Two Weeks in Review: Sexism for the Modern Female Scientist

Photograph of Simone de Beauvoir.

The past two weeks have been filled with difficult yet life-affirming conversations related to the experiences that I shared as a woman in the biological sciences. The examples in my article are comments and experiences which have impacted and hurt me at a fundamental level, and sharing them was no easy task. In response to honestly commenting on my history, I have been comforted and supported by more friends and peers than I anticipated. Female mentors and friends in the sciences have shared that they empathize, understand and have experienced similar things. I never expected to be thanked so many times for speaking out about the “mansplaining” that happens to all of us in the field. Feminist scholar and biologist Lynda Birke wrote succinctly about the feminist problem in her book Feminism and the Biological Body (2001): “Women have long been defined by our biology. It is a familiar story: anatomy is destiny, our hormones make us mad or bad, genes determine who we are.” In the twenty-first century, women continue to be categorized based on biological characteristics and socially informed assumptions about their gender. Even at a progressive institution like Vassar, the male presence in science courses is overwhelmingly stifling, from chemistry to psychology. We are assumed to be less capable than men by some of the leading voices in academics. While it is discouraging and upsetting that this brand of structural sexism continues in a supposedly “post-sexist” society, I am at the very least comforted that women in the field are supporting one another when they speak out against male dominance and oppression.

My conversations with male friends have been the most appreciated and affirming, in some cases. While many close friends commented on the more personal aspects of my story—the body policing and direct quotes—there were a few who were willing to admit their participation in systematic acts of sexism. A favorite conversation occurred with a friend who said that he had honestly never thought about gender roles in the sciences and learned a lot from my perspective. The openness and humility in the responses reignite my faith in the Y chromosome, and I am so thankful for the friends I have that respect me enough to acknowledge their privilege and believe in my intelligence. True allies to our cause recognize their position within systems of oppression and are bold enough to admit their complacent participation. Passive agreement with sweeping statements does not make a man a feminist, and active acknowledgement of how men are inherently positioned in a superior status is required to start deconstructing the assumptions that place them there.

In that vein, over the past two weeks, I realized that also many men question my respectability, based on assumptions they make that I cannot change. It is either apparently shocking that I am eloquent or reading about male privilege in a specific context makes men uncomfortable, but the awkward comment of “wow, you’re a great writer!” is becoming tiresome. I am a senior at a liberal arts college. Believe it or not, I have taken a few courses in which I have had to write analytical papers. Intelligence is not limited to the laboratory setting and intellectual engagement with a personal essay may involve some acknowledgement of the material. This is not to say that commenting on my writing abilities is inherently condescending, but the volume of emphatic congratulations on my ability to write coherently reminds me that there are assumptions about science in general that intersect with those about my gender identity. It is taken for granted that I have been valued less than male counterparts and this aspect of my article is overwhelmingly ignored.

In a particular case, a close friend qualified my writing in terms of high school boys and congratulated me on my use of large words. I called him out, for not only proving my point but for also hurting me, and received a series of half-hearted excuses which culminated in him telling me that once I calmed down, I would realize that he was complimenting me and did not say anything wrong. In a span of fifteen minutes, I learned that regardless of how many papers I have published as an undergraduate, regardless of the fact that I am attending a national conference to present my research project, regardless of the fact that we had been in class and worked on the same material together, and regardless of my accomplishments, my success will always surprise him. My intelligence must constantly be proven in order to earn his respect. During that fifteen minute walk from the library, I learned that we would never be equals on his terms. The façade was shattered, and this realization led to the dissolution of a close friendship. This will, unfortunately, probably not be the only instance in which I will have to lose someone I care about, but I will not put forth effort into a relationship with someone who fundamentally disrespects me.

This article was a result of a long-coming realization about my identity. I am proud to be an intelligent and independent woman, for all of the qualities and character traits which I embody and exemplify. As Simone de Beauvoir says in her highly lauded and formative book The Second Sex published in 1949: “One is not born, but rather becomes woman.” Over the past twenty-two years of my existence, I have encountered people and structures of oppression which reinforce deep-rooted insecurities, and part of my new quest in feminism is to ignore the toxic influences which fuel self-doubt. I love myself and am no longer ashamed of that fact, even though I will still continue to experience male dominance in the workplace. In fact, this past week while presenting a paper in my neuroscience seminar, a male classmate felt the need to correct my pronunciation of a word that I had openly admitted I was butchering. Apparently, proving that he understands more clinical German vocabulary than I do somehow validates his superiority in our course. The countless instances of questioning my intelligence and making assumptions about my abilities have added to my stubbornly defiant perseverance. I am more willing to work hard, make sacrifices, and stand up for myself in order to succeed—because I have to.

I do, however, have a network of peers and friends who support and stand beside me as they navigate the same obstacles. Even in response to the critique that I have received, they have commiserated with me about the sexist comments we all experience and urged me to ignore them. They continue to be the reason why I am glad I finally put my experience in text.

In particular, a recent conversation with a female colleague reaffirmed my newfound sense of confidence. I submitted my last application to graduate school and texted her out of nervousness, and in response, she sent me the following message: “You are a fantastic candidate. Whatever school you decide to bless your presence with is going to be the luckiest place on earth. And during your many interviews–if you feel like a school isn’t excited to have you, then they are crap, because there are places that will be ecstatic to train you.”

She is just one example of the numerous mentors who have told me time and time again that they have no doubts about my abilities and eventual success. In the coming years, I will earn my PhD in a predominantly male field and continue to navigate my way through a sexist world in which silencing is nuanced and subversive. I will, however, be stronger because of it and the faith that so many have had in me will not be wasted.

Thank you, to the friends and mentors who have held my hand or appreciated my commentary. Your words and support mean the world to me. In the words of a friend, hang in there sisters. To everyone else: haters gonna hate, but I’m still kicking ass and looking fabulous.

Disclaimer: I want to locate my position and privilege as a white, straight, cis-woman. While I have been discouraged and have struggled with patronization, my voice in no way speaks for the women of color, queer women, or trans-women who encounter exponentially more discrimination that I will ever endure. I do not want my stories to erase their presence, voices, and experiences in any way, nor do I want to broadly claim that my experiences are homologous for all female-identified scientists. While there are common threads between all female experiences, each individual has her own unique perspective, and I am only directly speaking to my own.

3 Comments

  • Larry Phipps says:

    From the day she was born she has been fantastic. She set her goals and went after them. Grandma and I could not be more proud of her. Some school will be like Vasser to have trained on on the finest scientist in the world. Gender has never slowed her down. But too many times we see just what she talks about.

    Poppy

  • Erica says:

    Girl you know I can’t stay away from these comments. Proud of you as always for speaking up. I’m lol’ing thinking of the time you screamed “male privilege” at that guy trying to dance with you in Madison and I’m wondering if that’s the first or last time that ever happened. XOXO

  • Cool article, It was practical.

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