Category Archives: women in science

#Shirtstorm: How To Be Classy

So, I’m not going to touch most of the controversy surrounding #Shirtstorm with a ten-foot pole. But. I do have something to say about it. This Friday, I happened to catch the coverage of project scientist Matt Taylor’s response to the whole controversy, and I have to say, I was impressed. Honestly, to me, his response is the most important thing coming out of this because it was exactly what the situation called for. He was sincere and didn’t try to rationalize or offer a false apology. He apologized, briefly and honestly, and didn’t try to deflect.

And that’s what we need. Because, seriously, I’m sick of being treated like I’m in the wrong when someone does something that makes me feel uncomfortable for something I can’t control: the fact that I am female.

Yes, this has happened. I’ve been incredibly lucky in most respects, but even I have experienced the darker side of being a woman in physics. And I know what it’s like to feel like I need to acquiesce to something that makes me uncomfortable to avoid being labeled a harpy.

When I was in grad school, the company Edmund Optics came out with their Red Hot Optics campaign. And, yeah, I was not entirely on board with the idea that the sale of lab equipment needs to be promoted by objectifying women. I was not the only one, even in my own group. The senior grad student was pissed, to the point that at the next trade show we attended, she decided she wanted to give the owner of Edmund a piece of her mind in person, and I was going to come along for moral support.

The problem is that the rest of our group were guys who thought that the campaign was awesome, and thought this female student’s anger was hilarious. So here I was, a young grad student, the most junior person in the lab, torn between acting in solidarity for beliefs that I generally support and being the “cool girl” who didn’t get all up in arms at every little thing, right? It’s not a big deal, right?

But that’s thing. That’s what I’ve realized is the insidious part of objectifying women: it pressures women to accept it. And that same pressure to accept is what is used to excuse the “boys will be boys” argument for a whole host of permissive attitudes.

And that’s why it means so much to me that Matt Taylor didn’t take the easy way out, and instead chose to actually feel bad about contributing to the casual objectification of women, and apologize for it. Because it’s likely that if he’s worn that shirt in the past to work, someone has felt offended by it, but decided to keep quiet so she wouldn’t be ostracized.

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Science and Babies

A new study about women in the sciences has come out and it suggests that women don’t have it so bad. I find the language used particularly interesting. The takeaway message is that women who choose to pursue upper-level science careers don’t face any discrimination that their male counterparts escape. This statement is interesting for two reasons: one, it suggests that the societal pressures that prevent a female from pursuing upper-level sciences mysteriously evaporate once she reaches a certain level, and two, it ignores the experiential differences between being a male and being a female.

This topic has been on my mind lately anyway as I near another birthday over the age of 30. Thirty is an interesting milestone for a woman because it’s the number that tends to get thrown around when people talk about declining fertility. Thirty-five is sometimes quoted by those who are feeling more generous. Either way, the baby clock, it seems, is ticking. So I have to ask myself: Do I want a baby?

And this is an important and relevant question because having children is a biologically different experience for a man versus a woman. Beyond societal constructs that pressure women disproportionately to stay home with children, there is a physical cost. Even before the actual birth, pregnancy seems to be no picnic, and even the healthiest woman can end up with a complication that puts her on bed rest. And then, once the baby comes, there is wear and tear on the body, as well as the dilemma of breast feeding. Sure, a woman can pump, but even that requires more breaks than the researchers I know tend to take. And rather than socializing and batting around ideas, the new mother would be secluded in an area where her breasts and associated machinery won’t offend delicate sensibilities. That is, you’re not going to be pumping in the lab or coffee room. So not only are you taking more breaks, but those you do take aren’t community-oriented. This could lead to a perception that the woman is less invested in her work.

That’s where this research gets tricky. There are a whole lot of ways in which women can experience discrimination that defy quantification. It goes back to my post about a woman being described as “not aggressive enough.” Is this code for “too feminine” or a legitimate critique?

