Diversity in Science: The Gender Jungle

As a woman in science, the disadvantages for women in science (and in anything really) are no secret to me. But I’m also a recovering alcoholic lesbian living with a mental illness (how’s that for throwing down identity cards?). All of those things have presented challenges in my ability to function as a scientist and as a human being, but they ultimately shaped who I am as a human being scientist. In the very beginning of my career, I was concerned with the way my peers, colleagues, and mentors would view me if they really knew me.


So I saw two options: I could keep all of that stuff about me secret or I could be open about it. The only thing I really couldn’t hide was the fact that I’m a woman, which presented enough challenges, so I decided to keep everything else to myself, even from most of my friends. I thought, “I’ll figure out how to be a woman in science first and then deal with the other stuff.”


I went to numerous women in science/women in STEM/women in leadership talks, and I always walked away feeling a little…discouraged.


Yes, it’s true that if a woman’s name is on a job application, it will be perceived less positively than if a man’s name is on the exact same application. And it’s true that women earn less money than men for doing the exact same job. There are far fewer women in leadership positions than men because it’s just a reality that women face inequalities in the workplace. That’s a fact. But that isn’t what discourages me.


What discourages me is that we have women in leadership roles telling us to “fake it till you make it.” Telling us that we need to pay attention to the tone of our voice because assertiveness is perceived as a negative quality in women, but that we need to be the first one to speak up in a meeting otherwise a man will overshadow us. But we also need to be careful about being too outgoing because ambition is perceived as a negative quality in women. We need to refuse to do the “office housework,” but not refuse any opportunity to be part of the “man’s team.”  And my favorite: “Act like a duck: glide on the surface and paddle like hell underneath.”


Basically what I kept hearing was advice for women to act more like men but in a feminine way. And maybe that’s what needed to be done to get women to where we are today, and I am so indebted to all the pioneer women who came before us and fought for respect and fought to prove that we can be scientists and leaders, but I think it’s time we get beyond talking about what women should or shouldn’t do and try to accept women for who we are as individuals—whatever that means to each of us.


What would be more powerful than anything is instead of showing people that women can be just as assertive and just as logical and just as tough as men, is to show that a true leader can be emotional and compassionate and can have weaknesses while still getting shit done—regardless of gender. What I see as more urgent is that we, as a society, respect that “emotional decisions” can be just as valid as “logical decisions” (I’m not even sure what that really means, but people always say that women let their emotions get in the way of their decisions). We need to place as much value on compassion as we do on competition. On caregiving as we do on commerce. We need to stop chastising “talented women who forgo career advancement for family,” because that may be the best decision for them at that time. It’s okay to take a step back from work sometimes. For your family. For your own health. Whatever. And this isn’t something that just affects women. Men who are primary caregivers are devalued as being less masculine, and that’s bullshit. This isn’t some kind of gender judo zero-sum game where one gender’s gain is another’s loss.


But what should be is not what is, and we can’t always overcome the gender bias. Maybe I will never get to the top of my career trajectory because I act like a chicken with its head cut off instead of gliding like a duck, but I have a feeling I’ll be able to say it was worth it. The freedom to be who I am without constantly comparing myself to my male counterparts, judging my tone and body language, and ridiculing my emotions is worth everything to me (and lord knows plenty of other people are doing that for me). So maybe I can’t change the rules, but that doesn’t mean I have to play the game just because I’m a woman. I don’t owe it to my gender or to anyone to get to the top, but I do owe it to myself and my loved ones to be as healthy and happy as I can be. But I do realize that I have certain privileges (white, educated, physically healthy) that allow me to opt-out of the gender game, where for some, fighting to make it as a women is the only way to relieve the burden of other disadvantages. For those who are trying to get to the top by playing gender judo, it’s a worthwhile endeavor, just not for me. Instead of fighting to get to the top, I fight for people to be able to speak their truths.


Next week—Diversity in Science: Beyond Race, Ethnicity, and Gender