Sunday, December 2, 2007

Woman Scientist

There was a period of time when I didn't think about being a woman scientist. I was just a scientist. I was an undergrad. Unexperienced, yes. But I worked in the lab of a PI that I respect very much to this day. He treated me fairly, trained me well, and never once did I think about the fact that he was a dude and I was a chick.

Then came grad school. My grad school advisor never took women in his lab seriously. He either flirted with them or ignored them. (I was in the "ignore" category...) With the men of the lab he'd stop by their benches, blather on about sports and then eventually he'd talk to them about their data and hand them a paper to read. With the women, he'd either actively avoid talking to them, or else he'd come 'round and comment about how great they were for being able to work all day in high heels (seriously!!). The different treatment for men and women in the lab was really frustrating. And it was the first time I realized that science works a little differently if you're on the right side of the gender fence.

But the thing that was the most frustrating to me was that the men in the lab couldn't see it. The girls (whether flirted with or ignored) felt uncomfortable and frustrated. But when I talked to my male labmates, they usually just kind of blew it off (except in the case of one particular woman in the lab where the flirting was so blatant even the guys in the lab were ready to vomit).

In retrospect, I had the worst possible reaction to such a terrible situation. I didn't leave the lab. I didn't seek mentorship from someone outside the lab. I just got pissed off, disgusted, and unhappy. I let my work suffer. I became consumed with negativity, and I was convinced that science would always be a hostile place for women. I pushed to graduate as quickly as possible. And I left.

For a long time after I graduated, I still blamed my advisor for creating a negative place for me to do science. I blamed him for ignoring my project. I was angry for the lack of scientific guidance and mentorship. I was angry because he made me hate every second I was in lab. I almost left science altogether.

But now, after a long period of healing from what was a really negative and demeaning work environment, I realize that it was always on me. Yes, I had a sh*%!y work environment. Yes, it sucked that my advisor treats women differently than men. But my development as a scientist is my responsibility. Not his. And I should have found the mentorship I needed from someone else in the department (like, perhaps, one of the talented and successful female PIs with whom I had regular interactions).

Yes, the system in academia is broken. It shouldn't be taken for granted that male advisors can treat women any way they please and get away with it (and not just get away with it, but get tenure!). But I can't just sit around feeling sorry for myself. Being angry doesn't help me excel.

I'm in a new place now. My advisor is female. In fact, all but one member of my new lab is female. I have some lost years of training to make up for, and I'm lucky to get to do that in a place where I am both comfortable and taken seriously. I'm letting a lot of the bitterness of grad school go, and I'm learning to love science again.

Will I stay at the bench? I don't know. There are too many variables right now to predict where I'll be in 10 years. But I'm back in the saddle, and I feel like a scientist again. Instead of a "woman scientist."

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ScienceGirl said...

Right on!

Jane said...

I'm so glad you were able to overcome such a bad situation and that you're in a much better situation now. It's amazing how much of a role environment plays in influencing our career paths, isn't it? Yay strong female mentors!

The bean-mom said...

I'm so sorry you had to go through that in grad school. And I'm so sorry that so many many women go through similar things at some point in their training, whether it's grad school or post-doc. But I'm so glad now that you're learning to love science again! We should all be able to think of ourselves first and foremost as scientists, not women scientists! (uh, those of us still in science, anyway...not sure what to call myself these days!)

ScienceMama said...

you're a scientist, you're just not at the bench right now!