Thursday, June 10, 2010

Women in Science

I read a very interesting article this past week in The Scientist. It was entitled ‘A Transforming Field’ ( and presented the stories of two transgender scientists: the first was about a woman who became a man, and the second about a man who became a woman. While their stories are remarkable in and of themselves, what struck me most was how they experienced their daily scientific lives afterwards. Both of them praised their colleagues and bosses for being supportive of their decisions. What bothered me most was what both had to say about how women are discriminated against in academic science. The woman who became a man experienced a boost in his career evolution and opportunities, while the man who became a woman experienced poor treatment that she had never experienced as a man. I thought, my God, this is so interesting. Having felt some of that discrimination myself, I thought that these two scientists are actually living proof that this discrimination exists, because they have experienced both sides of the coin so to speak.

The problem of discrimination against women in science is difficult to prove, because those women (and men) who try will always be told that the reason they are doing so is because they are themselves not good enough and are thus envious of those who are. Even if this was true for a few women scientists, most of the women scientists I know walk around with that feeling of not being good enough anyway on a daily basis, so hearing it said to you puts you in your place. The questions then become, why is it this way for women and how do they deal with it? Most of the women scientists I know in Norway have simply resigned themselves to the discrimination. It can take the following forms: they are ‘overlooked’ for a higher (leadership) position, their opinions are dissed during planning meetings, they are told that they are difficult and unwilling to collaborate or not good at collaborating, they are expected to do the menial work in projects that are being planned and if they protest against this are told that they are not being cooperative, they are denied technical help while male scientists with the same competence get that help, they experience being ‘talked down to’ or ‘talked over’ while they are expressing an opinion, and then when they actually express irritation at being treated in this way are told that they are ‘out of balance’ or that they have misinterpreted the situation. I can only speak for academic scientific environments in this country, but know that this behavior occurs in the private sector as well. I know women scientists who have hit the wall and gone out on sick leave several times for different reasons, but when pressed will tell you it was because they have been treated poorly. All of them have left those jobs and moved on. These women are not slouches. In fact, the opposite is true for nearly all of them. They have an incredible work ethic, they are innovative, and they are smart. Perhaps they are too smart for the people for whom they work. I do not know. What I do know is that when you have experienced a work environment that treats women with respect (as I did in New York many years ago—working for three men who knew how to treat women well), you remember that for the rest of your life. And you hold it up as the example against which all other workplaces must measure up to. But unfortunately they don’t.

In this age of budget cuts, fiscal crises and corruption, no one really cares about whether women are discriminated against in science. I get that. I also get that women have a better overall work life in westernized countries than in other more repressed parts of the world, so that we shouldn’t really complain. We have a lot to be thankful for. Even the women who feel the discrimination have resigned themselves to it because they need their jobs. They chose and choose not to fight it. But what is happening now in my workplace is that some of these women are being bullied out of their jobs so that budgets can be ‘balanced’. Their bosses (who have been promoted to the level of their incompetence a la the Peter Principle—translated, have kissed a lot of ass on the way up) are finding all sorts of ways to make them feel incompetent and worthless. One woman scientist I know here who is experiencing that sort of bullying can retire in January when she turns 62 (early retirement). Unfortunately, there are no buyouts being offered these women such as would likely occur in the private sector. It might be worth considering if such were the case, although apparently if one accepts such a buyout then that affects one’s pension rights and retirement options. She might want to fight against her workplace now that things have become unbearable. Maybe she will. I don’t know. All I know is that I am and always have been more interested in fighting to prevent such behavior from taking root, but I stand alone in that fight in my own workplace, and deep down I know that it will be a pointless fight and that I am tilting at windmills. It’s better to call a spade a spade and to move on.

I have to say that I never much cared about the differences between men and women and how they approached science earlier in my life. What mattered were the science and the joy of doing science. I still love the science. I just think now that there are better ways to express that love than working for a workplace that discriminates against its female scientists.

1 comment:

  1. Just to set the record straight--women as well as men discriminate against female scientists. I do not mean to imply in this post that the problem of discrimination against female scientists is solely caused by male scientists. If you read my post carefully you'll see that I talk about discrimination but I do not directly say that it is always men who are doing the discriminating. Women are not always supportive of other women in the workplace. That is a bigger problem than one might like to think, and one that can be quite infuriating and disappointing.