Guest Post: The burden of representing a demographic

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


18 thoughts on “Guest Post: The burden of representing a demographic

  1. I always try to remind myself that I don’t need to be the stand-bearer for all of feminism with every choice that I make. Sometimes the choices I make are what’s best for me, and not what’s best for “the image of women in science” as a whole. However, that’s what feminism is, right? The freedom to make the choices that work best for you as an individual.

  2. Pingback: The Burden of Representing a Demographic | A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman

  3. Things have changed so much. When I was entering science 40 years ago, I never gave a thought to being a ‘woman in science’. I expected and wanted to be treated as an individual rather than a member of any group, and ignored any signs that people were treating me otherwise.

    Of course, that approach prevents you from forming pressure groups or identifying patterns of discrimination. I was lucky to be in a demographic that was less oppressed than some, so I could get along without fighting those fights. But even recognizing what identity politics can accomplish, I can’t help thinking that I was better off ignoring it all and being my own weird self.

    My parents raised me to be suspicious of identities and to question the motives of anybody who tried to slot me into one. Nowadays that view is very out of style, but it’s served me well for a long time.

    • agree… but our mindset was different then … I guess we knew that most other workers would be men and we just had to concentrate on the work and not the personalities. The few other women in my field were very different in personality, age and style, and apart from their success showing me that it “could be done”, I didn’t think of them as role models. I think I was so arrogant that i didn’t think I needed role models. I think I would have been better off opening up about the issues to other women.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspectives, Pat and d.! I think you’ve hit on the main issue – it can be enlightening and helpful to be a part of this culture of sharing and working together on systemic problems, but at the same time it can be restricting if you feel extra pressure or boxed in by that.

  4. Reblogged this on This is a bit random, but… and commented:
    Ah, that unpleasant feeling :-/ I could have done without the added pressure of being the only woman in my Controls course, the only female TA for multiple courses, the only woman in the room while teaching labs and office hours full of young men, the only woman in my lab for multiple semesters, etc. You try not to notice that you’re the Only One but it’s so hard to not let it get to you and become convinced that you must be Perfect in order to not let down your entire gender (or other underrepresented demographic)…
    An excellent post on the burden of representing one’s demographic, from Tenure, She Wrote.

  5. There’s also the possibility that your PI is an ally to the cause! I was fortunate for a mini-doc and my current postdoc that both faculty wanted to actively support women in science… ESPECIALLY those who had family and professional ambitions. They gave me great advice and listened to my hardships because they have kids an wives who also work a lot. I used to think women vs. men a lot, but really some senior women are much more difficult than men. In fact, men who have wives and daughters are connected to this situation on an empathetic and human level, which is reassuring and great.

  6. A question for the PIs out there. What happens when a postdoc supported by a grant goes on maternity leave? Does the grant still pay the salary or does that come out of the fringes? In other words, can the postdoc be extended by the amount of time that the person is on leave?

    • Profdean, I’m not an expert on this but my understanding is that it depends on the grant. Both the NIH and NSF have policies to continue to pay people while on leave, and sometimes it is from the fringe costs. I am not aware of any grants that have provisions for a postdoc to be extended by the amount of time taken on leave, but related to that, I heard that the NSF is instituting a mechanism to “pause” a grant while the PI takes leave.

    • A LOT depends on the institution. At my institution, Post-docs and faculty are treated the same way. We are required to use all of our sick and vacation leave and then allowed to take unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks in total. The vacation and sick time is charged to your grant (faculty are funded 70% by grants here and 30% by the institution) at the time it is used, not when it is earned (which is strange since it is often earned on prior projects) and so the money is gone and can’t be used to extend the post-doc. Added to this, vacation time can’t be used until you’ve been in the position for 6 months. NSF has a mechanism where the PI can apply for supplemental funds to cover leave, effectively extending the position, if the institution allows it. Our HR office is terrible about handling questions on leave and often gives incorrect answers so it’s definitely a place to do your homework. For example, if your partner also works for the U., you have to share your 12 weeks of Federal leave. They forget to mention that you also have a right to 12 weeks of state leave which you also must share but at least put together, you don’t lose so much by both working for the same organization.

  7. In terms of taking a new job and thinking about family planning, I would bear in mind a few things. You may be the best person for the job even with a strong likelihood of having time out on maternity leave. You don’t know what will happen about having children (fertility issues, miscarriage etc), these things can’t be planned for. All the working mothers I know are incredibly efficient and focused. And frankly it sounds like a system problem. People have children, people have accidents, people have disabilities, people have complicated lives that can affect their ability to work at times. Funding systems should have enough flux in it to allow for all of these things, because the alternative is saying that none of the people in those categories should be working in science and that isn’t right. I hope you do whatever is best for you and good luck.

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