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When words fail: women, science, and women-in-science

I don’t want to write about women in science today. I want to write about glaciers, or passenger pigeons, or the way the tilt of the earth is making the squirrels outside my window stash acorns, or about how sharks have been on this planet longer than trees, or why sometimes, the public doesn’t trust scientists.

You don’t get those posts today, because I’m a woman in science. Being a woman in science comes with expectations, you see. It comes with my own expectations for a fulfilling career, for having it all, for defining what that even means, and for doing it under my own terms, but those aren’t relevant.

Being a woman in science comes with the expectations others have for me, too, including that I not only must talk and act and dress in certain ways, but also that I work hard enough to justify investing in me even though I’m a pre-baby-incubator. Meanwhile, from others, there’s the expectation that I not work so hard that I am a bad mother of hypothetical babies that haven’t even been conceived (of) yet.

And, being a woman in science also comes with the expectation that I talk about being a woman in science; that I become an expert on everything that helps and hinders my progress; that I mentor my fellow women through the slog; that I have informed opinions on the latest issues facing my gender.

Being a woman in science comes with the expectation that I just shut up already about women in science and just do the damned science already. It also comes with the expectation that instead of my talking about my own experiences, I pay more attention to the experiences of others, particularly those who have their own opinions on whether I should even have opinions, whether about climate change, education, motherhood, or my own body.

Sometimes, the most radical thing I can do as a woman scientist is, well, science. You know, my job. My job that I love.

I am tired of that job being hijacked by things that have nothing to do with science: Twitter lists of “science stars” that are only old white men, scicomm mentors who turn out to be serial harassers, sexist articles in top journals, pretty much the entire field of evolutionary psychology, colleges mishandling athlete assault cases, etc., etc. I am tired of hand-wringing and navel-gazing about why we even have a women-in-science-problem. We know why — we have, it turns out, science about women in science.

I’m tired of how some days, being a woman in science gets in the way of actually doing it.

I value the diversity work I do, and I respect my fellow women (and men) for speaking out about STEM diversity, and I will never, ever stop talking about it. I am so incredibly happy that we are having a conversation about women in science. It’s just that, sometimes, I can’t help but feel as though we’re really just having the same conversations, ad nauseum. These are the conversations that my mentors had when they were young assistant professors.

The author, doing science as a woman scientist.

The author, doing science as a woman scientist.

The seminars, workshops, blogs, op-eds, research, policy papers, luncheons, and happy hour discussions are all valuable, and important, and they need to continue. But when the beer is drunk, and the pizza gone cold, and the printed articles relegated to the recycling bin, we are left with words: words written by us and about us, spoken in confidence, tossed like poisoned barbs in the comments sections, smoldering as craters in our in-boxes, pounding in our ears when we run it out at the gym.

I’m sorry, you guys, but words are not enough. Not anymore.

Because I am a woman-in-science with an opinion about women-in-science, you’ll expect me to have answers. I don’t. There’s a perpetual cycle happening and I don’t know how to break it. It goes like this (you can start anywhere in the sequence):

1. News article reveals a problem facing women in science. 2. Discussions happen (online and in person) and awareness is raised. 3. Someone does something stupid and sexist. 4. Article comes out questioning why we have a women-in-science-problem. 5. Hand-wringing discussion ensues. 6. The cycle progresses back to step 1, step 3, or step 4, ad infinitum.

Did you notice what’s missing from that cycle? Action. Here’s what I want to know: at what point does the action happen? When do we take actionable steps to stop the self-perpetuating cycle of outrage (Wow, we have a problem!), justification (Look at these numbers! You should care about this! It’s worse than we thought!), and damaging sexism (Bitch, make me a sandwich!)?

Sometimes, the most important thing we can do for one another is to listen. When Hope Jahren talks about science’s sexual assault problem, you listen. You listen, because speaking out about our experiences with assault is dangerous, and never rewarded. The act of witnessing, itself can be a kind of power.

