I am a woman in science. Most of the times, the ‘woman’ part is a non-issue. But sometimes, it is.
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. 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 musings of not just any scientist, but Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea last week. Most definitely not the conference where one should be making headline-grabbing controversial statements.
When the proverbial shit hit the fan, Mr. Hunt explained that he was speaking from personal experience, and he had meant the comments to be funny. He apologized for what he said, but when prompted to explain about women crying in the lab, he dug himself deeper:
“It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing but getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.”
Sure. In science, criticism is important. The truth is important. And while I believe Mr. Hunt deserves better than the rush-to-judgement he's received, these comments reveal a not-so-hidden truth about women and STEM (the traditionally male-dominated disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math).
Julie Beck wrote an excellent piece in The Atlantic that illustrates why Mr. Hunt’s attempt at humour was met with stone-cold silence. Social media erupted with legitimate fury: twitter’s #distractinglysexy conversation was equal parts hilarious and inspiring.
But because this is a blog post, let me tell you about my trouble as a woman in science. For the most part, it’s no trouble at all. For the most part, I am surrounded by extremely supportive mentors. The majority of my colleagues in my current lab are women-and this trend is on point with many other labs in our research group. However, when I look one step above my current position as a PhD candidate to the post-docs, most are male. And if I look one step further, out of the twenty-two principle investigators in the Gastrointestinal Research Group, two are female.
This is part of a larger trend: that women disproportionately drop out of scientific careers. Nature magazine has a comprehensive write-up about the lack of women in science, and a lack of identifiable role models is, in frustratingly cyclic fashion, a primary reason.
So getting back to my experiences as a woman in science, I'll limit my blatherings to a single example.
When I first was exploring various PhD positions, I met with a potential male supervisor who told me (and while I am paraphrasing, I'm not paraphrasing that much), that if I wanted to embark in a PhD program I shouldn’t get pregnant. I didn’t even know if I wanted children at the time, but here I was, being told to consider what I wanted the state of my uterus to be throughout the next 4+ years of a PhD program. I doubt that the men interested in entering his lab were told they should refrain from impregnating anyone.
Although this was relatively recent, I choose to believe that such schools of thought are fading. Case in point: contrast the above scenario to my current supervisor, who actually encouraged me to consider having a child during my PhD, as maternity benefits are better for graduate students than post-docs.
Well I took his advice to heart, and as I write this I am on my last few months of maternity leave. And I am equal parts optimistic and terrified about my future as a scientist. Optimistic because it’s my nature. Because with hard work, ambition, and a supportive partner, there’s no reason not to be. Because I believe I somehow owe it to myself and other women in science to at least give it a try. Terrified because it’s also my nature. Because I have witnessed so few examples of women in science with successful careers and a family. Because my lab tech has outright told my colleagues that since I had my son, I have become more stupid (not paraphrasing), and losing my science-edge to motherhood has always been one of my fears.
I truly believe that very few people (Mr. Hunt excluded) think that STEM wouldn’t benefit from more women. What discipline wouldn’t benefit from increased diversity within its ranks? But as I said before, I'm an optimist.