The Trouble With Girls and Women Scientists and Why We Won’t Just Stick to Shoe Shopping

Let’s be clear—the word “woman” is a noun. It is not an adjective.

And yet the inclusion of the word “woman” as an adjective, to subtly yet profoundly undermine the notion that women are capable, is everywhere. This prefix is not accidental, it’s diminutive, an inherent nod to the notion that women are somehow out of place in the sciences. The word “woman” as an adjective is used to suggest that there’s some kind of novelty to a female working as a professional scientist;  “Look at this woman scientist—she’s even wearing a lab coat! Isn’t she trying her best? Adorable!”

Take, for example, the comments made recently by Nobel laureate Tim Hunt. At the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, Hunt described the trouble with girls: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry” (You can read more about his comments at The Guardian).

I’ll be honest you guys….I’ve cried in lab. A little saline never hurt a tissue sample, right? I just don’t understand how a NOBEL LAUREATE could think that the experiences he’s had with a few women in his laboratory could ever possibly be extrapolated and applied to ALL women?

In 2013 Fang, Bennet, and Cassadevall published a study in which they analyzed the 228 instances of scientific misconduct reported to the Office of Research Integrity and found that over two thirds of the cases involving fraud were committed by men, a number that “exceeds the overall proportion of males among life science trainees and faculty.” But who is talking about that? Where is the female Nobel Laureate condemning men at scientific conferences, decrying their role in labs; “Good point, Hunt, you really got me there. I was just about to kiss you and cry, but I thought I’d make this counterpoint first; the trouble with boys in lab is that they lie and make up data and ruin their careers and yours in the process. I’d love to hire more men, but you just can’t trust ’em. Plus they’re so tantalizing. Does anyone have brownies?”

But that isn’t a conversation that we’re having, and we probably never will. Because there’s still so much criticizing of women to be done. Because not only are women distracting in lab and full of feelings, they’re also just plain stupid and bad at writing. Recently, two female researchers received these comments regarding a manuscript submitted for publication in the journal PLoS: “It would probably also be beneficial to find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors), in order to serve as a possible check against interpretations that may sometimes be drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically biased assumptions.”  He then went on to add, “Perhaps it is not so surprising that on average male doctoral students co-author one more paper than female doctoral students, just as, on average, male doctoral students can probably run a mile a bit faster than female doctoral students.” (You can read more about this incident here.)

Are you cringing yet? You should probably be cringing.

As a graduate student, how am I supposed to believe that I can thrive in this field when so many leaders within it insist that I cannot? How can I feel proud of what I’ve accomplished, when it will likely be reduced to nothing? And it isn’t just the highly educated that espouse these beliefs, it’s the general public, too. Three female engineers from MIT participated in an “ask me anything” thread on reddit so they could share their experiences as engineers in a largely male field. The comments they received ranged from “what’s your bra size?” to accusations they copied answers from their male classmates. (You can read more about that incident here.) So then what’s the point?

You might be wondering what came of the academics who insisted women don’t belong in the lab. Well, Tim Hunt resigned from his position at University College of London and the anonymous reviewer living in a rerun of The Honeymooners was dismissed as a reviewer for that journal. So…problem solved? Not even close.

The problem is that by condemning these individuals we lose sight of what the real problem is, and it isn’t these silly, almost comical sexist remarks that garner a lot of attention on social media. These cases are symptoms of a deeper, uglier illness, one that is entirely too pervasive in the sciences. When we focus the attention on GETTING TIM HUNT FIRED we feel risk feeling satisfied by his resignation and may confuse that with success, when in fact, we’ve just plucked one dying leaf off an otherwise still very sick plant. I’m not saying there isn’t some satisfaction associated with his resignation, but I’d rather he received a reeducation from a whole bunch of radical feminists than to simply get off with retirement. I bet that’d be a lot more punishment in his opinion, too.

A study published in PNAS by Moss-Racusin and colleagues in 2012 demonstrated gender bias in the sciences in a profound way. They sent identical applications for a lab-manager position to scientists and attached either a male or female name (although let’s get real, boys are named Ashley, girls are named Kyle, we should probably move past “gendered names” soon, too) and found that BOTH MALE AND FEMALE scientists consistently rated the male applicants more hireable and more deserving of mentorship. In addition, starting salary offers for male applicants were ~$4,000 more than those offered to female applicants even though the applications were literally identical, save the gender of the individual applying. As usual, the data speaks for itself.

As I continue my career in science, it’s likely that these issues and doubts and frustrations will come up again. But along the way, I’ll be searching for ways to promote the belief, nay, the reality, that women are an integral part of the forward progress of society as a whole, and that there is no field in which we do not belong. Together, we have to find a way to change the narrative, to replace “woman scientist” with scientist, to increase starting salaries to match those offered to males, to leave profoundly sexist, anachronistic views where they belong—in the past.  And we all should stop falling in love with Tim Hunt, because, dude’s pretty exhausted by the attention.

In 2012 I spent a few weeks in lab crying over a boy. I sat in the microscope room and cried while I ran custom scripts on an Olympus 1X-70 and listened to Ellie Goulding’s cover of “Heartbeats” on repeat for two weeks. I was still sad, but I cried a little less while I analyzed images generated via multi-isotope imaging mass spectrometry. I liked making gels so I cried even less while genotyping our transgenic lines, but the IHC got pretty monotonous so the tears came back. There were plenty of weeks where I was in lab till 3:00 am, so I’d bring pajamas with me so I could change around midnight and then get so delirious from such long days I couldn’t muster up the saline to cry. But by the time we got around to writing the manuscript I was feeling better, and when the paper was published in Nature, well, then I didn’t really want to cry at all.

13 responses to “The Trouble With Girls and Women Scientists and Why We Won’t Just Stick to Shoe Shopping

  1. I’ve been loving your blog posts, and I look forward to the day when we can truly celebrate gender equality in the sciences by being able to order pink mass spectrometers for the ladies.

  2. Very well written. I liked how you played around with crying! Great thoughts about perception of women.

  3. Further and equally as remarkable is the fact that male scientists hire “good looking” females in their labs. Actually heard a PI state that he prefers the good looking ones and for this person it is a prerequisite for hiring.

    You are correct that this is an illness and getting rid of the symptoms does not cure. I think it will take a few more generations and a lot of language and attitude training before this is ‘healed’.

  4. Thank you for putting this into words! And congratulations on your publication in Nature!!

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful article! You brought in so many of the big examples that have hit home for me, but the most painful experiences are the personal ones that women in science encounter routienly. They may not be as blatant as a Nobel laureate’s comments on an international stage, but they lay the insidious foundation for deep inequity. I am proud that you are one of our graduate students, and that you are challenging the narrative.

  6. Really enjoyable commentary I loved it, thank you for talking about this very important subject! Keep it up

  7. Thank you so much for writing about this topic. It’s great to hear an opinion on these scandals from OHSU students.

  8. Nicely said, all of it. Although I no longer work in research or hard science, I get angry and feel hopeless when I hear these stories. Your dying plant analogy is apt, and I hope that we can revive it somehow.

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