Women in STEM and other hot topics part 2/2

Right, so I  had great intentions of finishing this off on Friday, but we were hit by a vomiting sickness, so yeah. Everyone is better now, thanks for asking.

When we left off we’d determined you need Smarts, yes but also Spark. But that’s not quite enough, there’s a third “S”. Support. And here, ladies and gents, is where I think we fail women, (and other minorities, but let’s keep our focus for now.)

Support. We touched on it, with mentors/teachers/family encouraging people along their path, or not. Or encouraging them to follow other paths.  This is a subtle, complex issue. It can’t be understood by looking at a few statistics nor summarized in a cute infographic, but it can easily be dismissed with a stinging cartoon.

Financial support is probably the first thing that springs to mind – grants, scholarships, fellowships exist that are reserved for women and this is great! But why are they necessary? Shouldn’t women be able to compete on their own merit? Well, it would be lovely if they could! But this is the last step in the support network and to even be there and compete for financial support we need to make sure that students are supported in other ways through the earlier parts of their academic career. This is very much a  “band aid solution” addressing the symptom (women are not hired) without going to the root cause, without even needing to ask the question (WHY they are not hired). It’s an easy way to seem/feel helpful without addressing the underlying issues and structures that are causing the symptoms. It’s not an important thing, given the circumstances, but it’s laughably insufficient.

Emotional support. Loaded expression, isn’t it? “The problem with girls in the lab is that when you criticize them, they cry.” We’re not talking about that kind of emotional (though if you’re trying to make your students cry you’ll probably succeed and you’re probably an ass.) I think that most young women of my generation have been told over and over that “girls can do anything!” and that sounded great. Our brothers and guy friends were NOT told that boys could do anything though… Nobody told them that they could be preschool teachers, secretaries, nurses, dancers, or that they might want to take some time off from their careers to care for growing families. Nobody told them that if they found the right girl they could just drop everything and move to the town with the great PhD program she got accepted in. Nobody told them that these were valid and valuable choices. But they are. They ARE. If you’re a guy reading this and have never even thought about this before, you can perhaps start to appreciate the intangible biases women face. When were told we can “do anything”, but we were shown that we should do traditional “women’s work”, we absorbed both messages. Keep a spotless home, have all the babies, get to the top of your field! Because “girls can do anything!”Anything! Everything! Because “girls can do anything” women feel like they have to do everything… we have to unlearn that. We need a different narrative for our daughters, we need to talk to our sons too. To our young friends, to our students. Nobody can do everything. We all need each other.

Which brings us to community support. How can our communities, our families be more supportive? This differs from emotional support in my mind – we’re talking more concrete actions here rather than words and attitudes. I have some suggestions and questions for different groups (and as this little rant has gone on for some length already, I think we’ll end with those. Please feel free to discuss this further with me in person or in the comments though!)

If you are a woman in science (or a man in a traditionally feminine line of work): You go! You’re awesome! And this was probably a lot of work… You likely deal with unkind comments on a regular basis, or perhaps worse, condescending comments. “Oh, you’re so brave… I could never do that.” can be as grating as “You don’t belong here.” If you happen to have a bit of energy to spare, try and be visible in the community. Befriend people with kids if you don’t have your own. My kids love their “Astro Aunties” and their “Uncle Nurse” and there’s no better way to challenge stereotypes than by creating a new normal.

If you are a man in science (these tips are from Kyle): “Talk about this stuff. Decide not to be a jerk. If you see other people being jerks, tell them to stop.” I admit it does sum it up nicely.

If you are the partner of a woman in science: Discuss your career plans! Be supportive and encourage her. Ask what her ambitions are! Ask her what you can do to help with them. Ask yourself questions too. Would I relocate to advance her career? Am I doing my share in running the household? How can I support her work if we have kids? Am I willing to be the primary caregiver for a period of time? (Yes, pregnancy is a ladies only thing, and newborn care is probably easier for women if they are breastfeeding, but past that really early stage men can be extremely competent!) If some of these questions had never occurred to you, ask yourself why and ask her if the opposite ones had occurred to her. You might be surprised by your bias.

If you are the friend of a woman in science: Feed that woman! Like literally, especially during proposal time or thesis writing. But also figuratively, make sure she’s keeping up her mental health and doing the other things she loves. Friends don’t let friends burn out. Celebrate milestones! Ask her seriously about the workplace situation, especially if she’s just moved to a new group. Is she being respected? Are people supportive of her work? If not, she’ll be glad to have someone to discuss it with and if so, celebrate that too!

If you are a conference organizer or employer: Does your workspace include facilities for families? Childminding and/or playrooms can be the difference in mothers attending and are also a chance for the next generation to be around scientists and think it’s a cool job. Mistral still goes on about “her office” at MITP... small steps to big changes…

If you are a teacher: Try and get to know a student’s interests before suggesting a career path? It sounds so obvious… but seriously grades DO NOT always equal passion. Check your bias too, are you letting it influence how you treat students? Get to know some scientists! And artists! And just people in other careers generally. As a “retired” teacher, I know that the community can be very insular and by not reaching out beyond our little education circle we are doing a disservice to all.

If you are a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, influential adult in a kid’s life: We are living in the digital age, we are also in an era of re-skilling, there are so many ways to get by, so many possibilities for work, so many options to pursue, the world is different and will continue to change, a “good education” is not what it was 50 years ago or even 10 years ago. Let the kids cast the net wide, let them pursue their interests. Teach them to be responsible with resources, to think and question what they are told. Read them fairy tales and biographies. Make art and food and messes with them and then clean up together. Introduce them to your friends, have them talk to adults. Trust them, love them. Accept that your girls could want to be home makers or programmers, authors or landscapers. Accept that your boys could also make any of those choices. Try to raise them not to be jerks and hopefully the rest will follow.


p.s. There is so much so much left unsaid here, but I’m glad to have this space to at least hash out some thoughts. Sadly it seems that the Strickland Nobel is now tainted by her former supervisor and fellow recipient’s grossly inappropriate videos and total lack of recognition of her work. Distasteful doesn’t even begin to cover it. We can and must do better. Drs. Azi, Arianna, Anastasia, Helen, Hannah, thanks to you and all the others who’ve been there having these conversations with me and others over the years.


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