Jenn Does Science

Audacity of imagination

Tag: Women in Science

Great News, Guys: Sexism in Science is Over!

Okay, maybe not.

A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims that they found that their hiring experiment shows that professors consider women twice as desirable as men when choosing candidates to hire from a stack of applications. Their conclusion is that the current lack of women in STEM fields is therefore not due to inherent bias, but due to women self-selecting out of the field.

Except their study bears no resemblance to an actual faculty search.

Scientists have responded to this study with a mixture of skepticism and outright anger, and they’re justified in doing so. By claiming that there’s no bias against women in technical fields, the researchers are placing the blame for the underrepresentation of women in the sciences squarely on the shoulders of women. They’re basically telling women to “stop underrepresenting yourself.” And yet, almost any woman could tell you some anecdote about being assumed to have less knowledge than a male at a field in which she is just as qualified as the guys. My own anecdotes are well-documented.

This article, written by a friend of mine, outlines in exactly which ways the PNAS study gets it wrong when they claim to study actual hiring practices. And in-person interviews are hard to study because there is no real way to make up for biases. Without being able to see the candidate, there’s no evaluation of body language that makes in-person interviewing useful. The closest examples that take into account a holistic view of bias might come from anecdotal evidence of scientists who have transitioned genders at a midpoint in their careers, although bias against transgender individuals is a whole different level of bias.

This article about the study also raises another important point: is it really the perception of gender bias that keeps women from pursuing higher education jobs in STEM fields? I would argue, no, that if a woman chooses to leave a STEM field, it is generally because there is little accommodation for the disproportionate role a woman is supposed to take in raising a family, or else because of some personal negative experience. I mean, I knew that it was “weird” to be a woman in physics, but that didn’t make the field less attractive. It just gave me a bit of advanced warning so I wasn’t surprised the first time I got patronizing comments from a professor.

And that’s the biggest problem I have with this study. If you tell women that this bias doesn’t really exist, then what does that say when they actually experience it for themselves? Without knowledge of bias as an existing issue, women in science who then experience bias might just chalk it up to one bad apple or, worse yet, their own oversensitivity. And that, I think, is even more likely to cause women to leave a field that they would otherwise enjoy. If you can take sexist comments, recognize them for what they are, and say “Eh, haters gonna hate,” it’s easier to go on with your career. Without a perception of ingrained bias, each negative experience becomes personal, which is actually worse.

So rather than declaring bias over based on one poorly-designed study, perhaps we should be addressing the causes of the very real biases in the sciences, not just against women, but against anyone who doesn’t fit the traditional perception of the nerdy, white, cis-male scientist.

A Bone to Pick with Bones

So it’s no secret to anyone who knows me that one of my favorite genres of TV is the crime drama. Criminal Minds, Bones, and even good old Law and Order. I watch them in hotel rooms and at home, and I’ve recently discovered them on Netflix. Bones is actually one of my favorites. Despite the caricature-like portrayal of Dr. Brennan at times, I find it a great representation of diversity in science. But the episode I watched the other night gave me pause. I apologize for writing about an episode that’s a year and a half old, but it’s new to me.

In “The Lady on the List,” the intern Dr. Wells returns. Now, I have a problem with him in general because he’s a perfect representation of the idea on TV that all science-y people know all science. I guess it’s good that they at least try to make it apparent that his expertise in multiple scientific fields is unusual, but it still galls me that this perception exists. But that’s not the problem.

The problem is that he’s a belittling jerk. And he is pretty exclusively a belittling jerk to Brennan, Cam, and Angela. That is to say, the women. And they don’t really ever call him on it. Brennan seems to buy his “I’m smarter than you” attitude and tries harder to impress him. At one point, she almost puts him in his place by bristling at him complimenting her for figuring something out and then asking her on a date, but it was just that she doesn’t like him. Not that he’s belittling her as a scientist with way more experience in this field than he has. Angela is the best at dealing with him, quietly showing him that he’s misjudged her, but doesn’t press it when he attributes her skill to luck. Cam tries to get him to behave with “respect” but makes it more about rank.

And everyone makes it about him being “likeable,” not about that fact that, even given the chance, he doesn’t pull any of this crap on Hodgins. Kind of fishy, that.

I was the most disappointed with the portrayal of Cam’s character in this situation because she’s been outspoken about insidious prejudices before. In fact, earlier that same season, she gets indignant about her boyfriend getting pulled over for “driving while brown.” Good for her for calling that out. But when she’s faced with an intern who is profoundly rude, condescending, and interrupts his superiors (yes, people who are your boss are your superiors), she can only come up with lame comebacks about how he’s not likeable.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have the likeability burden foisted on a male character for once. But the punchline of the whole episode is that Dr. Wells ends up making friends with a computer program because it’s the only mind in the lab whose intelligence he respects. Apart from being a really lazy and stereotyping way of dealing with this character, this isn’t really a situation that demands humor.