This is why, during a conversation about future babies with D the other day, I lamented, “All the experimental physicists I know with children are men!” I’m glad to have an impending exception to that rule, but the exceptions are few and far between. Perhaps because it’s easier to abandon research when it becomes complicated with an infant’s demand on a woman.

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When the Doubt is Not Presumed

One of my favorite blogs, for both style and substance, is Capitol Hill Style. She recently published this post, about how women undercut themselves by responding to presumed doubt of their abilities. And it reminded me of a conversation I had with my boyfriend D a month or so ago. Let me tell you a story.

When I started grad school, I had just graduated from an Ivy League university. And went into grad school at a state school near my hometown. Even though it’s a top-rated physics graduate program, it would be understandable if I felt like I was going down in the ranks, mostly because I’ve heard comments to that effect about my graduate alma mater from other graduates of my undergraduate institution. Fine institutions though they may be, the Ivy League is not known for putting out modest alumni. And yet, from the first moment I stepped into a graduate class, I had the overwhelming sense that I shouldn’t be in grad school. It’s a well-known effect: Impostor Syndrome (or Phenomenon). That feeling that you somehow don’t deserve merit you’ve come by honestly. In fact, the phrase was coined to describe high-achieving women who feel they don’t deserve their achievements, and, boy, did I have it in spades. I went through grad school, passing my classes, passing my qualifier, publishing a paper, and writing and defending my thesis, all the time worrying that at any time I might be “found out” as the idiot I really am. To this day, I wonder if getting my PhD was somehow a fluke.

But then I started to look at the world around me. Specifically, my male classmates. I noticed that a lot of them seemed extraordinarily confident in their intelligence, often to the point of being maybe a little annoying. I even watched a first-year grad student argue with the senior grad student on an experiment that a fundamental element of her experiment was wrong, and even though his assertion came from his own flawed understanding of the concepts involved, even though this was an experiment that had been carried out over the course of many years before he’d even gotten there, he refused to back down. There was this quality of many of the incoming grad students that they knew everything. Eventually, I looked around and realized that none of these erroneously overconfident students were female. In fact, in my admittedly small circle of female scientist friends, everyone I’ve met has had some degree of impostor syndrome coloring their self-perception, while many (if not most) of the men have come in thinking they’re the best thing since sliced bread. Even D, my wonderful, open-minded, not-at-all-an-obnoxious-jerk boyfriend said he recognizes that he came in thinking he knew a lot more than he actually did. And the process of grad school wears that down a bit, every time you get a problem that’s nearly impossible to solve, or an exam where the high score is a 60%. So many of those men will end up on a mentally level playing field with the women who know they don’t know everything. And then you do learn things, and after you’ve learned enough, you get your PhD and are turned out, a shiny new physicist who’s been remade better, stronger, faster. Right?

Except that’s not the end of the story. It’s very easy to say “You spent seven years learning your subject, so now you should know that you’re qualified.” But it’s not that easy to internalize. And part of the reason for that is that it has to come from you, from your internal monologue, because, well, the world is not always going to be so helpful. That’s when you start realizing that this doubt in your ability is not always presumed. It’s not always “self-doubt.” Some of it is internalized doubt that others express. It’s not always explicit, but it’s not veiled enough. Every time I get a price quote back from a company that has assumed I’m an administrative assistant rather than a researcher. Every time a machinist calls me “honey” or “sweetheart,” or that they’re “always happy to help out a pretty girl.” Every time a tech tells me I “need to find someone to write [me] some C code” to program the equipment that’s not working. That’s the doubt that I’ve been trying so hard not to feel on the inside, flung at me from the outside.

And it gets old. It gets hard. But I don’t have to accept it or like it. I don’t have to chalk it up to a miscommunication or (my favorite) an overreaction. And I sure as hell don’t have to parrot it back myself.

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Leaning Out in the Sciences

I found this article today and it made me think. I’m definitely not the kind of person who leans into her career. Since I started my post-doc, I’ve taken up ballet dancing, started crocheting, and performed in a community theater play. All of these activities take my time and energy away from science. There’s a perception among the physicists I’ve met that physics has to be your entire life and identity. It certainly isn’t mine.

