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. Continue reading

IT IS TIME: My personal journey from harassee to guardian

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Rebecca Rogers Ackermann, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cape Town. Dr. Ackermann’s story accompanies this article, out today in Science.

When I was 15, my high school history teacher asked me out on a date (I declined). In first year as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I had a graduate student tutor invite me to a party at his flat, and when I (fortunately, and to the tutor’s surprise) showed up with a friend there was no one else there. When I was near graduation the Dean ‘joked’ about how he had assumed I was just there for an “MRS degree”. In second year graduate school at University of Arizona, I went to the office hours of a professor I was taking a course from. He asked me to close the door, then aggressively propositioned me. That same year, my supervisor at that institution grabbed my ass at a conference event. I moved to Washington University in St Louis for my PhD, where I was lucky to have really great, completely professional relationships with my advisors. Then I went into the field. For the very first time I had the pleasure of handling and studying hominin fossils. When photographing a famous one, the professor responsible for access starting photographing me from behind, and commenting on the “light streaming through my golden hair.” As I quickly gathered my things to leave, he blocked the doorway and gave me a juicy ‘goodbye’ kiss. Back in St Louis, a peer of mine told me that at a bar the previous night one of the evolutionary biology professors had engaged in a conversation with the other (male) graduate students about whether they would have sex with me if my husband were watching. Just a few years ago at a conference, a senior male colleague told me out of the blue that I was “too good looking for my own good.” This is just a sampling of the things that have happened to me in my post-pubescent life that might be construed as sexually inappropriate or sexual harassment. I am certain many people in my field can make a comparable list of their own.

Why didn’t I report any of these incidents? Or confront the deliverers? I have been thinking about this a lot these days in the wake of all of the revelations in science, and given that this question is frequently posed to me and others. Continue reading

Academic Travel on a Budget

This year has been extremely travel heavy for me, the most since I’ve entered the field. I’m at the point in my post-doc where I have a good sense of the research program I want to build, so now I’ve been taking it on the road to get others excited about it and hopefully create enough interest to open up a faculty position. When this year ends, I won’t have spent a single entire month at home, with some months travelling as much as once a week. Although it’s very exciting (and sometimes exhausting), there’s a particular aspect of it I want to discuss: reimbursement culture when you’re on a budget.

Continue reading