This is a situation another entitled brat of a scientist who looks down on his female colleagues needs to be taught that that’s not okay, and it has nothing to do with whether or not someone wants to have a drink with you after work. It has to do with discounting the expertise of your colleagues, particularly those who actually have more expertise than you do. While this is a lesson that anyone, regardless of gender, must learn, it is particularly damaging in situations like this, where the male colleagues don’t get the kind of condescending attitude that the females see. Because we’re dealing with that sort of crap daily and don’t need yet another example of it. Particularly when it’s someone with whom we need to work to get things done.

Why Gender Still Matters

Yesterday, I heard a news piece about how Marissa Mayer doesn’t think gender matters in the tech industry. Now, the pull quote in the segment didn’t really make it clear what she meant by that, but the news source where I heard it was presenting it as Mayer saying she didn’t think gender was an issue in the advancement of people in the tech industry. It called to mind this question sent to “Dear Prudence” a few weeks ago, where a woman was complaining about feminists in her workplace getting all upset when she said she didn’t experience any different treatment based on her gender. It might have been heartwarming except that the young woman asking the question titled her question “Excessive Feminists” and seemed to think that because she was too young to get passed over for senior positions and hadn’t had anyone make sexual overtures towards her that that meant she wasn’t treated differently because of her gender.

There was also a generally dismissive tone, as if she felt like these “excessive feminists” were making a big deal out of nothing to foster a false sense of camaraderie. Don’t even get me started on Prudence’s reply. The idea that a 20-something who hasn’t experienced what fits into her narrow definition of gender discrimination should not invalidate the other women as “obsessive grievance-mongering” feminists. And it’s almost funny how naively the writer brings up that there just happens to be “too few [female] candidates” without really reflecting on why that is. It’s like just because we’ve made progress in the treatment of women in the workplace, people think it’s fixed. It’s not like it’s the 60s anymore, right? You should be happy your boss doesn’t pinch your ass and call you a hot tomato, darling. And that’s the problem.

The problem is that women are constantly being told to lighten up when they experience something that leaves them with a bad taste in their mouths, professionally. I’ve found that, particularly in experimental science, people tend to being a little looser with the rules of professionalism. People will make off-color jokes in a lab that you wouldn’t make in an office setting, perhaps because the fact that we’re wearing jeans and a polo shirt makes this less of a professional setting than those suits in their corner offices. It’s not sexual advances, or even flirting, but it’s not appropriate.

But we are professionals. And it matters that what a male colleague might find hilarious a female colleague will file away in her mental file with a note that you find something deeply disturbing to her to be funny and maybe she wants to avoid being in a private, vulnerable situation with you. Or it matters that when you call your younger female colleague “sweetie,” you’re telling her you think of her as below you, in part because of her gender. Or when you say you’re “always happy to help out a pretty young girl,” you’re implying she’s less than capable or that you’re giving her special treatment that has nothing to do with the job you’re both hired to do.

Because the thing is that we’re getting this all the time. And it really hurts to get it from the people we respect and work with well. When someone I like makes a sexist comment without even knowing it, it just reminds me how far we have to go. It reminds me that even though I have a PhD in physics, if the people who know me make gendered assumptions about me, how am I ever going to get to a point where I’m not assumed to be the secretary by the sales rep at the company I’m contacting? Or how is that engineer who mansplains my own project’s requirements back to me (incorrectly) ever going to learn that that’s just not okay? And it grates.

The Real Katie is right: it’s a million barbs. It’s like nettles or crumbs in the bed. Not always dangerous, but damned annoying. And cumulative. It gets to the point where you end up snapping at the person who you like and respect because they happened to be the most recent in a string of offenses. And, yes, you know they were “only joking,” but, no, you’re not going to “lighten up.” Sorry, not sorry.

#Shirtstorm: How To Be Classy

So, I’m not going to touch most of the controversy surrounding #Shirtstorm with a ten-foot pole. But. I do have something to say about it. This Friday, I happened to catch the coverage of project scientist Matt Taylor’s response to the whole controversy, and I have to say, I was impressed. Honestly, to me, his response is the most important thing coming out of this because it was exactly what the situation called for. He was sincere and didn’t try to rationalize or offer a false apology. He apologized, briefly and honestly, and didn’t try to deflect.

And that’s what we need. Because, seriously, I’m sick of being treated like I’m in the wrong when someone does something that makes me feel uncomfortable for something I can’t control: the fact that I am female.

