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 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