Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sexism in Science

Since I am new to blogging, I have spent a lot of time looking at other peoples blogs to see what they write about. Many of the blogs I have read are written by women in a scientific profession. Some are faculty, some are post-docs and a few of them are grad. students (like me). Almost all of them have recent posts about sexism in the sciences. I have read all the same reports about percentage of females entering graduate school compared to the number of female scientists with tenure-track positions. Scary numbers indeed, but is it 100% due to blatant sexism? I won't be answering that question, but here is what I have noticed.

First of all, the amount of sexism probably varies by field. Unfortunately I only know women in biomedical sciences and most of those people are within microbiology. So keeping that in mind...

Our department has 9 faculty members, 3 of them are women (not counting cross-appointed faculty). Just before I entered the department two women faculty left the department. One took a new job at another university and the other now works for the NIH. Later on, we lost a male faculty member who had fallen off the tenure track and run out of money. We have since gained two men and one woman.

My PI is one of the women faculty members. From what I can tell, she is respected by her peers in the department and when I attended international meetings with her, I was pleased to see that she is very well regarded and respected in her field. My PI is also married to a tenured faculty member at a nearby institution and has two kids. Now, I don't have a close relationship with my boss (she draws those lines very thick), but from what I do know and occasionally see, their relationship is a partnership where both parents sacrifice (and benefit) equally. (Should I mention my boss is more successful than her Mr. PhD?)

My most frequent experience with sexism boils down to being called a bitch. In my opinion this is because I am an aggressive female. You know how it goes...the same behavior in a man would be applauded and called "driven." It happens all the time and it is not just men using the word...it is women too.

I have had other negative experience as a woman during graduate school, and the following one pissed me off the most.
A couple of years ago I was told my a woman faculty member (cross-appointed to our department) that by wearing a tank top while giving a 10 minute talk at the departmental retreat (which is casual...everyone was in shorts) that I single-handedly ruined all advancements women had ever made in science. Wow. I didn't know a tank top had so much potential for evil. This bothered me and still does. Should I have worn a burka? A turtleneck? some make-up and pantyhose? Unfortunately at the time I was too pissed to ask. I just said that I was sorry she felt that way, that I did not agree and then I walked away. Six months later this same woman walked up and introduced herself to me.

Based on the things other people are writing, they seem to be having these experiences with some kind of regularity. I really don't think I have much to complain about by comparison.
We'll see if things change when I am a post-doc. I'll be working for a man in a lab full of women...learning biochemistry.

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