Yes, this has happened. I’ve been incredibly lucky in most respects, but even I have experienced the darker side of being a woman in physics. And I know what it’s like to feel like I need to acquiesce to something that makes me uncomfortable to avoid being labeled a harpy.

When I was in grad school, the company Edmund Optics came out with their Red Hot Optics campaign. And, yeah, I was not entirely on board with the idea that the sale of lab equipment needs to be promoted by objectifying women. I was not the only one, even in my own group. The senior grad student was pissed, to the point that at the next trade show we attended, she decided she wanted to give the owner of Edmund a piece of her mind in person, and I was going to come along for moral support.

The problem is that the rest of our group were guys who thought that the campaign was awesome, and thought this female student’s anger was hilarious. So here I was, a young grad student, the most junior person in the lab, torn between acting in solidarity for beliefs that I generally support and being the “cool girl” who didn’t get all up in arms at every little thing, right? It’s not a big deal, right?

But that’s thing. That’s what I’ve realized is the insidious part of objectifying women: it pressures women to accept it. And that same pressure to accept is what is used to excuse the “boys will be boys” argument for a whole host of permissive attitudes.

And that’s why it means so much to me that Matt Taylor didn’t take the easy way out, and instead chose to actually feel bad about contributing to the casual objectification of women, and apologize for it. Because it’s likely that if he’s worn that shirt in the past to work, someone has felt offended by it, but decided to keep quiet so she wouldn’t be ostracized.

When the Doubt is Not Presumed

One of my favorite blogs, for both style and substance, is Capitol Hill Style. She recently published this post, about how women undercut themselves by responding to presumed doubt of their abilities. And it reminded me of a conversation I had with my boyfriend D a month or so ago. Let me tell you a story.

When I started grad school, I had just graduated from an Ivy League university. And went into grad school at a state school near my hometown. Even though it’s a top-rated physics graduate program, it would be understandable if I felt like I was going down in the ranks, mostly because I’ve heard comments to that effect about my graduate alma mater from other graduates of my undergraduate institution. Fine institutions though they may be, the Ivy League is not known for putting out modest alumni. And yet, from the first moment I stepped into a graduate class, I had the overwhelming sense that I shouldn’t be in grad school. It’s a well-known effect: Impostor Syndrome (or Phenomenon). That feeling that you somehow don’t deserve merit you’ve come by honestly. In fact, the phrase was coined to describe high-achieving women who feel they don’t deserve their achievements, and, boy, did I have it in spades. I went through grad school, passing my classes, passing my qualifier, publishing a paper, and writing and defending my thesis, all the time worrying that at any time I might be “found out” as the idiot I really am. To this day, I wonder if getting my PhD was somehow a fluke.

But then I started to look at the world around me. Specifically, my male classmates. I noticed that a lot of them seemed extraordinarily confident in their intelligence, often to the point of being maybe a little annoying. I even watched a first-year grad student argue with the senior grad student on an experiment that a fundamental element of her experiment was wrong, and even though his assertion came from his own flawed understanding of the concepts involved, even though this was an experiment that had been carried out over the course of many years before he’d even gotten there, he refused to back down. There was this quality of many of the incoming grad students that they knew everything. Eventually, I looked around and realized that none of these erroneously overconfident students were female. In fact, in my admittedly small circle of female scientist friends, everyone I’ve met has had some degree of impostor syndrome coloring their self-perception, while many (if not most) of the men have come in thinking they’re the best thing since sliced bread. Even D, my wonderful, open-minded, not-at-all-an-obnoxious-jerk boyfriend said he recognizes that he came in thinking he knew a lot more than he actually did. And the process of grad school wears that down a bit, every time you get a problem that’s nearly impossible to solve, or an exam where the high score is a 60%. So many of those men will end up on a mentally level playing field with the women who know they don’t know everything. And then you do learn things, and after you’ve learned enough, you get your PhD and are turned out, a shiny new physicist who’s been remade better, stronger, faster. Right?

Except that’s not the end of the story. It’s very easy to say “You spent seven years learning your subject, so now you should know that you’re qualified.” But it’s not that easy to internalize. And part of the reason for that is that it has to come from you, from your internal monologue, because, well, the world is not always going to be so helpful. That’s when you start realizing that this doubt in your ability is not always presumed. It’s not always “self-doubt.” Some of it is internalized doubt that others express. It’s not always explicit, but it’s not veiled enough. Every time I get a price quote back from a company that has assumed I’m an administrative assistant rather than a researcher. Every time a machinist calls me “honey” or “sweetheart,” or that they’re “always happy to help out a pretty girl.” Every time a tech tells me I “need to find someone to write [me] some C code” to program the equipment that’s not working. That’s the doubt that I’ve been trying so hard not to feel on the inside, flung at me from the outside.

