My journey into feminism… and out of science

There is a general awareness of the lingering gender disparity in academic science – the pay gap, the ‘leaky pipeline’ whereby more women than men are lost at every point along the career path. There are workshops for women; discussions about the problem; support fellowships designed to help address the incompatibilities of the career with motherhood; and research to answer the questions. I’ve been to, and read, a lot of these interventions, in hopes of hearing something validating.

I know about unconscious bias against women (and other minorities), and I’ve been instructed in ways to challenge and overturn the stereotypes, promote myself more effectively and so on. The message often seems to be that women scientists generally are capable of thriving in the current environment, if we can just improve their poor self-confidence, do something about the unconscious prejudice, and figure out how to ensure that giving birth does not entail a disadvantage. And yes, some certainly do succeed; perhaps their numbers can be increased in these ways, even if many will still feel it just isn’t for them.

On the other hand, it’s occurred to me that perhaps the effects, on science, of ‘super-masculine’ traits – like excessive ego, over-confidence, status-driven careerism, and a lack of genuine listening and self-reflection – can be negative. But these thoughts have never been much comfort to me. Struggling socially in an environment that seems to reward and nurture super-masculine traits has compounded my already abundant fears and self-doubt. The shame, over my low confidence and limited ability to present myself in a way that people are compelled to take seriously, has dominated my emotional climate.

Somewhere along the way, after the fantasy of escaping it all had finally dissipated, I did develop the inevitable desire to fix my situation. I enlisted help. I started learning to see my own quiet strength; started to ‘grow into’ the PhD I’d received without so much as a celebratory drink with anyone, let alone gone to receive it at the graduation ceremony; started to embrace the ‘doctor’ title, at first so alien and wrong-looking next to my name. I started to realise that my struggle towards an effective, affirming participation in something meaningful, is meaningful in itself. And I started to have the desire to do better.

I’m not sure exactly what prompted an interest in feminism. But for some reason last year I waded my way through Germaine Greer’s ‘The Female Eunuch’. I was surprised to find she does acknowledge – even draw attention to – differences in typical male and female behaviours, unlike most feminist writings I’ve come across on the web which seem to deny there are any; and unlike the women-in-science workshops and other interventions which provide women with ‘solutions’ to problems that they never dare to spell out (much to my infuriation). Greer acknowledges these behavioural differences in order to point to their causes in social norms, such as traditional role segregation and male privilege. They are not innate, immutable, or inevitable in her view of things. The more I reflected on my own life history, the more I started to think she might be right.

I started to reflect on how the observations in, for example, the classic Mars and Venus books about gender differences, are not presented in such a way as to invite people to ponder the forces in society which contribute to the situation they describe. They are instead simply meant to be axioms to work with and work around. As such, of course, they are self-reinforcing.

I probably used to hold similar views to those Sam Harris expresses about gender disparities (in atheism/science/whatever): the biology can’t be ignored. He may think he has thought more deeply about it than his critics, but for me, thinking and learning more has led me another way. And it’s not that biological origins are somehow disproved by thinking more deeply about the social factors. It’s as Neil deGrasse Tyson says: “Before we start talking about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity – then we can have that conversation.”

Whatever the means by which gender differences in behaviour arise, stereotyping and role segregation both seem to cause exaggeration of the differences into problematic territory. And there are problematic aspects in both femininity and masculinity as conceived in the context of patriarchy (see this recent article about suicide risk for males as one example).

It’s tricky, though, because denying differences altogether can be just as problematic. In ‘Killing Rage’ (which is primarily about racism, actually), bell hooks points out that the denial of difference is often really just another, more subtle form of oppression by the dominant entity, whose norms can then become the only norms. This can perhaps be seen in the initiatives to increase women’s self-promotion and other traits needed to thrive in academic science. Why are there are no parallel workshops for men in science, to help those who need to become more self-critical or better listeners?

Let’s be clear, the motivation in such initiatives is not about what’s best for science, it’s about “improving diversity” by getting more women into top jobs. Much like Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ advice, this implementation of feminism arguably does little to challenge the dominance of a particular type of masculinity. It seems satisfied instead to assimilate women into it. And which women benefit from this? – here’s a clue, it’s not those in research support or technician roles. “Women in science” apparently does not include them.

I am leaving academic science for a new job, a new career, next Monday. I’ve been very fortunate to have had a seven-year spell in it. I have had some amazing times in these seven years, and met some wonderful people, both locally and around the world in my conference travels. I’ve also experienced the most intense loneliness of my life, and the women’s bathroom on the ground floor has seen far too many of my tears. I am not the person either to really thrive here or to work for change. I am just a work in progress myself.

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This entry was posted in feminism, gender, personal reflection, science, self-improvement, social justice and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to My journey into feminism… and out of science

  1. Good luck Sarah, I am sure that your experiences and the wisdom you have acquired through them will be of great value in whatever lies ahead.

  2. susanne430 says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Sarah! I hope you will share about your new job sometime, and I really hope you love it. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Sarah says:

    Thanks, both of you!

  4. Metis says:

    Very interesting thoughts, Sarah! Please continue writing.

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