Guest post: Using fiction to explore realities for women in STEM

Ten years ago, Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard University, sparked a controversy by attributing some of the under-representation of female scientists at elite universities to “innate” differences between men and women. I remember the uproar in the media, the indignation of scientists, quoted in the press, and even some of the statements about universities’ commitment to encourage women to apply to tenure track positions. I can recollect some of the ensuing grumbling and bitching, but not as acutely as I remember a graduate student nastily complaining that women now had a better shot at getting an offer. I don’t remember any response from the members of faculty. I have no doubt that professors talked among themselves, but the topic was not raised in group meetings. On the surface everything was as usual – female graduate students and post-docs did not rant in front of those who would write their letters of recommendation, and advisers did not say anything that might be misinterpreted.

A few weeks after Summers’ remark, I had an idea that had little to do with my work. I imagined a female physicist in a fictitious university, the people she works with, her family, and the man she loves. I started to jot down her adventures, without planning how the story would evolve. There were passages describing the atmosphere and the attitudes I saw around me, anecdotes about funny and annoying encounters, and incidents I heard of. One of the nicest things I discovered about writing fiction is that when dealing with imaginary people and situations I didn’t have to be politically correct or spare anyone’s feelings. In science, I had to be professional. While writing, I poured out whatever sprang to my mind whenever I felt the urge. For me, writing was not a means to address real life, but a means to leave the mundane reality for a while.

The premise of the story was simple: what would a pair of PhDs (she is a theoretical physicist, he works in a small start-up) do when she joins (with his encouragement) a leading group in a prestigious university, a few hundreds miles away from where he lives? Not being in the protagonist’s shoes, I had no qualms letting her find her way in the field that is not particularly known as being accommodating to women.

After a few years, I amassed a plethora of incidents, too much jargon, and too little plot. In retrospect, that was to be expected. The surprise was finding, in a non-autobiographical story, dilemmas that I once had had. That was not intentional, at least not while writing early drafts. Another surprise were the answers I came up with to those dilemmas. I wanted my protagonist to succeed, to triumph over obstacles – in short, to show that intelligent and hard-working women are as good as their male counterparts. Yet I found that although I invented the story, characters did pretty much what they wanted within the situations I put them in. I could get into their heads, and with some practice, see their different points of view, but I could not force the solutions I wanted without making the story ridiculously implausible.

Nine years after I started writing, I showed the novel to people beyond the close circle of family and friends, and asked for feedback. The response of highly educated people not belonging to academia was not what I expected. They all urged me not to imply that women should be wary to try to get it all. A female scientist, someone argued, is an unusual protagonist in a novel and her story should inspire young women to seek academic careers in STEM. Moreover, there was a general expectation (from both men and women) that female scientists would “show them” and prove how capable they are.

Well, I don’t think that currently women in hard sciences need a novel to get inspired, nor glean from it advice relevant to their life. A decade ago, when Summers made his speech, it was often interpreted as a suggestion that only outliers like Lisa Randall in Harvard or Eva Silverstein in Stanford are bright enough for an academic career in theoretical physics. Nowadays, other women are deemed as capable to follow their steps. Influential newspapers, such as The New York Times, have featured success stories of female physicists. The NYT article ‘Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?‘ portrays the changing attitudes at Yale’s physics department. A conversation with Meg Urry (currently the President of the American Astronomical Society, formerly the chair of the Department of Physics at Yale University) brings the perspective of one of the most successful American physicists. A conversation with five young Yale alumnae shows the views and the expectations of promising physicists at the beginning of their academic career.

While this shift in attitude is very encouraging, the current climate of “positiveness” does not necessarily match what many women encounter in real life (see for example a recent study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly). It is understandable why professors and policy-makers avoid controversial issues when discussing the choices women face and the decisions they make while working to advance their academic careers and to balance them with private life. Personally, I’m glad that such constraints do not exist in fiction, where one can openly ask in-your-face questions, and explore not-so-politically-correct solutions. Because controversial issues do exist and need to be discussed.

In writing fiction, like in science, going all the way from “an idea” to readable text requires to separate the wheat from the chaff. During revisions I learned to distil conflicts (but not yet how to avoid them). I also learned that following fictional characters in realistic situations does not provide blueprints for solving real-life problems. But it is not wasted effort. For me is was very valuable. It gave me a broader view about professional compromises and personal choices. Moreover, a novel-length format provides something unique – it gives the readers (and the writer) an opportunity to experience the situations emotionally. One can then get a richer impression of what is going on and what kinds of pressures a woman-scientist feels, and what drives those around her. It is such understanding, rather than any practical advice, that may help women in science.

1911 Solvay conference. Marie Curie was the only woman present. To see who is who, visit the Wikipedia page.

Today’s guest post is by blogger T.K. Flor, who has a PhD in physics.

9 thoughts on “Guest post: Using fiction to explore realities for women in STEM

  1. Very cool! I look forward to reading it some day, and I totally got your remark that the characters do what they want to – I’ve had the same experience with my characters, and had to redo over half of a novel once because of it. I also agree completely that one advantage of fiction is that you don’t have to be politically correct, and your characters don’t all have to be inspiring examples. And something important is added to the conversation when academic novels are written by scientists.

    Academic novels are sort of a genre to themselves. Maybe we should have an online writers’ group!

    • Thanks Pat.
      I think that having “to redo over half of a novel” (which I also did) is also because we got our training in science, and had to learn the ropes of writing fiction on the go.
      An online group for writers of “academic novels” is an excellent idea! I’d be happy to join such a writers’ group.

  2. This is a topic I’ve long been interested in, but I think my ideas have changed over the years. I offer a few diverse thoughts from this long rumination.

    Fiction is a powerful communication form – if scientists are represented more in fiction, then people will understand their role and the fact that they are just ordinary people like everyone else (not monsters or mad scientists or always totally moral or always totally rational etc etc).

    I have been delighted over the past few years to read several books and short stories where there have been scientists as some of the characters. Some have been totally minor characters that really didn’t add to the plot, some have been main characters. No fuss, they were just people who did ordinary things, just happened to be scientists. ( I have been reading fiction again after many years of hiatus, being “too busy”, and seeing fiction as less interesting than the other things in my life, for at time. I’m devouring it again now – yum yum).

    These are the stories I would have liked to have written (only a few short stories, for friends and relatives, and a set of notes for a never-to-be-written novel – like you, I have no plot, only characters).

    All art reflects society back to that society. Fiction with scientist-characters will help to do that.

    Writers have an urge to write – somehow it is necessary for their inner being to write – so whether this is done from any altruistic viewpoint is totally irrelevant – it just HAS to be done. So they write with their own experiences (or their extensive research) in their heads, and then, yes, the characters achieve lives of their own. I think that you have helped to clarify your own thoughts and experiences with your writing – perhaps that is the reason for the “urge to write”.

    With regard to those two thoughts above, it is pleasing and beneficial if writers from all sorts of different backgrounds (including science of course) are published, and the wider society reads about their experiences and those of their fictional characters.

    So I hope you succeed with your book, and also many more.

    • Thanks d.
      “These are the stories I would have liked to have written” – sums up what I felt, and am still feeling. Plot, story-arc and so on are necessary elements in a sense that they provide the skeleton (or the scaffolding) for a novel. Characters are the heart of the story. What we capture in words, cannot freeze the time, but it can encapsulate what matters to us here and now. And it’s heartwarming to read it after a while.

  3. I’d be interested in the novel too; the setup seems to be that of a person having an interesting life, and better that it is about a field I want to be in, and a field that I want to treat women better.

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