Once I thought it might be nice to write something for the Women’s day, I was faced with a conundrum. What is there left to say that has not been said in the last 2 years since the #MeToo movement started? Besides, what could be of interest to a bunch of aspiring scientists?
The enumeration of the wrongs done to women in science seems unhelpful. Another argument on the necessity or futility of quotas – redundant. Overview of the cottage industry studying the differences in female and male brains – worse than useless. Of course, the differences will be found, but they are largely beside the point.
Instead, I’d like to offer a small bite on using feminism as a practice for reflection. A habit of paying close attention to the triggers, hovering on the threshold of consciousness, can illuminate what you find convincing and who you choose to listen to in the first place.
After all, as scientists, we are interested in getting closer to reality. Experimenting and peeling off the accumulated misconceptions, received notions and ideological flack, bit by bit. While writing this in the first person risks coming off as solipsistic, writing it in the third is a larger hazard. ‘The view from nowhere’ fosters a false sense of objectivity and authority, neither of which I purport to have.
To set the record straight: I am writing as a female aspiring scientist, whose first exposure to both science and feminism happened around the same time. The former saved me from the ideological zeal of the latter, while the latter kept my eyes open to the underplayed significance of personal agendas. Frankly, I do think being aware of those – hyper aware at times – made me see gendered remarks where none were meant to be. Bearing that in mind, here are vignettes describing events, which may or may not have happened.
Does this make sense?
Small lecture hall. Scraps of students and postdocs, persisting through the semester break, fill the seats. PIs occupy another row or two. It is the middle of a talk that felt more like a comprehensive lecture on the topic rather than a summary of a study or two. The presenter – professor in her 50s – gives generous swathes of her time to describe findings of others. Typical enough, but she does not do so to provide context for her lab’s work. She wants the audience to get as full picture as possible of the function in question and its neural underpinnings. Her take home messages can be taken home indeed, retained, consolidated, used to expand the knowledge base of the attendee. She doesn’t recite to you her Nature paper subheadings, thrown on top of a couple of vaguely illustrative diagrams.
Yet, now and again, she steals a glance at the PowerPoint, looks at the audience and, flicking her hair, says under her breath:’ Does this make sense? ‘
Everything and more
I am perched at the last row of the enormous auditorium and the speaker’s red lipstick could be a great substitute for a mask if we were in the ancient Greek theatre. She speaks clearly, meticulously articulating each word. Whether it is because English is not her native language or because she tries to help people follow the details of the techniques she is presenting, I do not know. All I know is that the effect is enchanting. She starts with the fundamental physics of the methods and continues all the way through to its astonishing applications, gesticulating generously to keep the listeners going along. It’s easy to get carried away by distracting, but inevitable mental automatisms: She is so young, and so accomplished! She is so charming, and intelligent! You cannot help feeling pride for her and shame for yourself. For all those mental movements were preceded with a surge of surprise: she can be this and that.
Undoubtedly, she can. Women try to rise up to the expectations, men try to test what they can get away with.
It is an event off the campus. It’s been a long day of talks, and the mood is benevolently delusional. The presenter’s story makes sense precisely till the moment someone asks a basic question about the principle behind the mentioned method. The answer quickly gets off track, crumbles under the weight of logical inconsistency.
‘But let me tell you… this method is so underappreciated!’ – there are many other ways to do the same intervention, undiscussed.
‘But let me show you… we get such fascinating results’ – there are many other labs, studying the same phenomenon with different outcomes, unmentioned.
‘But let me emphasise… how nontrivial the set-up of this has been’ – there are many other set-ups that require laborious troubleshooting, unremarked.
But she is brilliant, she just wants you to like her and her story, unnoticed.
Right place, right time
Internal seminar of another department. The only reason I – and a room-full of people – am here is the topic. The talk is about a version of a groundbreaking imaging method. The guest is the creator of one of the most talked about protocols, her host – developer of its rival.
As she goes through her slides, showcasing the imaged specimen, the sense of unreality slowly creeps over the audience. The host is impatient, leans over, almost ready to spring to his feet.
They are both trailblazers, who managed to accomplish the same challenging goal with equally ingenious strategies. Still, when the question round (mildly dominated by joking attacks from the host) is over, I overhear someone remarks to his friend: ‘But she had all this infrastructure at the X Institute and Y was her supervisor. Building on Y’s work, with all those resources, it surely was a piece of cake. But the host here – he must have fought hard; she must have been lucky’.
One point flows out of the other and at the end of it you feel your brain improved just acting as receptacle for such precise thinking. The senior researcher patiently walks the audience through her logic, demonstrates her attitude of ‘assembling the mosaic’. Each piece – each project – is a perfectly self-contained entity with clear hypotheses, straightforward methodology and unequivocal conclusions.
It should have helped: the support system of a prominent scientist-father and a motherland entirely free of prejudicial absurdity. Reduced burden of calculation in the muddle of social relations, the absolution of age, the certainty of an independent spirit – here comes the paragon of the scientific method duly respected.
Let it go
Lunchtime seminars are a highlight in their own right – the food is free, the sandwiches are paid for by the department. Better yet, they are served before the talk. So the audience can amplify their natural critical attitude with some extra calories.
It is good, because it is hard not to get dazzled. While a rather short career of today’s speaker has already made a significant impact on her field, the work being presented here is yet more consequential.
The results provoke numerous questions. Men ask, she answers, bringing up extra slides. The dialogue, however, is quenched at the source. The imperceptible dismissive nod, the subtle arching of the brow, the hardly detectable squint. They understand her work and all its implications, she does not grasp it in entirety.
Women looking at women
‘I must be slow, but I still don’t understand this point’ – I said it out loud. Unbelievable. Worse still, I did so as a presenter of the paper at a student seminar. The mere idea of such an utterance used to make me shiver. Feeling, knowing that you are an impostor is enough. Putting it out to the world was redundant – everyone sees you do not belong here, silly.
Another student graciously explained. As a preface, she quivered with laughter. Poorly concealed bemusement as a way of distancing herself, silently declaring to others: ‘I – I – will never be so foolish’. I know this move very well. I’ve done it many times myself, becoming none the wiser.
My aim here has been to illustrate the many ways gender shapes the experience of the academic space. I hope this does more justice to the diversity of female characters and histories than generic remarks about the disadvantages of being a woman in science.