But sometimes, listening is not enough. Sometimes, you have to actually say, “I believe you.” Don’t just say it in your head– say it out loud. For every person telling Hope, “Thank you! You’re so brave!” there are ten others yelling at her to sit down and shut up. She hasn’t told me this, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts the haters aren’t just strangers on the internet. The radical act of a woman with an opinion, especially with a platform, is frightening, because it challenges not only institutions, but our own identities as participants in oppressive cultures.

Believing isn’t enough, either. We have to move past acknowledging the problem (as Dr. Isis points out, Hope’s post shouldn’t really have shocked anyone). We actually need to do something about it, which requires will. It’s not always clear what acting looks like, and not always something we can do in the moment. We must call out abusive behavior when we see it, shout against the silencing tactics of trolls and bullies, and actively push back against cultures of silence and stigma. Sometimes, we must do this even to people we respected and who have let us down. Sometimes those people exert control over our jobs, our livelihoods, our relationships, and our very lives, and so when we cannot act, we must hope that others will do it for us.

We must do the uncomfortable internal work of self-reflection, learning about our own internalized biases and the way our actions harm others. We must be proactive in changing our institutions and our communities in the ways we know (remember, science!) will make them more equitable and just.

I’m not asking that we stop talking, I’m asking that we start doing. Here: I’ll go first. I’m going to do the radical act of science, and I’m going to do it well. I love science, as a noun and as a verb. Tomorrow, I’ll speak truth to power. Today, I’ll work on the power of truth.

Categories: Women in Science

Tagged as:

Jacquelyn Gill

59 replies

  1. i love all sorts of things, especially ecology, astronomy, geology and all things about the earth and the universe, i even love politics and world history. Think I could give a few men a run for their money

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  2. Thank you so much for this post! You are truly inspiring to all women. I can relate to everything you said. I have a strong passion for football and I am constantly ridiculed from my guy friends and other men because I happen to be a female and it goes back to the stereotypes on how “girls don’t know sports.” I have to constantly prove myself due to the expectations that some men think of me and it can be so frustrating. This post really lifted my spirits as a woman!

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  3. One problem is that, like glaciers and climate, societies evolve slowly. The tragic thing is that we have had enough time for this society to be better than it so clearly is. The sticking point seems to be our (meaning men) deeply hardwired biology.

    It’s not hard to see, for example, that racial divides separate people from people, and when you come down to it, people are all the same. But gender lines divide what almost seems separate species.

    If I meet a woman at a party, and we really connect, there is a certain mindset. In that context, she is a potential mate. If I meet that same woman at work, I need to be mindful of a completely different context, and any connection we feel may be strictly professional.

    There’s nothing wrong with this; I absolutely believe in egalitarianism. I made it a point during my career to encourage and mentor women in computer programming. But it does make the world a complicated — and sometimes confusing — place.

    The fashion, jewelry and makeup industries position women as objects of sexual beauty, very much in contrast to the bland, even buttoned down, aspects of professional men. Women have been one of the classic definitions of “beauty” (and sexuality) since ancient times. We men have deep-seated, hardwired opinions about women, and those can be extremely hard to set aside.

    I wish I had an answer. Constant awareness and education, and constant pushing, seem to be the avenue, but I look around at how far we’ve come… and I despair.

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  4. Thanks for this. It’s a nice and thoughtful piece. Way to go and make things happen. More power to you on the great journey.

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  5. Why isn’t this obvious? I’ve been female all my life, and what is happening in the sciences with misogyny and sexism is no different from the misogyny in the working poor neighborhoods I grew up in. Why is it treated like “an issue” rather than an honest critique of men (mostly) and the old boys’ network behaving badly, unfairly, and undermining women in science, and undermining science, as well? This conversation has been happening in the U.S. for a long, long time, and somehow it’s just this abstract little thing that eclipses its own reality. How convenient. It’s the erosion of micro-aggressions, to professional discrimination, to blunt force trauma, combined with silencing that keeps this sick little part of our culture in working order.

    I couldn’t not believe you. Thank you for speaking up.

