Lady Ghostbusters, Hillary, and what I learned in women-only spaces

Last summer, I submitted a grant application with two women. It was the first time I’ve ever been involved in an all-woman project. Partway through the process, the lead PI revealed she was stressed out — up against another deadline, traveling, and struggling with a chronic illness. The other co-PI and I both sympathized, told her to take care of herself, and asked what we could do to help — we picked up the slack, stepped up with preparing some of the documents that usually the PI handles, and shared a moment of solidarity for a tough time. This attitude continued throughout the process: supportive, helpful, positive, fun. It was so unlike my other grant experiences, in which I have almost universally been the only woman and often the lead PI. I’ve struggled to get materials from co-authors, to get people to answer emails, and had to balance out squabbles amongst the group, but I’ve almost never experienced anything like the proactively supportive environment of that all-women proposal. It was awesome.

All this was happening around the time that the Ghostbusters remake* came out, and I couldn’t help but notice the parallels. Women were helping and supporting each other on screen! They weren’t undermining one another! They were getting shit done, without dehumanizing anyone in the process. Most of my female friends adored it — the representation of women geeks, the direct references to sexist tropes, and the general badassery. Meanwhile, from what I could tell, most men were either absent from the theater, or busy harassing women online about the movie.

I’m  active on social media with my “real name,” and my field is pretty male-dominated. One thing I’ve noticed is that on Twitter, I often stumble into arguments involving pedantic, nit-picky points (which is always super fun when you’re limited to 140 characters), or alternative hypotheses portrayed as absolutes. These encounters are almost always with men — either interacting with me (“Well, actually…”) or with each other. There’s a certain machismo to them that I just find so off-putting — demanding an answer, rather than asking a question. Mocking, rather than earnest dialog. And I hate that this sometimes makes me second-guess my willingness to speak or write about my science in public. Why do these interactions with my male colleagues, who presumably agree with me on most things and share similar interests, have to be so combative?

These experiences have had me thinking a lot about the culture of science, how men and women are socialized differently, and all the myriad ways this plays out. Women are often taught from a young age to put others first (“You can make the cookies and take the notes, right?”), to be approachable (“Why aren’t you smiling?”), to not advocate for themselves (“He pulls your hair because he likes you!”). You can’t pay attention to this election without realizing just how badly we treat powerful women — dude pundits have been constantly complaining about how Hillary isn’t “gracious” (that just means “nice and gentle,” by the way), doesn’t smile enough, is too loud; all things her male opponents actually earn points for doing. We like it when men take someone down. When women stand up for ourselves, we’re bitches and cunts, witches and harpies.

Lately, I’ve just had so little patience for those all-male spaces. I’ve enjoyed being around women, because I feel like I can relax and let my guard down. I can be human, rather than superhuman. There are a few male colleagues who get it, and I love the hell out of them, but sometimes that’s not enough.

Coming up as a young woman scientist, I had no female role models. The women in my departments seemed angry, cold and unapproachable**. Now I understand a little more why that is; in male-dominated fields, where the culture often feels like it’s more about tearing down than building up, there’s almost no way to make it unless you’re always fighting. Never show weakness. Never show vulnerability. The wild thing is, this doesn’t just drive women, people with disabilities, or other marginalized groups out. It hurts men, too. It’s part of that lie that says men can’t be compassionate fathers, aren’t allowed to like “women’s” media or hobbies, and have to drink aggressively hopped beer or they’ll get their masculinity card confiscated. The nonstop aggression, the competitiveness, the bro-ish one-upmanship is just crappy all around. It can’t possibly be making people happy.

Growing up, I had mostly male friends. I eschewed anything I thought was girly, from purses (I literally had a military ammo bag and hit guys with it when they called it a purse) to female friendships. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I started to understand the value of female friendships, to come to terms with femininity and embrace things I had dismissed as weak, like pedicures, knitting, or fruity cocktails — things it turns out I liked. Things I was good at.

And it was in those women-only spaces — the book clubs, the knitting groups, the campus women’s centers — that I started to realize that there was another way. Support, rather than sabotage. Questioning, rather than arguing. This election has been so, so hard for me, because I feel like Hillary Clinton is my patronus. As she said in her spot-on Humans of New York interview, who are our models? What are we supposed to do when we’re enthusiastic but people find our voices and our arm-waving scary? All year long, Hillary has been a lightning rod for all the messed up ideas we have about women in power, from clothing to working while sick to ambition (which I have in spades, incidentally) to double standards to voices to whether we still have value when you can see our wrinkles without a hand lens.

This is the part of the post where I remind you all that this doesn’t have to be this way. There’s nothing inherently biological going on here (back off man, I’m a scientist). Anyone who’s read this blog long enough knows that I can get just as angry as the next harpy. These things we think are male, or female (which, by the way, is a false binary, too) aren’t pre-ordained — they’re socially constructed.

Which means the only reason science/academia/life continues to curate male-dominated spaces is because we’re complying.

It’s okay. You can stop.

Ask yourselves***: are you always yelling? Do you talk over others? Have you “actually-d” anyone lately? Are you a chronic mansplainer? Do you criticize and nitpick more than you lift up and signal-boost? When’s the last time you went out of your way to do something nice for a colleague? When’s the last time you undermined someone else’s efforts, or stood by while a colleague did? When’s the last time you mocked women (or black folks, or Latinas, etc.) for gathering somewhere without you? When’s the last time you complained about too much estrogen in the room, or mocked someone for wearing pink, or not conforming to your expectations?

I’m not saying women can’t fight for themselves. We’re not delicate flowers, fragile snowflakes, or spun-sugar fairies (though even if we were, we’d still be worthy of dignity). But this whole diversity thing often feels like a slog, and I can’t bring the fight every single day. So stop asking me to turn the things I love — my hobbies, my research, my identity — into a battle royale where you change the rules so I always lose.

There’s another way, and it’s better.

*I loved it. I wish they’d let Leslie Jones be a scientist, because representation matters, but I adored it overall.
**Looking back, I realize how much internalized misogyny I’m showing in that assessment and wish I’d tried harder to reach out to them)
***I initially had this as “Dudes, as yourselves,” and gendered the rest of the section — “Do you talk over women?” Except that men do it to each other, and women do it to each other when they’ve internalized the idea that we have to be like men to succeed.

7 thoughts on “Lady Ghostbusters, Hillary, and what I learned in women-only spaces

  1. Which means the only reason science/academia/life continues to curate male-dominated spaces is because we’re complying.”

    So true. Let’s stop playing by male-created rules.

    The bit about smiling really gets my goat. I’m always smiling too much or too little I’m told.

  2. “Support, rather than sabotage.”

    The whole paragraph surrounding this was like a breath of fresh air. I so often struggle with women who feel like we need to be competitive with each other, and I wish I could better create an atmosphere of support!

  3. I am grateful for the solidarity in this post as I figure out where and who I am in my new post doc lab… and how to effectively communicate with my male PI, who is generally supportive but likes to use phrases like “you’re a big girl now”.

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