The Stubborn Ones

Yesterday I attended a WIMS (Women in Medicine and Science) talk regarding being assertive. Today I ran across this article, a look at why there are still so few women in science.

In particular, the following excerpt resonated with me:

Four young women — one black, two white, one Asian by way of Australia — explained to me how they had made it so far when so many other women had given up.
“Oh, that’s easy,” one of them said. “We’re the women who don’t give a crap.”
Don’t give a crap about — ?
“What people expect us to do.”
“Or not do.”
“Or about men not taking you seriously because you dress like a girl. I figure if you’re not going to take my science seriously because of how I look, that’s your problem.”

I’m one of those, the stubborn ones. When kids teased me, instead of conforming, I dug in my heels. When I heard that boys were better at math, and my brother regularly demonstrated his skills, I simply worked harder When told that maybe I should just go into teaching, as real science was a man’s field I just laughed.

I gravitated toward the teachers willing to challenge me. Some, especially at the graduate level, push harder and demand more than they do of others. There have been days when I gave in to tears. It wasn’t fair. I had performed adequately– not stellar, mind, but adequately, on par with others. I’d even pointed out flaws in the other students’ work and been able to see things they hadn’t, and yet I got dressed down.

After emotions cooled, I comprehended why my professor pushed me harder. He stated as much. “You’re smart and you can do better. People won’t go easy on you. You’re on a hard path, but I think you can do it.”

At least he expressed his faith in me, but it didn’t make me like getting dressed down any more. Basically, his message was that I was a woman with personal odds stacked against her, in a field dominated by men, and to compete I had to not only do well, I had to blast away the competition.

At one point, when I was extremely frustrated and being told I might be forced to take the Masters because, basically, I had kids and my boss wasn’t sure I could meet the demands of a Ph.D. I had to argue my case to the department chair.

That professor who demanded so much of me told me, “You have what it takes, even more so than other students I’ve seen in this department.” He said a few choice words about anyone who thought otherwise, which is why I took his criticisms so hard later on.

While I’ve had a couple of female biology professors in undergrad I saw as mentors, the vast majority of my interactions have been with males. There isn’t a single female faculty member in my department.

Most of the time, those interactions have been positive, and they’ve been supportive.

The article mentioned the author’s lack of confidence as key to why she didn’t pursue science. I think that right there is the linchpin. I knew what I wanted from an early age, and nothing and no one would stop me. Professors saw that single-minded dedication. When asked what I wanted, I didn’t hem and haw. Rather, I laid out my goals. That assertive, goal oriented mentality is what garners support.

I’m an outlier. I recognize this. We, as a society, need to change that curve. Even as an outlier, there are sacrifices I’m not willing to make. There are career paths I won’t choose, because unlike some who may define their success solely by their career, my definition is much broader. I look at the stacked deck and know when to leave the table. I won’t pursue a tenure position- at least not as a young scientist. I simply won’t play a game that I have little hope of winning, not with three kids that need me around more than a university needs a new professor.

That’s the kicker. While some men opt out at the expense of their career, women do so by the droves. At the end, everyone loses.

There’s no easy answer, but it starts with encouraging kids no matter their gender. It’s up to us to change the structure of academia and industry so that success does not mean sacrificing our families on the altar of the corporate ladder. It means understanding and acknowledging we all have biases, and to find ways to minimize their influence.

Above all, it’s up to us to teach our kids to be the  outliers. I’m working on it, but they are so darn stubborn…


3 responses to “The Stubborn Ones

  1. Agreed. There is no easy answer. I chose my family. I loved my career, but in the end-it is my kids who need my attention and skills the most for right now. Nicely written.

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