    I found this site while looking for voices in the sciences who don’t think Dawkins is impressive as a scientist, intellectual, or atheist. What gets me most right now, is why are so many women who hold feminist philosophy and science in the highest esteem, sitting at the knee of Dawkins? He’s a dinosaur as a scientist, he uses science as a vehicle for his own personal metaphysics. He’s millions of miles behind. If he were the lover of science he claims to be, he would be recognizing the advances being made in our understanding of “the gene” right now.

    I think women need to work more at recognizing, and supporting women in STEM sciences and get real about the scientific community and this fabled objectivity that has kept mediocre men at the top, and amazing women scientists in the dark.

    Maybe someday, the scientific community of honest, earnest, and successful scientists won’t have to wait for a generation of the Godfather’s of science to die before their work is acknowledged.

    I salute you and thank you for being a scientist and a woman.

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  6. I graduated from Purdue University in 1983 in Mathematics. In the huge Mathematics building there was only one bathroom for women. Nice to see a blogger about women in science! Bravo and looking forward to seeing more from you.

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  7. Eye-opening to say the least. Action is need and not just actions of the lips speaking about actions to be done. It reminds me of the new Feminine Movement in my field of Architecture.

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  8. Inspiring post, Dr. Gill. It truly frustrates that time is frequently wasted on stale discussions. I would hope we were beyond the point of needing validation and instead instituting action. The fault lies in the guilt yielding discussions. They absolve one of action. More could be accomplished if said discussions would shift talk to what is working, rather than rehashing what isn’t. Let’s join in changing to productive

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  9. Great post. There is a similar issue in the IT field, and female gamers and gamer journalists have been harassed. As long as we stay at the table (Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-in) and accept the leadership roles for which we are qualified, our strong work will speak for itself. More important, we need to reach out for the roles which we know we can fill, even if in our own biased eyes, our qualifications aren’t quite there yet. I’m looking forward to your next scientific article!

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  10. Thank you for speaking, Dr. Gill. Despite the growing number of women in STEM fields, there are still obstacles that keep women from advancing in them or keep them from joining at all. It’s articles like these that push back and keep people fighting for equality. Keep at it and don’t give up.

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  11. Dr. Gill thank you for the thought-provoking post. As a paleontologist, geologist, environmental scientist and artist, I agree with your point. You call for action and rightly so. Here are two pieces of action: Where and why in junior high school and high school (and maybe college?) is our system turning off some women regarding science? I think that part of the solution is/are the answer(s) to that question.

    There are many women doing great science and the number of women Self-Promoters therein needs to increase.

    Thanks – Dave (PaleoDW on Twitter)

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  12. Good blog, Jacqueline. I am seeing similar problems in the uk, but we do have much better maternity. The Swan Athena system, imperfect though it is has been a good catalyst for change as it forces departments to evaluate themselves & put action plans in place. These are then evaluated. They are making a difference. I saw much cultural change when I was at qub. Where I am now we need to start the process. There is a poor gender balance & this is an issue but it is recognised & we are trying to be more pro-active. In my view better gender balance really helps a lot, though there are still many issues around promotions. I guess the message is that there has been action & these do lead to changes. The US need to follow suit, especially around the maternity issue! Women, apply to work in the Uk or EU, it IS more progressive.

    Nicki

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  13. Jacqueline,

    What an extremely intriguing post. As a mom who effectively gave up her teaching career to focus on helping two sons with learning challenges I won’t pretend to be an expert on the discrimination of women in STEM fields. My experience in Ontario Canada regarding science teaching in high school has been positive with respect to the numbers of women teaching all strands of science. My husband works in the nuclear energy sector and there are some women working as engineers but it is still top heavy male! I’m not sure what exactly the answer is to gaining balance and exceptance of women in all fields of science. Promoting interest in science in young girls was a start but it seems to me that we still haven’t progressed much past the patriarchal attitudes. It is not just a problem in the fields of science but business as well. My hope is that as the older baby boomers retire from the workforce more fair-minded attitudes will prevail.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that, as you point out, this problem extends well beyond science and also that there are problems at multiple stages (from early education to hiring practices and beyond). It’s going to take all kinds of creative solutions on multiple levels.

