Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?
I stayed in the course. Week after week, I struggled to do my problem sets, until they no longer seemed impenetrable. The deeper I now tunnel into my four-inch-thick freshman physics textbook, the more equations I find festooned with comet-like exclamation points and theorems whose beauty I noted with exploding novas of hot-pink asterisks. The markings in the book return me to a time when, sitting in my cramped dorm room, I suddenly grasped some principle that governs the way objects interact, whether here on earth or light years distant, and I marveled that such vastness and complexity could be reducible to the equation I had highlighted in my book. Could anything have been more thrilling than comprehending an entirely new way of seeing, a reality more real than the real itself?
Be warned, the full article (link at the bottom of this post) is several pages long and abundant in quotes by many female scientists and students that are more telling and revealing than.. any anecdote. I got the article link from my scientist partner, someone who I hold in extremely high esteem, and whose scientific excellence was clear to me from day.. 2 perhaps, when we were colleagues at the same research institute and attended the same seminars. I think he would speak on behalf of female scientists, if only he would do such things.
Again, even after reading scores of these articles, even some of the scientific ones that this one starts off summarising, offering my comments to the S&T select committee call for evidence on UK Women in STEM and being otherwise active in my university’s female scientists community, I still find this article strikes a cord. I am 34 now, not exactly wet behind the ears, why do I still relate to all the insecurities and stories of female struggles and drop-outs from science? Perhaps because I am still here. But only just. One quote from a student I used to promote this article on twitter went:
I hate to be aggressive. I wasn’t brought up that way. Will I have to be this aggressive .. the rest of my life?
My answer based on recent experiences would be: “Yes”. And if you don’t fight, you lose. And if you lose, you didn’t make it. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t ‘make it’ somewhere else, of course you do, but it does mean giving up on your (perhaps) life long dream. Why? Not because you are dumber, but because you got tired of fighting a game where you are constantly disadvantaged based on.. biology. To win this game, I find you have to not only stick the course and do your job, but also outsmart your (male) competition in politics and tactics. Else they promote one another and you, well, you don’t make it.
At my age it seems it would be totally acceptable for me to bow and step aside, maybe have more time w/ family (Some of my lovely male colleagues actually say this. I stare at them.). ‘She put up a good fight, but hey, she just wasn’t up for it’, they’d say. Or better still, ‘Not a fit’. Since when does one have to be ‘a fit’ to do ones job right? Is that how you promote equality and diversity? By making sure everyone looks, feels and acts the same? I doubt it. To my ears, that sounds like the way you continue discriminating against different types when it’s the management who isn’t skilled enough to cope with diversity. The funny thing is, people on the ‘same level’ usually work really well with diversity, and even find it stimulating and improving the work atmosphere and productivity (new ideas, points of view, skill sets).
Formal processes for equality of opportunity do exist. However, they are easily overlooked, and even deliberately so if no one takes notice. We’re too busy.. is a pretty standard management approach to stacking new things to the agenda. Yeh, I agree, it would be nice if these things would work themselves out without active participation, however that is not the case. What the scientific studies on the matter do tell us, is that we (our generation and the ones preceding us) are inherently so fantastically (I’m being sarcastic here) biased, there seems to be no limit. Men and women alike simply think women ‘can and will less’, and management should therefore statistically just revert to their male counterparts, be it about hiring, promotion or giving them that valuable project or public talk. Wrong. It is not so, and we should not think it. We should see on paper and in front of us people, not skirts, colour of eyes, accents or such. Moreover, we should actively IGNORE impulses to act on such external characteristics and view only the evidence base. Which, if we’d bother, might tell us a rather different story. But yes, it takes time, and we must educate ourselves to become better (and faster) at it.
In research, no point in the career path is straight forward or simple. There is no ‘conveyor belt’ as a senior colleague once told me. But there is support now. One doesn’t have to mull over these things all by oneself anymore, and there are some inspiring examples out there. Even ones that are approachable, that offer advice, or at least an ear. Better still, they may tell you something about themselves you never guessed.. we don’t write everything on our resumes! I have days when the only thing keeping me going are the senior FEMALE academics who I feel have really stepped up to support me. They are often not formal (mentoring) relationships, but you feel the magic nevertheless. I feel like I owe it to all of them to FIGHT if I have to, stick with it, and show the rest. I really, really want to write that book or give that talk one day where I can name them all. My senior UCL female academic colleagues who are JUST GREAT!
And to anyone my age (or younger) I might just say: There is time and we can get there (as long as we enjoy the ride)!