And it gets old. It gets hard. But I don’t have to accept it or like it. I don’t have to chalk it up to a miscommunication or (my favorite) an overreaction. And I sure as hell don’t have to parrot it back myself.

Leaning Out in the Sciences

I found this article today and it made me think. I’m definitely not the kind of person who leans into her career. Since I started my post-doc, I’ve taken up ballet dancing, started crocheting, and performed in a community theater play. All of these activities take my time and energy away from science. There’s a perception among the physicists I’ve met that physics has to be your entire life and identity. It certainly isn’t mine.

When I was in grad school, I ran a marathon. I was a relatively high-mileage runner (~20 miles per week when I wasn’t actively training for something, up to 40 at my max during marathon training) throughout my first few years of grad school, and the marathon was certainly a time and energy commitment. But I kept my specific training goals a secret. No one asked “Oh, hey, are you training for a marathon?” while I was training, so there was no outright lying going on, but I limited my discussion of my training to my personal friends and family. I was afraid that if I let on at work that I was undertaking such training that they might become critical of my performance in the lab: “Oh, Jenn’s too tired to work hard today because she was up at the crack of dawn to run” or “Jenn didn’t get as much done this week if she would have if she’d been in the lab during that 90-minute run she took at 7am.”

And then, the day after my marathon, I was gingerly lowering myself into a chair at our weekly seminar and one of my colleagues jokingly said “What’s up with you? Did you run a marathon this weekend or something?” Probably was not expecting the answer he got.

But just because I’m not devoted to physics with my entire being, body and soul, does not mean I don’t love science. I’ve also been applying for a fellowship lately and in the process of that, I’ve had to write a research proposal. Research proposals are wonderful things because they force you to go out and read all about the cutting edge ideas in a particular field. And I rediscovered my obsessive love of certain fields in physics. I went to bed thinking about my proposal and woke up to it. I had long, deep conversations with my boyfriend about the intricacies of the experiments and hashed out how the theories work, not just to make sure I got it right in my proposal, but to satisfy a genuine curiosity.

I had overly-long, fast-paced conversations with a prospective employer where we got caught up in the science rather than sticking to the one or two logistical questions I had. I joked that it was like physics Gilmore Girls because we talked fast and cut each other off because were both getting so excited. I could feel the science getting into my blood again.

And yet, in a week, after my current play closes, I’m going to go to another round of auditions. Because it’s not all science for me. Science is just my career and I love it as such.

“More Than Just a Princess”

There’s a new toy, the commercial for which has been making the rounds. I actually first saw this as a Kickstarter linked from one of my favorite blogs, Epbot (Jen*’s are awesome). Honestly, I remember thinking “Gee, they’re trying to market something subversive against the pink-ification of girls’ toys, but they’ve managed to make a toy based on pink ribbons.” But it seems like the idea has evolved a little. Little Goldie certainly looks like the kind of kid I would want to play with when I was a kid (and the kind I’d want my kids to play with when I have those, but seriously, girls, stay away from anything too flammable).

This is a giant leap in the right direction. The difference between a pink engineering set (and it’s not all that pink) and a pink Lego set is that the Legos are also pigeonholing girls by making the sets build salons and the like, rather than castles and racetracks and Tie fighters. Honestly, the only model-building I did as a kid was a velociraptor. I preferred my building blocks a little less constricted by the idea of a kit.

But I was fortunate. I had parents who indulged any interests we had. When all my sister wanted for Christmas was a Tonka dumptruck, guess what she got? Even though my aunts gave my mom all sorts of guff for buying her a “boys'” toy. Yes, we had Barbies, but we also had lots of building toys, books, and numerous trips to museums downtown. When I was in kindergarten, I made a brilliant model of the solar system, complete with a guidebook based on notes I took at the National Air and Space Museum. No one believed I’d done it myself (to be fair, my dad had to cut the foam balls into irregular shapes to make Phobos and Deimos, and I’m pretty sure he hammered in the nails).

If Goldieblox helps some girl discover a love of engineering that she wouldn’t have discovered from a kit not explicitly directed at females, that’s great. If some well-meaning aunt has a gift option that still fits into her worldview of feminine, but still stimulates the creative-scientific mind of a future prodigy, great. The bottom line is, I wish we didn’t need Goldieblox, but I’m glad we have them because we do need them.

And my favorite part of the commercial? “Girls can code a new app.” Seriously, who writes a song intended to market a toy to <10-year-olds and mentions coding? Someone awesome, that’s who. Because there is so much about STEM that is cool, not just the stuff that makes the news, and this company recognizes that.