When I was in grad school, I ran a marathon. I was a relatively high-mileage runner (~20 miles per week when I wasn’t actively training for something, up to 40 at my max during marathon training) throughout my first few years of grad school, and the marathon was certainly a time and energy commitment. But I kept my specific training goals a secret. No one asked “Oh, hey, are you training for a marathon?” while I was training, so there was no outright lying going on, but I limited my discussion of my training to my personal friends and family. I was afraid that if I let on at work that I was undertaking such training that they might become critical of my performance in the lab: “Oh, Jenn’s too tired to work hard today because she was up at the crack of dawn to run” or “Jenn didn’t get as much done this week if she would have if she’d been in the lab during that 90-minute run she took at 7am.”

And then, the day after my marathon, I was gingerly lowering myself into a chair at our weekly seminar and one of my colleagues jokingly said “What’s up with you? Did you run a marathon this weekend or something?” Probably was not expecting the answer he got.

But just because I’m not devoted to physics with my entire being, body and soul, does not mean I don’t love science. I’ve also been applying for a fellowship lately and in the process of that, I’ve had to write a research proposal. Research proposals are wonderful things because they force you to go out and read all about the cutting edge ideas in a particular field. And I rediscovered my obsessive love of certain fields in physics. I went to bed thinking about my proposal and woke up to it. I had long, deep conversations with my boyfriend about the intricacies of the experiments and hashed out how the theories work, not just to make sure I got it right in my proposal, but to satisfy a genuine curiosity.

I had overly-long, fast-paced conversations with a prospective employer where we got caught up in the science rather than sticking to the one or two logistical questions I had. I joked that it was like physics Gilmore Girls because we talked fast and cut each other off because were both getting so excited. I could feel the science getting into my blood again.

And yet, in a week, after my current play closes, I’m going to go to another round of auditions. Because it’s not all science for me. Science is just my career and I love it as such.

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Jenn’s Mom Does Science!

This is a quick one, but I thought I’d share with you, if only to illustrate something about where my love of inquiry came from.


That, my friends, is known as an ice spike, and apparently it’s a fairly rare phenomenon. Apparently, my mother managed to make one by refilling the ice tray at work. She snapped a picture of it, and started Googling. My mom loves to Google. When I was a summer intern, she Googled the group before “parents day” and managed to ask a couple really neat questions while I was showing her around. The point is, she doesn’t really care what she already knows; she wants to learn.

She’s the kind of person who, when faced with something unknown and kinda cool, will put her effort into figuring it out. She likes to explore new things, whether it’s foods or places or ideas. And that kind of inquiring mind is exactly what she gave me. And probably has something to do with my choice of career path.

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“More Than Just a Princess”

There’s a new toy, the commercial for which has been making the rounds. I actually first saw this as a Kickstarter linked from one of my favorite blogs, Epbot (Jen*’s are awesome). Honestly, I remember thinking “Gee, they’re trying to market something subversive against the pink-ification of girls’ toys, but they’ve managed to make a toy based on pink ribbons.” But it seems like the idea has evolved a little. Little Goldie certainly looks like the kind of kid I would want to play with when I was a kid (and the kind I’d want my kids to play with when I have those, but seriously, girls, stay away from anything too flammable).

This is a giant leap in the right direction. The difference between a pink engineering set (and it’s not all that pink) and a pink Lego set is that the Legos are also pigeonholing girls by making the sets build salons and the like, rather than castles and racetracks and Tie fighters. Honestly, the only model-building I did as a kid was a velociraptor. I preferred my building blocks a little less constricted by the idea of a kit.

But I was fortunate. I had parents who indulged any interests we had. When all my sister wanted for Christmas was a Tonka dumptruck, guess what she got? Even though my aunts gave my mom all sorts of guff for buying her a “boys'” toy. Yes, we had Barbies, but we also had lots of building toys, books, and numerous trips to museums downtown. When I was in kindergarten, I made a brilliant model of the solar system, complete with a guidebook based on notes I took at the National Air and Space Museum. No one believed I’d done it myself (to be fair, my dad had to cut the foam balls into irregular shapes to make Phobos and Deimos, and I’m pretty sure he hammered in the nails).

