I am incredibly proud to be a woman in science, to be a role model for other women and girls, and to hopefully push some of the barriers that still exist for women advancing in academia. But sometimes this can feel like an incredible amount of pressure to succeed, to show the world that I, one woman, can be great, somehow demonstrating that all women can be too. Let’s be honest – I’m not always great.
When I was interviewing for postdoc positions I had a particular experience where I really discovered this feeling. This interview was two days long and on the first day I gave my research talk. I dressed in a skirt suit and tried to be very professional. I am generally a good speaker and was confident about my talk. But part way through, a young man about my age asked a question that threw me off my game. It was a really simple question that I should have been able to answer easily. But I didn’t know. I gave a bunch of related information that led to an indirect answer, but it was clear that I should have had a direct answer to the question. The question-asker and other attendees talked a little more about this issue without pushing too hard. But I felt stupid. It made me hyper-aware of everything else in the rest of my talk, from the words that I said to the way I was presenting myself. I was largely thinking things along the lines of, “I’m not ready for this and I don’t deserve this job,” but equally I was thinking, “they must just think I’m a girl who spends too much time trying to look good and can’t go the distance with her research.” This might seem like a silly thought, but it was reinforced on day two of the interview when I was wearing pants and a sweater and the older man I was meeting with said, “I’m glad to see you dressed more casually today.” It was a pretty harmless comment and I guess I can imagine him saying the same thing to a man, but with the embarrassment I was already feeling it just made me think even more about my looks and how I appeared to other people.
I felt equally that I had failed myself and that I had failed representing women. I felt I had fit some cliche stereotype that an attractive woman can’t be at the top intellectually. I felt bad that I tried to look good and worse that I was thinking so much about how I looked (and I still feel that while writing this post). I often fear that in our present world, a man’s performance reflects only on himself, and a woman’s performance risks reinforcing unwanted stereotypes. I can only imagine how similar fears could be compounded for women of color, individuals with a disability, or people who are transgender or genderqueer. I also feel myself wanting to avoid reinforcing stereotypes for traits that are less visible too, like coming from a lower class background, and I’m sure these feelings exist for many people with other invisible characteristics.
Now I am starting a new postdoc position with a relatively young male PI who had one previous postdoc, a woman who had two children during her ~2.5 years working for him. I am his next postdoc and I am considering doing something similar. And this makes me feel bad. For some reason I feel a responsibility to show him that all women aren’t going to get pregnant and take leave. I am afraid that he’ll join the club of people who are reluctant to hire women for this very reason, because women in child-bearing years are often seen as less productive. I must trust that he and others are wise enough to see past those issues… but I can’t get rid of that fear, and the feeling that I am letting down my gender in the way I am representing us.
However, I will not give up my personal goals in order to change an image – and this is largely because the image doesn’t need to be changed, people’s perceptions are what need to change. I am a woman who wants to have a career and children, and who plans to take an appropriate amount of leave from work to settle in with any new additions; another woman might not have children, and another might end her career to focus on her family; we all represent women, and we are all capable of being excellent and productive employees.
For now, that is the perspective I am taking to cope with the pressure I feel for representing other women – whatever I choose is right for me, and I know it represents many other women too; it’s okay if I’m not breaking any stereotypes today but I will keep doing what I’m doing well. Do other people feel this representation of your demographic, whether it be gender, race, or any group you identify with, as a burden, something always in the back of your mind? How do you change your view to allow that idea to push you forward in a positive way, rather than making you feel bad or pressured?
Today’s guest post was contributed by SweetScience, a postdoc who also blogs at “A Portrait of the Scientist As a Young Woman“