Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Leslie Winkle’

Girls with Toys

LabRatIn case you haven’t seen it, there is a hashtag going around Twitter and Facebook called #GirlsWithToys showing awesome WomenOfScience and their experiments. I posted a few myself on each platform. I can see that the broader public probably doesn’t see women as “toy-oriented.” But, what I want to discuss is how, within the social construct of science, there are different stereotypes of what are masculine and feminine. Further, what is seen as appropriate for men and women to do/work on/study within science appears to depend on the field of science you are in.

Women in “Soft” Subfields. I have noticed that some subfields of certain fields of science have more women than others. In many cases, those subfields are seen as “soft,” but to set the record straight – they are anything but. For instance, in Physics, Astronomy and Biophysics seem to have more women. In Astronomy, this is historical. There are many examples of excellent women who have made big, huge discoveries. AAS has a blog and Berkeley Astronomy has a nice site. More can be seen here and here.

Biophysics has had its share of women who are not well-celebrated (think Rosalind Franklin). What about Margaret Oakley-Dayhoff? Biological physicists within physics departments are more likely to be women. Why? In my opinion: I think it is because biophysics was seen as relatively new, and the field wasn’t already a “sausage fest.” Most women I know compete with themselves, but shy away from direct competition with aggressive men. A field that has few people in it also have fewer men and even fewer aggressive men that want to push everyone else out.  The issue with there being more women in such subfields is that they are often seen as “less serious” or “less difficult.” This is soft sexism at work.

Women Theorists vs. Experimentalists. Physics and Chemistry both have a division between theory (like Sheldon in “Big Bang Theory”) and experiment (like Leonard in “Big Bang Theory”). Again, I think there is a bias that such theoretical fields are “harder” than experimental fields. That is certainly how Sheldon acts. As Leonard always points out, this is NOT TRUE. I feel there is an implicit bias against women entering those fields because they are somehow viewed as more masculine and are thought to require more mathematics than the experimental sides. Interestingly, I find that when women are theorists they are somehow more capable of being feminine. It is easier for them to wear skirts because they don’t have to climb around their equipment fixing things. Ironically, once women choose the experimental side of a field, they somehow become more masculine. I have had a number of conversations with WomenOfScience friends about how best to dress as an experimentalist – not too femme in case anyone doubts your science/experimentalist cred. So, even though only incompetent, non-mathematically inclined girls do experiment, you better look like a dude while you do it. That is how masculine physics is. Of course, I stress that these are my personal feelings. Others may feel differently, and I encourage you to comment.

By the way, while I dare to mention Big Bang Theory, I want to point out that Leslie Winkle was the BEST character. Why did they take her away? Bring her back! She was clearly way smarter than Sheldon, as pointed out in several episodes. She was also an experimentalist. Maybe she went away because she got a job as an Assistant Professor at a top university while Sheldon and Leonard seem to still be some kinds of weird postdoc or soft money scientist. She should have tenure by now. I vote that they bring her back to give a seminar at CalTech to rub her lifetime appointment at BigEliteUniversity in Sheldon’s face.

Another weird thing about all this: How is it even noticeable or detectable at all? How could I sense or feel that I shouldn’t be a theorist? It isn’t like there are so many women in any given field. Even in the subfields with “more” women, it is only about 20% or so.  Once you get to about 20% women in the room, things feel even – despite the fact that they are not. Maybe the feeling that there are more women in the room (20% instead of 5%) clues you into where science-society tells you to be?

Finally, I want to point out that this is all a construction of our society. How do I know? Ask a woman in science in Iran. They will tell you Physics is a “woman’s field” because it is creative and more akin to art. Women in many developing countries have more opportunity to do science and are supported to do so. Each has its own little sexist take on it. For instance, saying that “Physics is OK for women, because it is like art,” implies that other fields, such as Engineering, are not open to women (which is the case). Also, some cultures that allow women to do science also don’t give them the opportunities to do it at a high level. They are OK to teach, but not to pursue research.

So, what do you think? Which areas of your field of science are more “manly”? Which are more “femme”? Is it weird that science has gender at all? I think so. Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Response to Why Still So Few Women in Science

physicalscienceimageThis was not my planned post, which is some fantastic advise from an awesome minority woman graduate student. I will post that tomorrow. Instead I am going to do something I don’t usually do on this blog. I am going to rant a little. Usually I try to stay super positive, but today’s news on Women In Science needs a little response.

