Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Science’

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.

Criticism – Take it

Julio_Ruelas_-_Criticism_-_Google_Art_ProjectI was chatting a few months ago to a AllyManOfScience who complimented me by saying he uses a lot of the laboratory organizational ideas I present here to organize his lab. (Lab organizational stuff can be found here, here, here, here.) I asked if he had anything to add or modify from what I said, and he added something very interesting. He said that he prefers to hire students who have had some background as an athlete or musician at a high level. He said that people who have done sports or music at a high level are very comfortable with criticism. They have an inherent understanding that even a good performance can still be made better and that critiques are not personal. Critiques are made to make their performance better. I started thinking about it, and I realized that a lot of scientists I know did do sports or music. I was a gymnast who competed at a fairly high level and worked out 24 hours per week to hone my skills. I wasn’t Olympic level, but high enough to be getting a lot of criticism after each routine on a regular basis. HusbandOfScience was a band nerd who taught himself guitar. He spent hours practicing guitar in high school. If you have a good musical ear, you can self-correct, and do not need others to tell you you did it wrong. Other WomenOfScience friends were cheerleaders, synchronized swimmers, and even champion dog show groomers/runners. All of these sports take skills and practice and involve getting criticism.

Science is full of criticism. You have to take it and say thank you. Then ask for more if you want to make it. You do an experiment – you get criticism. You make a figure – you get criticism. You give a talk – you get criticism. You make a poster – you get criticism. You write a paper – you get criticism. You apply for a grant – you get criticism. Over and over and over. It doesn’t stop. It won’t stop. The most famous people in science still get criticism when they submit a paper or a grant – even if they get the paper accepted or grant money a lot easier than you.

If you have a hard time taking criticism, I say practice and get better at it, or leave. You can get better at getting criticism. The first time I got a paper review as a graduate student, I cried. We made the changes and the paper got in. The second time I got a paper review as a graduate student, I cried… OK, so I didn’t learn how to take criticism over night. By the time I was a postdoc, I didn’t cry. I was learning how to take criticism. As a professor, my first couple grant rejections got to me, but after writing 10 proposals and finally getting one funded, I didn’t get so bummed when I didn’t get funded.

Reviews can be too harsh. Sometimes reviews are too harsh, too emotional, or just plain mean. And this sucks. But, your job as a logical scientist is to try to see through the crazy and find the truth in the words. Of course, you are entitled to be pissed off at a mean review or overly harsh or unhelpful critique. But, after you have cooled down, try to figure out what is actually wrong with what you did. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps they misread something that was perfectly clear…but perhaps you could make it clearer. Even bat sh*t crazy reviewer number 3 probably has some point.

There are bad reviews. I don’t want to say that all reviews are equal. I am on the editorial board for a journal, and I serve to find the reviewers and make the editorial decisions. Some reviews are, frankly, emotional. As an editor, I don’t want to see, nor do I care about, your emotions as a reviewer. I also don’t care about your personal opinions about science. I care about facts. Your reviews should be full of science facts. If you think that cats can fly, and that is your scientific opinion, you need to back that up with some references. I am OK with your opinions about the style of the writing as long as you make helpful suggestions to make it a better paper. If your review is emotional and not helpful, I’m not going to take it seriously. You are reviewing a scientific paper – not TROLLING your favorite blog.

So, what do you think? Add your two cents here in a comment, or send me a post. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Bravery is…

Being a WomanOfScience often involves being brave. Last week, we had a seminar from a big fancy, OWM, Nobel Laureate. The OMayerWM-NL was to be giving an inspirational talk about basic science and all the wonderful things that can come from the basic science. During the talk, his slides looked like a cut and pasted wikipedia page of other Nobel winners. Oddly, he didn’t mention a single woman. Not even Marie Curie. He was obsessed with only his subfield. The OWM from this field were geniuses. He barely talked about other fields of science, and when he did, other fields were all about luck – not genius.

He did actually mention (briefly in passing) two women. One was the girlfriend of another NL who he hooked up with at a conference while the other NL was organizing the conference. The other was a joke about serendipity, “sometimes when you are looking for a needle in a haystack, you find the farmer’s wife.” So, basically, the only two women mentioned in the entire talk were sluts.

