What is it really like to be a woman in science?

Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt should have literally stuffed his foot in his mouth last week. Instead, in a room full of journalists, he informed everyone of the problem with having women in the lab: “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”  The backlash has been both swift, fierce, and hilarious.  Tim Hunt resigned his post at the University College London and responded to the backlash on the BBC by saying that “he meant” the comments but was “really sorry.”  As absurd as his statements and his apology, his moronic comments have been a boon for female scientists (New York Times article describing the comments and the backlash here).  With the Twitter hashtag #DistractinglySexy, female scientists have come out in force to show the world how absurd his 18th Century views of women really are.  My favorite thus far is from @tracey_423 “after seeing tweet-pics of women scientists in field, my 14 yo daughter thinks being a scientist seems cool & fun

Considering this isn’t olden times, you may be surprised that anyone has these types of views anymore – much less is inane enough to express these views out loud, in front of other people. Or you may think that this is an isolated incident, but just over a month ago, a female researcher had a manuscript rejected because one reviewer decided that “It would probably … be beneficial to find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors)” to prevent the manuscript from “drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically biased assumptions.” (more details on Retraction Watch). Eventually, the reviewer was removed, but the appeal to the journal about publishing their paper is still pending.

scientistWith all of this insanity, what is it really like to be a women in science?  I can only speak from my experience and point-of-view.   I’m a young scientist and presumably blatant sexism and sex discrimination have decreased compared to some of my more senior female colleagues, but there have been moments… For example, when I was going to an donor event in New York City as a graduate student and asked a senior, male faculty member what was appropriate to wear and his response, “Nothing that shows your panty lines.” What could I possibly say in response?

The Big Bang Theory (Season 8 Episode 7 The Misinterpretation Agitation) starts an episode where Bernadette was picked as one of the fifty most beautiful scientists for an article in a magazine, and Amy emailed a complaint about the article since they would not have written about handsome male scientists and are objectifying women.  This hit strangely close to reality.  Another Nobel Laureate came up to me in the bar in grad school to suggest that we make a calendar featuring the “girls” at our much-esteemed institution.  I told him that I didn’t think that the successful, intelligent female faculty would want to be in a calendar or called “girls.”  His response, “Well then these aren’t the kind of girls we want in our calendar then, are they?”

Tim Hunt also mentioned crying. Biologically, when I get upset – including mad – sometimes that happens.  The singular example of this was at a committee meeting where one of my committee members looked at me and told me that I “have no f**king clue what I’m talking about.”  As I tried to explain that he was right because that information was owned by a company and they wouldn’t give it to me, I had a lot of trouble preventing the tears. Then again, if my tears are inappropriate, then swearing is equally so.

Although these are obvious examples of how women are treated in the laboratory, I’m not including the passing remarks about how young I look, questioning my scientific credentials (or just as bad, making me prove that my scientific background is impressive enough for you), or mentioning what I’m wearing.  These are too common, and would never once be directed towards a male scientist.

Although the focus of this post has been about the sexism that still persists in science, I have overall been fortunate.  As I have progressed through my career, I have had significantly more positive experiences in and outside of the laboratory than negative ones.  Male scientists have taught and mentored me more often than not, and I’m extremely grateful for this support.  Even though many times I have been the only woman in the room, I was listened to and valued (and let me tell you, not one of the men in the room fell in love with me or vice versa).

However as I think back on these incidents, I can see them now for the learning and growth experiences they were, but I don’t think that women need these types of learning experiences to succeed.  I didn’t have any female role models or mentors who could help me to handle any of these situations or to guide me through this sometimes difficult career path.  This is a well-known issue in science – the lack of senior female scientists (New York Times article talking about why there are still so few women in science) – and it’s one that doesn’t have an easy solution (though having people like Tim Hunt quit their jobs may be a great start).  Personally, I make mentoring female scientists a priority – so they can have something I didn’t – support in a sometimes difficult world.