By Meghan Sullivan
A few weeks ago, I was at a scientific writing conference up in Madison, Wisconsin. It was an amazing opportunity, one I didn’t fully appreciate until we were half-way through the opening reception, when I finally realized the guy I’d spent the night talking to was the Keynote speaker slated to kick the conference off the next day (tips for confidence: if you’re going somewhere with bigwigs, don’t look up their profile pictures beforehand; blind ignorance can be a great opener. If you’re lucky, they might even find it charming).
Anyway, I was excited. Walking home after the last session, I rang up my mom back in Jersey, gushing about the journalists I’d met, this guy, that woman, oh! and Emily Willingham, who runs a blog called Double X Science (which, check it out if you haven’t already, it’s awesome). Science about women! For women! Celebrating women!
“Meghan,” she said, sounding – careful. “This isn’t…full of men-haters, is it?” What? I wanted to ask. What could she possibly mean? Science writing? Feminism? Madison? My mother thinks about feminists the same way other people think about performance artists; it makes me feel uncomfortable, I hate it when they do that in public, the men that participate in it are probably gay, and all together there aren’t enough shaved limbs involved.
The thing is, feminism is still a dirty word, perhaps especially in science circles. Last weekend at the Chicago Council on Science and Technology’s Women In Science symposium, feminism per se wasn’t mentioned during the plenary talks, but ultimately it didn’t matter. Much like my mom, who raised three headstrong daughters and occupies a senior position at hospital back home, you don’t necessarily need to call a spade a spade in order to garden with it. Feminism is something that happens along the way. Almost every woman I spoke to admitted that at the start of their career, no matter their age, they thought that the old boys club days were long behind them, that they would be entering their chosen field more or less as equals. And each of them admitted that the farther they got, the more competitive their station became, they felt themselves being pulled back, mired in small slights and disappointments.
The Women in Science symposium was organized to give women researchers the resources they need to make progress in their careers and a network to support them when the going gets tough.
It’s hard to tell someone how to succeed; what they encounter may be entirely different from your own experiences. Because of this, many of Saturday’s talks ran along the lines of “this is how I did it.” It was part biographical sketch, part personal philosophy, mixed up with their science and personal brands of humor – that’s one thing that seems pretty consistent with these women, they’re able to laugh, let things slide. In the opening Keynote, Dr Alice Huang, science veteran of more than 50 years, said that first you have to have a sense of humor, you’ve got to be able to laugh. It keeps us sane and it makes men nervous.
Despite the varied backgrounds – Alice Huang was born and raised in China, Vicky Prince in England, Kawatar Hafidi in Morocco – and the myriad of scientific interests (physics, math, biology, medicine), the talks ultimately came down to a bullet list of suggests. We’re scientists, after all, we like our facts simply and neatly presented. A few of the suggestions cropped up again and again, and I’ve done my best to stitch them together here:
1. Aim high & do what you love – If there’s one thing that’s sure to make you unsuccessful it’s believing you’ll be unsuccessful. “If I had listened to the whiffs of self doubt along my way, I never would have made it,” Dr. Alice Huang said, former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). A lot of science is sheer determination, dedication to a question that no one has answered before. If you don’t believe you’ll get it done, no one’s going to give you the grant money to do it. And you have to work at something you love. Grad school, academia, it’s a lot of work to keep on the right side of the publish or perish seesaw. If you’re going to put that much time in, it should be something that captures you. “And,” Dr Vicky Prince, Dean of Graduate Students at the University of Chicago said, “If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll probably be really good at it.” That doesn’t hurt either.
2. Pass it on - Mentor. If there’s one thing you have time for, even if it’s sporadic or rare, mentor. Let people know you’re willing to be a resource, be someone that they can come to for advice. “When you get to the top,” Huang said, “Don’t forget that you’re a woman.” If you’re in graduate school, you might have the chance to get an undergrad interested in science. If you’re the head of department, you might be able to alter then entire landscape at your University. When you succeed, your voice with be all the more powerful if you take the time to speak out.
3. Don’t take on more than you want to – At least one woman I know on faculty in a male dominated department has run herself ragged with committee after committee. On some level, it’s strategic for the department. We need to look diverse! Drag out the token female! But if you don’t want to do it, if you’re not interested in doing it, then don’t do it. Your time is valuable and you’ll have enough on your plate trying to keep your head afloat in your field as it is.
4. Laugh, grow a thick skin – This doesn’t mean ignore discrimination – call people out if they’re grumbling about a woman not knowing what she’s talking about/is unqualified for some vague reason. But, be able to laugh. One woman recounted a story in which she was sitting on a hiring panel where one male colleague said that he’d really like to hire a female candidate as she was well qualified and pretty, besides. Without missing a beat, she shot back, “Oh yes? Well I like this male candidate, he has really nice legs.” More likely than not you’ll startle someone into realizing they were way out of line. The other side of this coin is don’t take things personally. Scientists love to pick each other a part, scoff at data, roll their eyes at leaps in logic – it’s how we’re made, we’re taught to be critical from the very start of our scientific education. Take it in stride and listen to criticism.
5. If you want a family, have one – This trope always comes up when the phrase “women in science,” is uttered. “It is time to get rid of the career success versus marriage myth,” Huang said. Scientists work long and strange hours – but so do medical residents, the majority of whom are women. In fact, a study entitled “Do babies matter,” found that of women academics who worked full time, there was no difference in the career progression for those with or without children. We’ve got to put this one to bed, ladies. Dr Pauline Maki, a professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, had her first child at 42. “I did graduate school, post docs numbers one and two, and NIH training all during my peak reproductive years. Oops,” she said, laughing, “Don’t do what I did.”
In the end, having a family might not just be a neutral effect on your career, there are benefits. “My husband has two children,” Dr Kawtar Hafidi, physicist at Argonne National Labs, said, “Our son and me.” She credited her husband for her success, which wasn’t an uncommon sentiment at the symposium. The success of many of these women was partner-dependent. No one said their careers had been held back by their relationships, their families. “Life is experiences,” Huang said, “And one of those experiences is having children…No one should be expected to give that up.”
As Dr. Romila Singh, Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the Workplace at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee pointed out, “This is not a just a woman’s problem.” It’s not just an issue for feminists, this is not only a matter of equal rights. An ecosystem is only as successful as it is diverse; the same is true for science. As long as we’re throwing away talent, we’re holding back progress, creating our own, self-inflicted bottle neck. So, shoulders to the grindstone, push ahead.
Rosie the Riveter said it first and said it best. We can do it, ladies. Just watch.
Guest Blogger Meghan Sullivan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, chasing her PhD down the rabbit hole. You can find her at her bench, pleading with experiments, or at her keyboard, trying to cobble together blog posts that bring the bench to the kitchen table.