If Goldieblox helps some girl discover a love of engineering that she wouldn’t have discovered from a kit not explicitly directed at females, that’s great. If some well-meaning aunt has a gift option that still fits into her worldview of feminine, but still stimulates the creative-scientific mind of a future prodigy, great. The bottom line is, I wish we didn’t need Goldieblox, but I’m glad we have them because we do need them.

And my favorite part of the commercial? “Girls can code a new app.” Seriously, who writes a song intended to market a toy to <10-year-olds and mentions coding? Someone awesome, that’s who. Because there is so much about STEM that is cool, not just the stuff that makes the news, and this company recognizes that.

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The Voodoo Queens of Physics

It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, no, it was just after noon on a Monday and we were having lunch with a bunch of PIs from a nearby lab. We’d been plagued with issues in our experiment, none of which we could really explain. Some of them came and went, seemingly on a whim. One of the PIs came up to us. I should have known what was coming, given his impish grin, but we lit with genuine hope when he started with “I know what you need to do to fix your experiment…”

“What you need to do is get a chicken, slit its throat, and spill the blood over the optical table.”

Oh. Ha ha.

But this goes to illustrate one of the constants of experimental physics in my life: There is a lot of voodoo. There is always the person who can whisper the piece of sensitive equipment, the person with the magic touch with the optical alignment. An experiment might have steps or a recipe to follow, but there is always a factor of the unknown, the personal. This is where the voodoo comes into physics.

I remember the moment that I became, in my own mind, the senior grad student. As a young student, there was always that moment when I had just spent an hour or two trying to optimize something, trying to align optics, only to have the senior grad student come in and tweak everything up better in just a couple minutes. I remember the first time I did that, swooped in to fix things, relying on years of cultivation of a gentle touch with the optics. Now I was the one with the delicate fingers, who could adjust the alignment just so. I was the one who could catch the laser in between mode-hops, to settle in just the right place.

I was the voodoo queen of the lab.

And now, in a new lab, in a new environment, I have to find not the recipes and procedures, but rather the magic. I have to find the places where science becomes an art. This is something a lot of people don’t give science credit for: the art in science. The great scientists aren’t the ones who are the smartest, but rather the ones who are creative. The people who think “Well, I have this equipment, let’s try using it like this instead of how we’ve always used it.” The people who build an electronic circuit by hand-wrapping wire around a resistor instead of relying on the parts in the drawer. We may not actually sacrifice chickens, but we don’t always behave in the rational way the non-scientist might assume we do.

Allow Me To Mansplain…

In the wake of Rep. Akin’s egregious comments about rape and pregnancy, this blog post has started making the rounds.  My first reaction was, “Yeah, that’s terrible that that sort of thing happens to intelligent, capable women; I’m so glad I’ve never had to deal with something like that.”

Then I realized I have.  And I don’t think it’s entirely about being female.

See, I’m a grad student (for a couple weeks more, anyway), and I’m currently the only female grad student in my group.  I’m also the senior grad student in my group, so I have a fair amount of experience in the field.  When it comes to routine, annoying problems, I’ve seen a lot of it.  And I’ve thought about a lot of it.

Yet, for some reason, people in my group don’t always hear what I say.  On several occasions, I’ve made a suggestion to someone having a problem that was either discounted or flat-out ignored. No response. Like the person did not even hear that I had spoken.  And then, maybe later in the meeting, or later in the week, or even a couple weeks later, the same suggestion would be tossed out by one of the (male) principal investigators.  It bears mentioning here that the only female PI at the group meetings is also one of the youngest PIs in our institute.

When the PI brings up this suggestion, it’s considered and almost always agreed to be the best suggestion for the situation, and we’ll all reconvene when it’s been tested because it’s likely that this will fix the problem.  Wait… what?