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  14. Great post, I would love to not care about these issues at all and just do what I love! I for one, know one fight I am going to take on as soon as I get hired somewhere full time.

    This is my goal: Mandatory maternity leave pay for graduate students and guaranteed, subsidized daycare for said grads starting at 6-months. So many great female scientists end up dropping out because they have no choice if they get pregnant. Daycare costs more than graduate student stipend pay. Even Canada’s top funding source for the best and brightest graduate students, NSERC, does NOT offer maternity pay! Zero-point-zero. Do they not want their best scientists to reproduce?! So, you get preggers, you get no pay (and no employment insurance, since NSERC doesn’t qualify as income). I was seriously almost on welfare when I dared to have a kid during my PhD, despite being on high-paying scholarships for 4 years as a graduate student.

    This is what I’m going to push for and I think it would make a difference. Even for women starting out in science (undergrad level), lots of them want to have families (and men do too of course, but that’s usually not an issue) and it could steer them away from the get go if they start hearing the horror stories. I makes me so sad to think of the brain drain.

    Maternity pay for graduate students and subsidized daycare are a drop in the bucket for universities/NSERC and I firmly believe this would increase the rate of women in STEM.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I keep coming back to the idea that one thing that will help this is increasing the number of women in STEM fields (particuarly higher up). I know the culture has to change too, but greater numbers would mean you’d likely have to speak out less often because there are that many more there to say something (I hope that whenever you are talking about women-in-STEM-things, you are not always speaking to the same audience– about the same institutions, perhaps, but hopefully each time you’re reaching new people too).

    Even though I’m not quite sure how to do this myself yet, I know men need to speak out more about this. It isn’t the same exactly, I know, but a ripple of doubt that I will have (as a white male) if I get a STEM job under the current system is whether I was truly picked on my merits or did bias against a better scientist that happened to be female/PoC come into play?

    I know Jonathan Eisen and several others refuse speaking opportunities if a panel is too male-heavy. And I wonder if as a job applicant, I need to look at that too (only apply to departments that are better balanced). Or since there’s a shortage of TT jobs these days, just leaving STEM all together and finding something else to do in hopes that whatever job I would have gotten goes to increasing diversity (since I, no matter how pro-diversity I am, cannot add to it, by definition given present demographics of STEM fields). Of course, it’s also not clear to me what field I could go work in where I wouldn’t be a detriment to diversity. I know feminism isn’t about denying anyone a job, it’s about making the playing field level, but I would say it’s easier to add diversity when a job market is expanding, not collapsing/stagnant.

    hopefully I haven’t hi-jacked this discussion; I’ve been (mostly) listening in on this this last year or so and trying to figure out what I can do too, because it isn’t right or fair just now.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. This is an excellent post, Jacquelyn! You are certainly right about talking is a good start, but unless action is taken it’s generally rather an empty discussion. In the past two years, I’ve become more vocal within my society about the gender dynamics and barriers to women–but this was something I had generally been oblivious to (thankfully, my PhD and job worlds largely protected me from substantial bias).

    Also, I wanted to point out that your non-women-in-science posts, particularly the “how to get into grad school” entry has been used greatly here at Ohio Univ. to help a large number of aspiring students of all genders and orientations in my department.

    Keep up the great work on outreach and the awesome science!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Increased numbers seems to be a major part of the action here. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Of course, that opens up the whole plethora of issues about why there’s not more women in STEM.

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  17. Really powerful, Jacquelyn. Thank you. And thank you for writing this from within a higher education institution; great modeling and peer support for your colleagues, and a strong example for your students.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. — I’ll break from my “Denny” persona for a moment —

    I welcome strong opinions from anyone. You say what you think needs said.
    I’m against any bullying or assault against anyone.
    I always liked Climatology. Look forward to more of your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

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