Upsides of Being a Woman in Science?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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?


34 thoughts on “Upsides of Being a Woman in Science?

  1. I showedmy wife this post and she said the upside was being able to be as good or better than the men. She did not use her gender to standout but went in with the idea she was an equal. And she shattered the glass ceiling.

  2. You and your group of female collaborators get to buy the same shirt (in the same color) and proudly wear them all at the same time (on purpose) in a big conference and people notice it!!!

    Seriously, I feel that I’ve benefited from all your points, and specially 2 and 3.

    I’ve been recently in a panel of women in math where I discussed a very specific version of 2: in the math tenure track job market women seem to have a tendency to go to the extreme ends. Very few women get interviews, but most who get some interviews get a lot of them, certainly more than the average number of interviews that the men who interview get. Or maybe I’m also biased and notice those interviews more?

    • I wouldn’t be surprised by this. Certainly in my field it seems that the vast majority of interviewees are men – it’s not clear to me (yet) whether that is a representation of the applicant pool. Plus many places actively try to interview at least one woman, so if there are fewer women in the pool, then those at the top will get a lot of interviews.
      (Remember that interviewing is a really great networking tool – so many interviews are a definite win!)

  3. Thanks for writing this! I think it is so important for female graduate students, post-docs and new tenure-track faculty (like myself) to read the positives. My experience as a woman in science has been overwhelmingly positive. I have two young children and have found the flexibility to be tremendous. I think the few positive articles I have read on women in science mostly focus on the (usually) flexible work hours and the benefits of this for having a family. It was really nice to read your article which focussed on the benefits of being A WOMAN! These are not usually mentioned for fear of appearing sexist or stereotypical, but I think they’re important. I interviewed for my job when I was 36 weeks pregnant, and I am sure that I stood out for it; plus I think I made an extra strong impression because I came across as dynamic, smart and full of energy “even though” I was pregnant! (a few colleagues have since told me this).

  4. No matter how many degrees you get in computer science when your elderly relatives need help using the google they still ask your brother.

  5. You get to follow your passion – science. I love my job!
    Flexibility is huge – I was a single mother with two small children – I could juggle my timing in ways many of my friends in other high-profile professions couldn’t.
    You get to hang out with really smart people – including some really smart women. Even better, some of them are hilarious.
    The camaraderie among women in science is (sometimes, generally, often) amazing – my “girls in science” have seen me through thick and thin, I’ve laughed so hard I’ve peed, they’ve listened to me vent about every aspect of institutionalized misogyny and commiserated (but not tried to fix). They are my other family.
    You get to travel – find conferences in exotic places, or collaborators in beautiful cities. Take the family!
    You get to prove people wrong and challenge their misconceptions, biases and prejudices – that’s a lot of fun.

    • Agree. Imogen has taken the words out of my mouth. Plus, now I’m retired, I get to model ‘a scientist’ for little kids in schools – it shows them that ANYONE can do science, even a little old lady. One five-year old said with surprise one day ‘you smell like my granny’ – she must have the same perfume! But i think he listened to me with more interest after that.

  6. Number 8, oh for sure number 8!

    I did an undergrad degree in a department with no women on the faculty, and out of maybe 30 faculty in my grad school dept. only one was female. This was less than ideal for a lot of reasons, one being when I was a grad student I used to panic before conferences because without a visible role model to template my wardrobe after I had no idea what the appropriate dress would be. I asked my (male) PhD adviser how I should dress/pack before our first conference together, expecting a response along the lines of “casual” or “business casual,” and he was confused by my question. “Just wear clothes,” he said. Which, I have to admit, is sound advice, but really wasn’t very helpful.

    Now, however, as I am finishing off the last weeks of postdockery and am a bit more comfortable in my academic skin, the fact that there are few women where I work means there is no pigeon-holed expectation for my wardrobe. My sartorial choices are entirely my own to make. I already stand out because I’m female, it’s not like the high heels or dresses are going to give away an otherwise clever disguise.

  7. I am in the humanities and your last point is dead on. Women in Humanities groups called that seem few and far between. And not many people invested in collecting data on our problems.

  8. OMG, I loved this post!
    It’s so nice to read some different tone as the usual “the bias against woman in science” – Yes, we are woman, we are scientists and yes, we can do science! It made me so proud of being a woman in science, and it gives me more passion and will to go fight for my position out there.
    Thanks for that!

  9. The first thing I came up with upon reading the title was “short bathroom lines at conferences”. (I’m a computer scientist.)

    The second one was “there’s no better job on earth”. I guess that was more the spirit 😉

  10. Thanks for writing this – there’s a lot of focus on solving the problem, which is great, but I haven’t seen anyone else write about the upside. Also, we have an awesome support group that men in science don’t necessarily get.

  11. You know what? I don’t think any women in science that I know would mind if women from the humanities or any other area joined in their meetings, discussions, groups etc! As mentioned, there are many common points for discussion and support.

  12. You also get to be “different” in your family. My husband has 4 sisters who all have followed more traditional paths, and when the whole family gets together, I get to be the cool aunt that knows about math and computers. Not a bad deal!

  13. thank you – first-time visitor but I’ll be back 😀 This is an excellent post & you’ve pretty much described my own experiences as a woman in science. (Yes I know there are downsides, but for me personally they’ve always been well outnumbered by the upsides.) Well done.

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  15. Definitely agree with 5 & 6! I smile and secretly laugh at my fellow male PhD grad students who butt heads with our male advisor. The alpha male complex amazes me. Meanwhile, I have a great working relationship and have never really had an issue with his ego.

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  18. I appreciate this article, I am trying to understand the female perspective on this subject. For me, someone with only a few years of experience, I have encountered some unfortunate side effects of negative demographic trends in science. As Leah said, ” Also, we have an awesome support group that men in science don’t necessarily get.” There are many women I work with, whom I honestly admire for their skill, experience and talent, who aren’t willing to honestly answer questions or give quality advice, because I am not a woman. I completely support the effort to encourage young women to pursue science and obtain high levels of success. I also recognize the disparity, for instance in my professional lab setting the work force is roughly half female, but only one of five head scientists are female. It just sucks to be on the receiving end of career obfuscation, and to be shut out of learning opportunities, because I work with some people who don’t understand the honest root of the issue. I am only writing this to caution what seems like a bright and motivated group of women to avoid the mistakes of some of their peers.

  19. You tend to have more social skills and more obvious “soft skills”, so that when you are inevitably denied tenure even though you published more and better, were funded better, taught better, and distinguished yourself in service better than the guy who went up after you and actually got tenure, you’ll have an easier time making the transition out of science to a better job where you are appreciated more.

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