I’m also not the only person who’s noticed this.  A couple of my friends in the group pointed it out to me after a particularly annoying group meeting where I actually repeated my suggestion a couple of times, only to have no one appear to hear me. I was glad to know someone had, even if they hadn’t made that known at the time. And even more irritating is the fact that at least one of the guys who brought up that “no one listens to Jenn” actually did just that after pointing out that no one listens to my good suggestions.

Okay, enough back story. Am I here to moan about how nobody listens to the poor little women?

Not at all. I will bet that, while this seems to happen to me a disproportionate amount, part of it is because I am a (mere) grad student and the PIs are (wise) PIs.  The thing about scientific discovery is that it is generally a collaboration, especially in experimental physics.  There is just so much going on that you often physically require at least one other person to run all the equipment.  At the very least, you always need to be training a new person for when the senior grad student graduates (or the post-doc finishes his or her appointment).  And often the one who knows the most about the specific experiment is a lowly grad student.

As I finish my graduate career and embark upon my first post doc, I’m trying to keep this in mind. I’ve had too many encounters with post docs who believe they know more than the senior grad student just because of that degree, when in fact, the grad student knows way more about the specific experiment than they do. Heck, at first, pretty much all the grad students know more about the specific experiment than a brand-new post doc. And it’s dangerous. At best, you end up with a post doc who waits for explanation from the PI for everything rather than accepting the word of a grad student; at worst, you have a post doc who breaks things because he or she disregards instructions from a grad student.

So it’s not just about women versus men. It’s about all situations in which one person goes in thinking he or she has more knowledge in an area and therefore doesn’t need to listen all that well to the lower orders. And it’s good that Solnit has put a voice to the phenomenon as it pertains to men correcting women incorrectly.  It’s just “the boring old gender wars.” It’s not you. But the same is true for people experiencing the same frustration due to their age. While it’s a good idea not to get a swelled head about your own importance (especially in grad school), sometimes you’ve been on an experiment for five [expletive] years and, yeah, you know more about the specific electronics used because you built them all (or oversaw them being built).

I guess my parting thought is that this kind of attitude affects the retention of grad students in the sciences.  And, yeah, it’s going to affect the retention of women in the sciences because they get the potential double-whammy of being ignored for gender as well as age. But regardless of either, be confident in your experience. Don’t be afraid to speak up loudly. And know that’s not always you; scientists are full of blind spots and biases just like everyone else.

Once Again Down the Women in Science Road

I know, I know!  I’ve written a lot about this recently, but the particular challenges that women in STEM fields face is something near to my heart.  With the recent death of Sally Ride, the achievements of women in science have been in the news, too.  But that’s not really what this post is about.  This post is about gymnastics, kind of.

from Piled Higher and Deeper, by Jorge Cham

Specifically, this post is about Gabby Douglas’ hair.  Except that it’s not.  There was a recent piece on NPR about the brouhaha over Douglas’ hair in which there was one sentiment that struck me:  The idea that she is representing all black women by her achievement.

Sorry, no.  Gabby Douglas is representing herself and the USA (only because she’s choosing to compete as part of the US Olympic team).  She doesn’t represent women, or black women, or 16-year-olds, or even 16-year-old women from Virginia.  She is representing herself.  Her achievement is HER achievement.  Yes, it’s wonderful to see some diversity in a sport with a lot of homogeneity in the US, but that doesn’t lessen the fact that her achievement is her own, and the only person she might make look bad if her ponytail is less than perfect is herself.  So, really, there’s no reason to even both with her hair unless you’re one of the judges and that sort of thing is important in scoring.

And this is a lesson that a lot of people could learn when in a situation where they are in the minority.  You are just yourself.  For women in technical fields, that specifically means that your ideas and experiences are your own and not necessarily related to how any other woman in the field might feel, just because they share the same gender identification as you.  One problem that female faculty face is that they end up on a lot more advisory boards and committees because their departments want to make sure there is “minority representation” for everything.  The result is often a committee that is a lot more diverse than the department itself.  And, no one female faculty member really represents women, in general.  Just like no one old, white, male faculty member represents all the other old, white, male faculty members.

