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


Fem(me)inity in the field

On the left: Ask me about my research! Photo: Betsy Hartley. On the right: Ask me about my shoes! Photo.

I asked my (male) PhD adviser how I should dress/pack before our first conference together, expecting a response along the lines of “casual” or “business casual,” and he was confused by my question. “Just wear clothes,” he said. Which, I have to admit, is sound advice, but really wasn’t very helpful. [gilly, writing here]

A (frequently white, male) scientist will usually tell you that you can wear whatever you want as a scientist. That it’s not about what you wear, but how comfortable you feel. After all, as objective scientists, we’re more interested in your data than your fashion sense. Just listen to Dr. Zen:1

My experience is that scientists are almost immune to snappy outfits. This is more true in some fields than others, though. … Field biologists tend to be blue jeans kind of people. I’m not going to claim nobody cares, because some do, but most scientists are all about the ideas and data you have, and forget how you’re dressed about 10 second in.

So dressing like you just rolled in from a week long camping trip should be equivalent to dressing like the only dirt you’re at risk of encountering is under 3 inches of sidewalk.

Continue reading