Many of the women of the department walked out the talk. It was in an auditorium that sat 350, so we felt pretty self-conscience about telling him off at the talk. Walking out was a silent protest. After the talk and the next day, the women discussed and decided to feel out the department. Did the men sense the same thing we women felt? HusbandOfScience did. He was texting me during the talk about all the BS that was streaming at us. Did others?

At lunch with our normal crew the next day, the dudes were totally backing up old OWM-NL. They pulled out the old chestnut, “It’s just a joke,” and “You are being too sensitive.” That was annoying, but the decision to take action was made by my colleague when her grad students and undergrads said that they felt the sexist comments and jokes were very hurtful. One of the undergrads was actually asked by the OWM-NL to pour him coffee. (No, sir, it is not 1950.)

For me, I talked to some senior WomenOfScience, and they all said it was par for the course – they barely noticed because it was tame by the standards of their generation. Not-uh. Not on my watch.

We decided to write a letter to the chair and send it to the faculty. This takes bravery. We had no idea what the aggregate reaction of our colleagues would be. Would they call us crazy? Would they all say they were “just jokes”?

I paste the letter in here (redacted/edited), to serve as an example for you to use:

Dear DepartmentChair,

After the lecture on Day, and conversations with students and colleagues, we (names), consider it is a responsibility to communicate to you and the whole faculty that we were very disturbed by OWM-NL’s lecture.
We will not dwell on the content or quality of the talk, but there are two aspects that we must comment on:

1. The sexist jokes were beyond inappropriate.

We counted at least three, and those were three too many, especially since the jokes were the only references to women in a lecture entitled “Basic Science is Awesome” (not real title). Women were only referred to as literal sexual objects throughout the talk – prizes of fights or findings – while seemingly actively written out of the history of the sciences (see point 2).

We were appalled to learn the speaker asked a female undergraduate to pour coffee for him.
The next day one of us witnessed male undergraduates repeating one of the jokes; clearly, it made an impression.
What example is this setting for our students?

When we mentioned this to some of our colleagues, we had responses along the lines of “those were just jokes”. If you wonder what poisons the climate for women in STEM, this is an answer. It is important you are all aware the female constituency of the department, faculty and students, did not find those to be “just jokes”. None of us was amused, and the chuckling by the audience was not comforting.

2. This was an egregious example of old-boy-network talk, potentially damaging to the retention of underrepresented groups in our department.

One of our graduate students defined it “oppressively exclusive: he went out of his way to avoid mentioning any woman and we got the message that science is done only by privileged white men who went to the same high school”.
No Marie Curie, no Maria Goeppert Mayer, no Rosalind Franklin.
We agree with the student. OWM-NL mentioned the most impactful discoveries were made by white European men; he also said that now people of all ethnicity and genders can do science too, “well, sort of”.
We found this parenthetic remark dismissive and offensive.

We are worried that this lecture has sent a bad message to our graduate students, our undergraduate students, and our colleagues in other departments.

While we recognize it is hard to predict these aspects about a speaker in advance, we should all make an effort to be aware of such pitfalls.

We are grateful to KnownDonors for endowing this lecture series, it is an important medium to increase the visibility of TheDepartment and Science on our campus and in our town, and acknowledge the significant effort that went in organizing this event.
But we also do hope and expect the Department will make all efforts to identify an outstanding woman and minority to invite for future lectures in this series. We will be happy to assist with suggestions.

Best wishes,
WomenOfScience, HusbandOfScience

What was the outcome? The outcome of this was actually really good. The chair who said he had no idea and was truly just in awe of OWM-NL, said that he believed that the lecturer was offensive after reading our letter. We asked him to offer a statement to the entire physics community, and he did this week. Other male colleagues who were not there said that they would have also walked out, but better yet they claimed that they would have spoken out at the lecture. This was a happy surprise.

I think the problem with these situations is that they can catch you off guard and you may not even realize what is happening or how bad it is at the time.  One of the problems with not addressing it, as outlined in our letter, is that the students will either (1) be angry and feel like the department doesn’t support them, especially if they felt the talk was sexist, (2) feel uncomfortable about the talk, but not really know why it bothered them, (3) think that type of talk and behavior are OK. The last one is the worst outcome because it propagates to the next generation the idea that only white, European-decent males can do science, and that women and minorities are outcasts. We didn’t mention that he also said a few racist things in the talk, but our colleague, who is a person of color, noticed. At a time when women are getting a backlash of negative sentiment after many years of progress: Yes, this still happens. Yes, we need to point it out. And yes, the fight is still going strong.