THE NEWS: If you are a woman in science, you were probably inundated with emails, Facebook posts, and tweets about today’s NYTs Magazine article “Why are There Still So Few Women in Science?”. I echo the sentiments I heard from other women that I am happy to see this is being tackled by the NYTs Magazine instead of only being discussed in women’s groups or women’s blogs. Don’t get me wrong, the blogs and groups are so important. As a blogger of one, I hope that the 12 people following are getting something from my posts, if not all of them (BTW, you can Follow this blog by clicking the +FOLLOW button). Another good one I found recently is TenureSheWrote which covers a lot of what we do here, and has better publicity. I have to figure out how to get this blog out to more people 🙂

Anyway, I had some comments about today’s article, and I would be interested to see what you say, too.

First, this whole thing just goes over the same old stuff in science. Was there anything new? Those of us who live this everyday don’t need to read this story, yet I was sent it many many times. Please stop sending it to me. Please find the most sexist jerk in your department and send it to them. Send it to your male chair, your dean, your colleague who thinks women have it easy because they get to organize more conferences when they are pre-tenure than post-tenure men. That was sarcastic.

Second, the story starts off with anecdotal story about a woman who left physics after being super awesome. (Women Rock!) She decides to go back to her undergraduate institution to see how things have gotten better. She assumes no women will show up for a women’s group, but the room is packed. They all sit around and share stories of sexism and negative attitudes towards women in science. The author and the chair of physics, also a woman, are stunned that things have not improved! What? Seriously? Did they really think everything was honky-dorey just because they have a female chair and a women’s conference each year? I was shocked that they would be shocked. Just a quick poll, comment to this post: Post if you have or have not experienced blatant discrimination about their desire to do science? (I have multiple times.)

Third, they reference the Big Bang Theory and discuss the women on the show. Yes, they are caricatures. Yes, they are funny. Yes, one woman is very stereotypically nerdy. Another one is cute, blonde, and wears dresses. Another character they seem to have forgotten is Leslie Winkle played by Sarah Gilbert. She was strong, smart, and could stand up to Sheldon or any of the other men of the show. I really loved her character. She kicked butt and totally rocked! Yet, they didn’t mention that she existed. They do say that women would rather be Penny, theactress, than the science women, but I don’t know if that is true. The blonde Bernadette is pulling in 6 figures out of her Ph.D. as an industrial scientist. I would want to be her or Leslie Winkle, myself. What do you think about BBT? Does it disuade women from going into science? Does it affect men at all? A little? Comment to this post.

On page 4 of 10 there was a discussion of the effects of Stereotype Threat without ever discussing the term “Stereotype Threat.” That is a disservice to people trying to find information about it. Also no mention of Imposture Syndrome. Interestingly, one of my best science women friends just mentioned today that even after getting tenure in HighPowerDepartment, she still suffers from this. She posted about it just today on Facebook.

There were some things I liked. I really liked this sentiment, buried on page 9 of 10:

The key to reform is persuading educators, researchers and administrators that broadening the pool of female scientists and making the culture more livable for them doesn’t lower standards. If society needs a certain number of scientists, Urry said, and you can look for those scientists only among the males of the population, you are going to have to go much farther toward the bottom of the barrel than if you also can search among the females in the population, especially the females who are at the top of their barrel.

Finally, the very end of the very last page 10/10 is the best. She talks to 4 current graduate students, and they have great advise for women young and old. You rock, women. (Plus, another good example that mentoring goes both ways.)

Four young women — one black, two white, one Asian by way of Australia — explained to me how they had made it so far when so many other women had given up.

“Oh, that’s easy,” one of them said. “We’re the women who don’t give a crap.”
Don’t give a crap about — ?

“What people expect us to do.”

“Or not do.”

“Or about men not taking you seriously because you dress like a girl. I figure if you’re not going to take my science seriously because of how I look, that’s your problem.”

“Face it,” one of the women said, “grad school is a hazing for anyone, male or female. But if there are enough women in your class, you can help each other get through.”

“As my mother always taught me,” she said, “success is the best revenge.”

These were just a few of the thoughts I had as I read the very long article. I hope it wasn’t so long that people couldn’t get through it. That’s another issue. It has sparked some nice, interesting conversations, and I hope this blog is no different. Hope to read this and post comments. What do you have to say??

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