So, I think it’s time to lay off of women, and other minorities in STEM fields, about this idea that they are representing their entire demographic by their single presence.  And it’s time for women to ease up on themselves, and realize that just because another person is female does not mean that person understands you any better.  So try to attract female STEM professionals to your institution or laboratory or company because it’s unfair that for decades women were treated like they were inherently less capable than men in science and math, but don’t do it because you think that having female representation will make your institution/lab/company more attractive because of diversity.

On Femaleness and Aggressiveness

I was directed to this article by a Facebook post by a friend of mine for college, and I found it really interesting.  I was interested in the subject’s descriptions of actual physical changes that occurred when he went through the gender-changing process, like the fact that he found he could now read maps more easily.  And the social changes, like finding that he got cut off in conversation much less often.  But the discussion of how an aggressive and competitive spirit in science seems to hold women back really intrigued me.

A couple years ago, I visited a friend while at a conference and his wife, who is a professor of physics, was commenting about her recent experience serving on a faculty search committee.  It turned out that they had two candidates that almost everyone agreed were the top two, one male and one female, but it seemed that a lot of the male faculty on the committee tended to rank the male candidate above the female one.  Now, this, in itself wouldn’t be unusual, but apparently she thought the female candidate seemed more suited to the position, so she asked some of her colleagues why they chose the male candidate and they said that they thought the female candidate wouldn’t be aggressive enough to be a professor.

This comment provoked a thoughtful conversation between the two of us over breakfast about whether or not the female candidate was perceived as less aggressive simply due to her gender, and what this might mean for female candidates for faculty positions.  I don’t remember what we decided, except that she was adamant that I consider continuing on an academic track after getting my PhD, because apparently no one would accuse me of not being aggressive enough, but it bears considering.

Because I had a liberal arts education, I had to take a bunch of humanities and social sciences classes, including one about the perceptions of sex and gender across cultures.  And it was generally agreed that the Euro-centric idea of “womanhood” or “femaleness” involved a certain amount of yielding and non-aggression.  I think that the prevalence of feminist movements to assert their power actually supports this — if you want to know the norm, take the opposite of what counter-culture is trying to be.  So there could definitely be the idea that women are not supposed to be aggressive and competitive.

There might be some biological support for this, what with testosterone or something, but I’m not a biologist.  Even a person who doesn’t think women are delicate flowers might still be more likely to help a woman with a particularly heavy load, so most people have some ingrained amount of differentiation in their perception of the abilities of a woman.

But there are strong, assertive, aggressive women.  These women are called “bitches.”

Unfortunately, having that handy pejorative allows people an easy out when disagreeing with a woman who, in their opinion, is coming on a little strong.  So are women less aggressive, or are they holding their aggressive nature in check to avoid this nasty double-standard?

It turns out, that doesn’t work.  So what’s a girl to do?

This dilemma is something I’ve had to consider a little more closely, as I’ve recently defended my PhD thesis and have to consider what shape I want my career path to take.  Do I want to go into academia?  Well, I’ll have to make sure search committees not only think I’m good enough at the science, but also that I’ll be aggressive enough to further my own career (and, by extension, the reputation of the institution), apparently.  Do I want to be a contractor?  Well, I’ll definitely be dealing with government/defense types, so that will mean battling a whole lot of “little-lady”-labeling guys who might not take my intelligence seriously.  Do I want to go into industry?  Well, that could even mean being grabbed as a diversity show-and-tell or marketing tool, a la Edmund Optics girls.

Personally, I’m hoping that my grad school strategy will continue to serve me:  I just don’t think about the gender difference unless I feel an explicit situation has arisen.  How do others deal with this issue?  Have you had to struggle with minor digs at your competence because of your gender?  Or perhaps you’re male and have noticed subtle differences in the treatment of men and women in your group/lab culture.