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PeerReviewZillaThere was a recent funny article on “How to be the Perfect Mother” from Huffington Post that was a hilarious look at how society tells us conflicting information about how we should act as mothers. You should go look at it if you are a mother, know a mother, or have a mother. Just go see it.

This article, combined with two recent manuscript reviews coming back, got me thinking about how reviewers also often write conflicting advice for your manuscripts. So, I decided to write a satirical version of a manuscript review as an example.

***Note: any resemblance to reviews you may have received or written are purely coincidental.


We have read and reviewed the manuscript, “This Science Thing is Important for this Other Thing” by Prof.Science. This manuscript investigates the ScienceThing and its interactions with OtherThing, a very important and understudied topic. This group performed many new experiments that had never been done before and had 6 figures each with A-J panels. Their work was executed well and revealed new information about the interactions of ScienceThing with OtherThing that we never knew before. Their clearly written manuscript had a simulation that modeled the results and showed similar trends suggesting a mechanism.


Major Concerns:

In performing these experiments, they used well-tested experimental methods along with specific tests to control for errors. They have used these methods to test for effects of ScienceThing on OtherThing and have quantified the effects. Since these methods are well-tested and accepted in the field, they are not novel. We want only novel experiments even if we cannot interpret the results we get from them. Thus, we suggest that the authors perform all new experiments. Further, did the authors investigate how ScienceThing affected OtherThingII? Only one paper on OtherThingII exists, from the OldFart Group, but it is clearly more important than OtherThing, and it should be explored even though almost no reagents exist for OtherThingII. Unless OtherThingII is also investigated, I do not think this paper is very worthwhile.

The authors display histograms of their work and how ScienceThing affects the OtherThing. It is important to be quantitative and have numerical data. For each histogram, they fit to a Gaussian and report the R-squared value of the fit to the data. They use these fits to discuss the results. Why do they do this? Why not use a simple p-value to the data? Isn’t a student’s t-test done on everything? It is clear that the two distributions do not overlap, so they should report the p-value.

The authors used a toy model to show that the ScienceThing behavior that they see could be due to a minimal number of simple rules. Being quantitative and having models is important. We want more quantitative work and models in this field of science. The simulation has the same trends as the experimental data, but it does not exactly match the data, so the model must be worthless. Why did these authors have a model? They are not theorists or modelers; they are experimentalists. They should remove the model, it detracts from the data.

Without the model, the authors do not have a mechanism. We want all science to be mechanistic. It is not good enough to simply observe something and report what happens. For instance, although their toy model uses 3 simple rules and has the same general trends as the data, they cannot rule out a model with 10 complicated rules. Thus, they have not revealed the mechanism behind the results they see, and thus the impact of the work is lower in my opinion. Until their work becomes more mechanistic, their results are purely qualitative, and the work is not work publishing.


Other Issues:

There are a number of sp errs in this manuscript. Don’t they care how they present thmseves? Its like thei didn’t even porrof read before they sent it out. They need to really fix this. There are way too many issues for me to helpfully point out.

They are missing a number of very important citations particularly from the OldFart group, “Science Stuff: A novel Regulator of Nothing,” JSS 1979; “Science Stuff Moves Science Thing,” JSS 1998; and “Science Stuff to Science Thing,” AJSS 2000. These important references about how ScienceStuff is connected to ScienceThing are important and should be added.

Their experimental methods are not good. They didn’t even present them! I suppose they could be in the supplement, but I didn’t read it, so I wouldn’t know. Even if they are in the supplement, they need to have them in the main text. Maybe, once they take out the model, they will have room in this 5-page paper to have detailed methods.


In conclusion, after having read this paper, I feel that these results were obvious and could have been guessed from deductive reasoning. Thus, the experiments were not necessary and the results are not novel. Further, to make the results important and novel, the authors would need to perform a number of extra experiments that were not in the original 60 plots presented, and they would need a mechanism, which they have not proven. Overall, it is clear that this study has no value and, thus, I recommend that this paper be rejected.

Anything to add? Post or comment here. Maybe we can add more examples? If you want to get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

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