So, at the end of the PSA I was so sick that I took to my overpriced hotel bed, forgoing interesting papers and the prospect of catching up with geographically dispersed friends in my field who I can only count on seeing every two years at the PSA. I managed to get myself back home and then needed another eight days to return to a “functional” baseline.
Checking in with the internets again, I feel like maybe I was in a coma for six months.
In particular, I was totally sidelined when Isis the Scientist issued her manifesto and when Zuska weighed in on the various reactions to Isis and her manifesto. Both posts are must-reads, and if my head were not still swimming in mucus I might be able to add something substantive to advance the discussion.
However, since my head is still swimming in mucus, I’m afraid you’ll be getting something rather more stream-of-consciousness.
First, the T-shirt slogan from Isis’s post:
The first time it is deemed acceptable to suggest that someone is hurting science because of who they are, and not because of the quality of the science they produce, is the time I hang up my labcoat, turn out the lights in the lab, and hand the keys back to the status quo.
Next, the T-shirt slogan from Zuska’s post:
That’s the problem with policing our own ranks. We might think that if we can just get everyone to behave in some particular acceptable manner, then we’ll put on a good united front for Women In Science and we’ll make some headway. But in that attempt, we forget that we aren’t the ones setting the standard of acceptable; that acceptable is a constantly moving target; and that acceptable just doesn’t look acceptable when it’s worn on the body of an Unacceptable Person (even when properly accessorized with stunning footwear).
And now, we wade into the stream …
I’ve written before about how frustrating it was to see my male classmates in my graduate chemistry program judge my female classmates:
Women who did very good research, who got publishable results (and publications), and who got their Ph.D.s in four or five years (rather than six or seven) were frequently looked upon with suspicion. They must be getting extra breaks from the system. Or maybe it was that their research focus was not very … significant. (There were never any reasoned arguments to back up the claims that a particular research focus was trivial; it just must be, because … well, she’s doing it.)
What I left out of this earlier reminiscence is that the women exposed to the most scrutiny — most suspected of not being scientifically serious — were those who were most “feminine” in their appearance and manner of dress. It was almost as if wearing obvious signs of being a women while succeeding as scientists was an affront to the sensibilities of their male compatriots.
They were attracting attention, and not the kind they had hoped to attract (at least in their capacity as scientists). However, as I noted in another post of yore, there is also a price for failing to conform to ideals of femininity:
As much as you may want to let your geek flag fly, if you’re a girl it’s impressed on you that you must at least be able to pass among the normals.
As inconvenient as nerdiness may be for a boy from the point of view of attracting a date, boy nerds are generally acknowledged to have value. They are smart. They will contribute to society in all kinds of smart ways, possibly getting all Bill Gates and providing sales jobs for the jocks who got the dates in high school.
But it’s much harder, for some reason, for high school students (and a good many grown-ups) to see the value in a smart but socially inept girl. Such a creature is viewed as an abomination. What prospects for happiness could she have without the beauty and charm to attract a man? How could a female possibly be fulfilled by purely intellectual pursuits?
In other words, my sense is that it is not nerd culture per se that young women find repulsive. Rather, it is the firestorm of social harassment into which they’ll be thrust if they are caught embracing that culture that repels them. Take it from a former teenage girl: attracting the attention of The Crowd never ends well. Nerdly inclinations are best kept to oneself.
This is the double-bind Zuska describes — whether you conform to feminine ideals or try to opt out of them, there is simply NO acceptable way to be a woman in science. Or, as Zuska so eloquently puts it,
The problem, you see, is that women aren’t really allowed to be ANYTHING in science. If you are a hot goddess then you are Not Serious and Not A Real Scientist and you are Ruining Science For Other Women Who Are More Serious and so on. If you are just a regular goddess (like Zuska) then you are an ugly hairy-legged man-hating feminazi who needs to get laid and Not A Real Scientist and Ruining Science For Other Women Who Are More Reasonable. The mythical More Serious, More Reasonable, non-hairy-legged, non-high heels-wearing Real Scientist woman has, alas, rarely, if ever, been seen. Because women can’t be Real Scientists, no matter how Reasonable and Serious they are.
This is the state of affairs we’re trying to change — for the good of science as much as for the good of the women who want to practice it. The question is how to do that.
And here, we end up in that long-standing societal pass-time of policing each other and policing ourselves.
How can we not? Our choices don’t exist in a vacuum. They are constrained by various features of our environment, and they can in turn influence the choices others see as open to them.
I have never felt terribly comfortable (or successful) embracing feminine ideals of appearance or comportment. That there have been other women in my educational and professional milieu who were obviously successful and happy but who did not wear high heels or make-up or girly clothes made it easier for me.
Role models matter. And we clearly need more than a single role-model-for-girl-scientists.
At the same time, it sucks that role models matter. As I wrote in that post of yore:
I leaked out of the pipeline. I could have improved the gender balance in science by one, and I didn’t. Instead of helping the sisters, I selfishly pursued my own happiness.
This, my friends, is the thing I hate most about pervasive sexism. It makes your personal choices important to others in a way that they wouldn’t be if you were just an ordinary human being. I have let down people I have never even met by leaving the sparse ranks of women scientists. I have also handed myself over to the pundits: one more example of a woman who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hack it in science.
We owe our daughters (and sons) a world where they can decide what to be, or what to do, based on what they’re good at, and what makes them happy, without their having to worry about breaking down barriers for someone else.
Being a scientist is compatible with being an ordinary human being. In any world I want to leave to my kids, being a woman is compatible with being an ordinary human being, too.
Ordinary human beings care about lots of different things — whether their clothes are attractive, whether their feet are comfortable, whether they will get something tasty to eat, whether they will be able to prepare that tasty morsel themselves, whether they are attractive to the type of person with whom they’d like to canoodle, whether the person with whom they’re canoodling will appreciate their other qualities. Caring (or not caring) about any of these things should not disqualify someone as a scientist, and someone’s scientific prowess should not be judged on the basis of any of these things.
Once we get society — and scientists themselves — to figure this out, it ought to be smooth sailing.