
- Interactions with people are different. We have probably all seen that stereotyped confrontation between some males. The one where an aggressively worded question at a talk (or in the corridor) turns into chest beating and posturing? Sometimes that chest beating looks like fun. Sometimes watching them practice is just amusing. Often someone gets smacked down. Either way women usually get to bypass the chest-beating and measuring of size that can taint interactions between men. Of course interactions with individuals is primarily determined by the personalities involved, and yes, there are pretty strong cultural norms (and biases) that influence both how others will interact with you and what behaviors are seen as “more appropriate”, but the typical masculine role does not have a monopoly on the “good” side of these.
- Relationships with people are different. Related to #5, and largely due to sociocultural norms, women are expected to have different kinds of relationships with people around them than men do. And for better and for worse, it’s often true. My relationships with my mentors are quite different than any of my male colleagues – I tend to have closer personal friendships alongside the working relationship. Yes, relationships are determined more by personality than gender. The point is that men don’t have a monopoly on the “best” kind of relationships to have with colleagues, mentors, trainees. Capitalize on the relationships you have. Ask for all the support you can. Ask for introductions. Ask for letters and collaborations. Use networking events (see #7) to build new relationships.
- Resources. There are a lot of available resources for women in STEM. From Women in Science networks, to Women’s lunches at conferences of all sizes. Yes, these exist in part to address an imbalance, but there is a lot of mentoring and career development, and networking advice and events readily available to women in science. If you don’t know of a women-in-science group at your university or at conferences you attend, get ye to google. Seek them out. Take advantage of all the resources that are out there.
- More options for what to wear. I get to choose whether to wear these or these to work. Yes there are expectations, yes I often go with the latter because, quite frankly, I like it when it isn’t automatically assumed I’m a grad student because I’m small and female, but very occasionally I go like this. The point is, even though I very carefully arrange my wardrobe so I don’t have to think too hard about it, I do have a lot of options.
- We are not in the humanities. AKA: we are talking about problems of women in science/academia and of being a woman in science/academia. This was the surprising to me: people assume that science is a masculine pursuit, and humanities a more feminine pursuit, but the humanities have similar problems to STEM in terms of leaky pipelines, sexism, harassment of women, bias, fewer women than men speaking at conferences, and a general dominance of older white men. But there’s a feeling that, in some fields, there is less concerted effort and many fewer resources directed to support, discussion, and solutions to problems of women in their fields than in STEM right now.
What do you experience as (ambiguous) upsides of being a woman in science? I know you all have some, otherwise why stay in science?