Confessions of a Female Scientist

1) I keep a huge supply of feminine products in my desk

To say that I work with mostly men would be an understatement. I’m one of three women in my department, four if we’re counting our undergraduate student. I no longer have the leisure of turning to the girl next to me and asking to borrow a bobby pin/hair tie/tampon/lotion/lip gloss. If you open my desk drawer it looks like someone looted a Walgreens. Hair gel? Check. Small mirror? Check. Strawberry Newtons? Check. Okay, those have nothing to do with being a woman, but who doesn’t like Strawberry Newtons?

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2) I put more thought into what I wear to work than you did for your wedding

Every single man I work with dresses the exact same way: black pants, button down shirt, slip on loafers. Super adventurous days? Khakis. There is no business casual “uniform” for women, which is both a blessing and a curse. I love that I can express myself with my clothing, but it also causes a lot more angst in the morning, trying to decide if what I’m wearing is professional enough/feminine enough/manly enough/etc. New professional dress from Ann Taylor? “You look nice, going out for a date after work?” Black pants and a black sweater? “Going to a funeral?” Bright pink cardigan? “Wow, that’s a lot of color!” I guarantee that the men that make these comments would never make them to a man. I also know that I ultimately shouldn’t care what people think, but it’s hard when it gets commented on.

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3) It doesn’t matter the reason, I’m not going to give you a free pass on sexist behavior

Back when I wanted to be a doctor, I spent an afternoon shadowing an older gentleman in the profession. Besides following him around and seeing patients, we spent an hour hanging out in his office talking. Was he asking me about the awesome research I was doing? Nope. He wanted me to know two things:

1) I should pick a different specialty. I wanted to be an OB/GYN at the time, and he spent some quality time telling me that I shouldn’t do it. Why? Because you have to get called away in the middle of the night, and how would my future husband and children feel about that? Women should, apparently, stick with a specialty such as dermatology or radiation. It’s a lot easier to have more regular hours, and I can be there for my family after work.

2) People aren’t taking me seriously because of my age. It’s true, I graduated from college a lot sooner than most people. The up side to this, as I see it, is that I have a lot more work experience than anyone else in my age group. He did not see it this way. He wanted to let me know that I should maybe work, start a family, and then apply to professional school, and maybe I’d have a better chance.

I just didn’t see him having the same conversation with a young man. I know that older men sometimes get a pass because things were “different in their day”, but I’m not excusing it.

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4) Sexism in science is alive and real, pretending otherwise is only insulting

A while back a male coworker overheard me and a female coworker complaining about some of the problems we face as women in our workplace. He then joined in complaining that women get too much of a free pass to complain, and that men have it just as hard. I wasn’t amused, and I didn’t see his point. I agree that complaining doesn’t solve anything, but awareness does.

I was once not put on a published paper, when a male colleague was, and I did twice the work he did.

I once overheard a female colleague getting made fun of for liking to bake and dance when she should be “spending all of her time doing lab work”. The same men that made that comment took time off to go golfing later that week.

A friend of mine, and an old colleague, told her boss that she was going to be having a baby, and that she’d be due in December. She was congratulated, and then called into her boss’s office the next day. Apparently, she was told, her funding was going to run out the day before her due date when she had been told since she had been hired, that it would run out in April.

Another woman I know volunteered to go up on stage during a conference, and had the older, male, presenter make jokes about her boobs the entire time, in a crowded lecture hall filled with her coworkers.

“I work at ____ Hospital” “Oh, that’s great, so you’re a nurse?” Nursing is a wonderful, hard, incredibly demanding job, and I’m not making light of it. However, why does almost everyone I meet assume that I’m a nurse? It is, historically, a female dominated profession, but why do people make it seem like that’s automatically the job that I must have if I work at the hospital?

My point is not “woe is me”. My point is that pretending that inequality doesn’t exist does not make it go away.

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6) Women are just as bad as men at discriminating against women

There is so little solidarity in my field that it’s discouraging. Instead of trying to help one another out, we belittle, make fun of, and stab each other in the back trying to get ahead. Sure, it’s in the name of competition and climbing the ladder, but can we stop with the unnecessary criticism? It doesn’t matter if so-and-so is wearing something ugly. It doesn’t matter if you think I shouldn’t wear skirts. It doesn’t matter that someone down the hall took a long maternity leave. Let’s knock it off and focus on what does matter – researching cancer, the new biosafety course we have to take, making sure the patient is comfortable, doing good, solid work.

What do others think? Do other people experience these types of problems being a woman in a male dominated field?

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3 thoughts on “Confessions of a Female Scientist

  1. Very interesting. I have had similar experiences (obviously one of which you mentioned above) but at the same time I think it’s a little bit different in physics. It’s almost as if, because there are SO few women in physics (I think at the professional level it’s around 12% female), people are generally more careful about it. Discrimination is more subtle, generally. At the same time, there are still horror stories (like a physics professor telling a girl “why would you major in engineering? you’re pretty, you could get a husband.” no one I currently work with, thank God.).

  2. I think I am one of the rare lucky ones as the women vastly outnumber the men where I work. I find that a lot in veterinary medicine though. On the down side, point #5. Yeah. Women can get incredibly catty, especially when they make up 90% of the work environment. On the other, other hand, I’ve met some pretty awesome, inspiring women. Also, tampons are never in short supply at my job 🙂

  3. Yeah, it was definitely better for the two years that I worked with mostly women. Unfortunately the other jobs I’ve had have been mostly men. And Liz, that’s interesting. I wonder – is there more awareness now in physics? Maybe that’s why there’s not as big of a problem. I think because biology is roughly 50/50 it’s not thought of as a big issue, regardless if it is or not.

    Molly, I wish I had met more women in my field that were good role models. I have, I have to say, had some pretty awesome male bosses. Not everyone is a jerk. 🙂 My current boss is definitely not part of the problem.

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