Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Being a Woman Scientist

On my first day of kindergarten my Mom made me promise that I would go to college.   As the story goes, my reply was “Ok, Mom, but can I finish kindergarten first?”  I’ve been lucky to grow up with two very supportive parents, who pushed, pulled, and cheered me through twelve years of private schooling, four years of undergraduate school, fours years of graduate work for my M.S. and now are helping me work through my PhD.   
Education, for my parents, was always a privilege.  My Mom was told she wasn’t bright enough to go to college, most of my Dad’s family expected nothing of him.  For their families, education was not a priority.  My parents proved them wrong.  My parents both went to school and raised five kids, I was the “law school” baby, famously colicky the night before Dad’s Bar exam.  My Mom finished her undergraduate degree at forty, and taught for a year just to prove to herself that she could. 
We ate dinner together every night, debating and discussing politics, ethics, medicine, science, and poetry, always with the “good book” –a very large dictionary – nearby.  My parents worked hard to provide us with a good education, spent many nights helping us with homework, and teaching us to write as we worked on reports and essays for school.  They always pushed us to get professional degrees “Be a lawyer! Or a doctor!” and the house rule was that our family does not turn in sloppy work, even if it meant staying up all night to perfect the latest project. 
My sister and I are both in doctorate programs now; she’s in physics, I’m in ecology.   My younger brother is a talented musician who is working hard at producing his own album and building a name for himself.  My parents are immensely proud and brag about us every chance they get. 
But.  As beautiful as this story is, it has not been easy for me, nor my sister.  I have struggled as a woman in the sciences.  I’ve dealt with sexual harassment, lacking support of my instructors, discrimination at work, and a high level of competition from my classmates. 
As a student, I’ve sat through uncomfortable office hours, where my questions were met with smirks, struggling to get my professor to focus on my face, and trying to ignore the occasional, less then subtle innuendos -- and soon I began to bring a friend to office hours with me. 
Socially, being a scientist can be difficult.  Intelligence can be intimidating to some men, and when your friends introduce you as the brilliant scientist, people try to be interested, but their eyes glaze over after a minute or two and eventually they wander off. 
Working in the sciences, as an academic, I’ve made a conscious effort to become part of the “’ol boys’ club” – to do otherwise would be to miss out on essential networking, opportunities, and conversation.  Being in the club usually means meeting for drinks, discussing current events, academic policies and office politics, while also tolerating/ignoring/biting-your-tongue at the comments about the “little ladies” at home, the attractive students in class, or the new secretary’s well-fitted wardrobe.  While this gives me a strong advantage in my field, and will continue to, I hope that in the future I’ll find a more inclusive environment, with colleagues that are conscious of the degree of respect I deserve to encounter.  

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