Yes All Women In Science

I am a feminist. I have been one since I was a teenager; even before I went to a women’s college that still graduates more female scientists than many of its co-ed counterparts. Being a feminist, just like being a scientist, is a very large part of my identity.

The stabbing and shooting deaths of 6 young people in Isla Vista, California on May 23rd and revelations of anti-woman threats from 22-year old Elliot Rodger, who took his own life following the rampage, have brought some important issues into the spotlight. Those following the #YesAllWomen feed on Twitter, which started as a reaction to those claiming that Rodger’s actions were merely those of an extremist, have seen the outpouring of examples of everyday sexism and misogyny that create hostile environments for women everywhere. More than 250,000 tweets used the hashtag within 24 hours.

Across the world, women found a forum to discuss issues that many people take for granted, turning the #NotAllMen defense on its head. Women mentioned small things that usually go unnoticed because they become second nature to anyone with two X chromosomes. Like annoying your partner by walking faster than them in an effort to avoid the threat of street harassment while going home from the Tube. A particularly apt quote from Margaret Atwood was tweeted, saying: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

Time after time #fleetstreet #cityoflondon

Photo credit: Alexis Webb

While physical threats are not something I’ve experienced personally, I’ve wanted to give a voice to my experiences with misogyny being a woman and being a scientist. First, note that phrasing – it’s intentional. We’re prone to talk about what it means to be a “woman in science,” as this is somehow a distinction to make. And I am as guilty of this as anyone. We find ourselves always taking about being a woman, not just a person, doing science. The “women in…” trend spans fields and careers. Musician Neko Case took Playboy Magazine to task for a tweet stating she was breaking the mold of what a “woman in music” should be. Her response “I’m an $^#*ING! musician in music! … Women, not a niche market” sums up how I often feel having my gender pushed to the forefront because of what I do. I wish I could avoid playing the “girl scientist” role, and yet events like this weekend’s make it even more necessary to face the impact being a woman has for many of us.

Do female scientists face a particularly uphill battle against untoward elements? I’m not the only one who had this reaction when reading through the #YesAllWomen tweets. Is misogyny having a negative impact on women’s ability to work and have a career in science? A recent blog piece by Suzie Sheehy about dealing with harassment at conferences and how to make positive change is well worth a read. Sheehy has experienced something that myself and other women scientists often deal with – unwanted attention at conferences because of their gender. I have been approached by male delegates at meetings (and often ones who are more senior to me) and they begin what I hoped would be a scientific discussion of my work with “Oh, I saw your talk. I really liked that skirt you were wearing.” I have had my share of long, lingering glances and the touches that last too long to be considered an accident (or appropriate). No, this is not street harassment, which nearly every woman I know, including myself, have experienced. In some ways, it’s much more damaging and pervasive. In a work-type environment, which is supposed to be a safe space to discuss ideas with our peers, we are noticed for our bodies first. The draw of the “attractive female scientist” as a panelist or comments of “SILF” showing up on our blogs or YouTube channels devalue our minds and the work that we do.

I go back to last fall’s #ripplesofdoubt and wonder, how many of us feel like this every day? I think we have to talk about it more. The energy we put into encouraging more young women to pursue science careers should also go towards making science more women-positive. That starts by speaking out, no matter how hard. I know that these behaviors are not those of all male scientists. But the point is that almost every woman has felt her validity and worth as a scientist questioned because of her gender. And before we can move forward on fixing all the negative effects of the “leaky pipeline” this must change.

Alexis Webb saw The Punk Singer, a documentary about Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill and pioneer of the Riot Grrl movement, over the weekend. Next to Gloria Steinem, Hannah is her feminist role model. “That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood!”

 

  • Ginger May 28, 2014 3:29 pm

    I have had a male colleague of my PI put his hand on my back more than once. Either he does not realize it would make me uncomfortable or he does not care, and some days I am not sure which is worse.

  • Jaymi May 29, 2014 10:27 am

    This is just what I needed.
    I got so much slack for going to social media and voicing my opinion about the level of misogyny, and the gender inequality that still exists in our society. I was shocked at how eager many of my friends were to brush it off, or tell me it didn’t exist (all men, shocker)
    As a PhD student just starting out on my scientific journey, I needed to read this article, if not just to make sure I wasn’t going crazy.
    Thank you.

  • angelique August 8, 2014 3:12 pm

    My boss stares at my chest area far far too long.

    He sometimes trolls (yes this is the most appropriate term) me by saying misogynistic things related with my work.

    I have come to the point where i graduate and leave this !@#$ing place behind but i still need his recommendation letter. After that, I don’t know how i should proceed. Should I tell it everyone and anyone i meet? or should i imply? or should i keep quiet?

    Alexis Webb August 13, 2014 4:09 pm

    If you’re truly worried about asking for his recommendation, I would suggest seeking out other mentors who can write for you – either a thesis committee member or someone whom you’ve collaborated with. As far as whether you chose to discuss your experiences in the future, I think it’s a personal and case-by-case decision. I think if you do chose to discuss it, I would be direct about it. Merely implying bad behavior on his part doesn’t necessarily improve the situation and could muddy the waters.

 

Fred Humphreys

Scientist at University of Portsmouth
I'm a research scientist based in Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. My passions include biology, gardening and walking.

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