Author's Note: All of the below stories were submitted in confidence, so no names are attached.
See the accompanying feature in The Harvard Crimson here.
The stories below are from scientistas who have had experiences dealing with science in which their gender felt like a hindrance. The point of sharing these stories is not to gather pity, but rather to help raise awareness; discrimination in science still does exist. It's real, and many times, the stories are unbelievably disturbing. The Scientista Foundation is still working to combat gender discrimination in the sciences--one scientista at a time. Keep reading to see what motivates us to continue doing what we do.
Our new post-doc was young, blond and pretty. She was also a brilliant scientist. She worked in the room next to me, but would often stop in to chat with me about my project and life. One day she told me about her previous job where she had faced sexual harassment by her former PI. “I almost did not report it because I was afraid of the backlash that might result. My PI and another lab member treated me terribly after, but I am glad that I spoke out.”
After she left the room, I saw two young male post-docs in my room roll their eyes. “She is such a drama queen. She wasn't harassed. She just can’t take a joke,” one said. “She only got hired because of her boobs anyway. Everyone knows he [the PI] only hires hot women,” said the other before breaking into hysterical laughter.
It was the first time I encountered subtle gender discrimination in science, but I will never forget it. Soon after, my own post-doc, also a female, quit after an argument over who was getting credit for her work. After weeks of watching her come into work with red eyes, she finally informed me that she was leaving for another lab. Before she left she told me, “Sometimes you just have to let go and realize when you can’t take it anymore.”
When I was a freshman in college, I knew I wanted to concentrate in the sciences but I didn’t know what specific field. In high school, science was simple – chemistry, physics, and biology. Now, I was suddenly confronted with such options as Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Human Evolutionary Biology, Neurobiology, Earth and Planetary Sciences, etc.
My college held a fair for the freshman to talk to different advisors about each major. As a freshman, I had yet to take a class in one of the fields, but I was very interested in the subject, so I went to talk to one of the advisors. I explained to her my interests and goals and why I was interested in her major. She looked me over and then got this cramped look on her face before telling me, “Perhaps you would do better to look at some of the softer sciences, like Psychology.”
Despite feeling like an arrow had been shot through my chest, I thanked her for her time and quickly turned away. I was stunned and hurt. Not only had she insulted another field for no reason (I think Psychology is a great major), but she had also insulted my intelligence without even knowing me for five minutes. I hadn’t said anything or acted idiotic. And yet, from a two-minute conversation, she had decided that I was not smart enough for her major.
I was hurt, but I came to realize I must have thicker skin. I also realized that sometimes, a sad fact in the sciences is that one of the biggest barriers to the advancement of women aren’t men or history but rather other women. We attack each other and pick on each other simply because we are consumed by the idea that if another female does well it means less opportunities for us.
I am now officially majoring in that field that I was so harshly pushed away from (I am purposefully refraining from remarking on the major because I don’t want it to reflect badly on the advisor). I have learned to have a thicker skin about the things scared people say, and I have learned to stop the cycle by encouraging those around me who are in the sciences. Trust me, there is enough out there in the world to research and investigate that if one person does well it isn’t going to leave less for everyone else to discover.
And while I have had negative experiences like this—from advisors telling me I wasn’t doing enough research as a freshman to girls in sciences classes laughing in my face when I asked for help—nothing compares to the passion I feel for science and to the incredible opportunities I have had. So the next time someone tells you to look into a ‘softer science’, just smile and laugh it off–you know yourself better than they do.
It was another day in my upper-level, male-dominated math class. As usual, I walked in and sat down in the front row. Male after male filled up the seats around me, with another girl sitting down on occasion. I looked around and took out my notebook as the female instructor began her lecture for the day, thinking, “Yeah, that’s right, I’m sitting in the front row.”
Later that evening, it was time to do problem sets. I didn’t know many people in the class, so I found someone to check problem sets with. It wasn’t the best arrangement. I could tell he had an air of arrogance, but he was nice when he needed to check homework.
One night, as we were checking our homework, we came across a problem I had done incorrectly. Sitting across from me he said, smirking but flirtatious, “Looks like I’ll have to help you brush up some of your math skills.” A few problems later, it was his turn to be wrong. The daring part of me called him out on it. But he brushed it off as being a hard problem. Needless to say, after the course and our problem sets ended, he stopped talking to me altogether.
[Edit: The word 'girl' was replaced with 'scientista' to reflect the varied age group. -- 5/30/13]