Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Being a woman in science

I love reading stories about women in science and the unique hurdles they had to overcome to get to where they are today. The American Chemical Society posted a link to these articles from a Fairbanks, Alaska newspaper for Women in Science month.

I am now – amazingly – in that “mid-career” category. Not a newbie by any amount. I have been around the block once or twice. I am still young enough that I went into science in college thinking equality was in. Men had grown up or moved on. I was a professional product of the 90’s. YES, the 90’s. But still my stories aren’t too far off from the women who shared in these articles who have more experience than me.

Do I think things are changing? YES. I hosted a student last year who was a chemical engineer from Yale and one of my most memorable conversations with her was after one of our big team meetings for the Navy project. We left and I can’t remember how she put it, but she was surprised. “They are all guys,” she exclaimed. And went on to tell me that all her classes were at least 50-50.

My hallway at work is estrogen lane. There are 13 offices in my hallway and all but two are occupied by women.

My team lead? A woman. My manager? A woman. I love it!

Because in my daily activities? The projects I work on daily and the people I work with?

All men.

And that is how it has been since I started here. No joke. Now I am a physical scientist with a little more engineering and physics to my chemistry life, but that shouldn’t be an excuse. Where are the women?

I liked the questions posed to these women scientists in Alaska and figured I would take it upon myself to answer them. If you are a woman in science, answer them in the comments, e-mail your answers to me and I will post them here in my blog or post the answers on your blog and provide me the link, okay?

“Were there more hurdles for you to clear in science because you were a woman?” (Ok, poorly written question, “are” they ARE women, they aren’t men now…)

I don’t believe there were more hurdles to clear education-wise because I am a woman. I believe that I had every opportunity presented to me as an undergrad and grad student in the 90’s based on the path I chose. Now I did reject one school after I had a very disheartening visit. I visited on the same day as another male potential graduate student at Colorado State and professors took him out to lunch – at the same place that the female graduate student assigned to take me out, took me. Later when I asked the department head if I would have an opportunity to teach upper division chemistry, he told me that female TA’s were not well received by the student body. I ran the other way. Once I was settled in a great program I experienced little gender disconnect. In my first year, I was teaching an upper division lab class. I should note that I went to a school with a very young faculty and with (gasp) three female faculty members.

I believe that I had a few more hurdles in the workplace than I had in education as a women. When I signed on as a post-doc, my mentor made sure to get me a p-card immediately, so I could place the teams' orders and I worked editing their reports and pulling their presentations together. I was a glorified admin. When I was in the lab and the guys walked in they would say, “hi honey, I am home” and the like. The team I was hired into was very unfriendly to women and when I started asking around the other women nodded and one even said that the whole group was shocked when this team brought a woman post-doc on. In order to advance I had to pick myself up, meet others, prove myself to others and make a name for myself. The guys who came in the same time as me were being paraded around like princes while I was struggling to get someone to give me the time of day.

“Has public perception changed about women scientists?”

Yes, I had the student last summer who as a senior had never encountered anything less than 50% female student body. I never had anything close to 50% women in my classes at a very liberal college. But this is college, in the workplace I think there is a ways to go.

Today, I am working in project management and I recently had an incident with a coworker that was not happy with me. Some of the things he said, and the analogies he made to our managers lead me to sit and wonder if he would have said these things of a man sitting across the table from him. I am quite positive not. I think (large stereotype here) "older" men are not afraid to challenge a woman in the workplace more on her knowledge or leadership abilities. There seems to be a perception that you have to be a ball breaker to move up, act like a man, don’t bring your femininity, but these are the same things that are frowned upon when we look up to women who have made it. I work quite well with men in the same general age group as myself. My Gen-X counterparts get it. They are the ones pulling double duty with their wives in child rearing and who have heard their wives come home with tales like mine. I tend to think that they would never treat a woman in a way they wouldn’t want their wives treated. Older generations (complete generalization here) their wives didn’t work in technical fields and many never worked at all. They don't have that same thought process or female professors or mentors to draw upon that the Gen X'ers did.

“Have there been hurdles you have faced that a man would not have faced?”

Getting exposure. When I first started as a post-doc so often it was assumed I was an admin assistant. I will claim that it is all about who you know. There are men here that are afraid to know a woman. Many deals are brokered over lunch, but many men are afraid to go have lunch with a female colleague – at least outside of a group. It presents a Catch-22. I work with a woman who told me about asking a manager to have dinner with her one night. She was married, he was married. She had some technical questions she wanted to pose and suggested they grab a bite to eat. He was so taken aback that he actually mentioned to her “sexual harassment”. Would this happen with two guys? No, they would go grab a beer at the local sports bar.

Another aspect, I went through a spell there working for a manager whose wife had never worked out of the home. The realities I faced with being a working mom with a newborn were foreign to him and he pretty much chalked me up as a whiner and told me there was no reason I couldn’t pump in the bathroom. When I pointed out there were no outlets he told me to get a battery pack. While I was out on my first maternity leave I had my first proposal funded. He handed it off to a man in my group citing he, “didn’t know what I wanted to do when I came back from leave”. He also never asked.

“What would you tell a girl who is contemplating a career in science?”

To find a good mentor at every stage. And by mentor I don’t mean manager – they have their own interests at heart in what they want you to do. Find someone you can talk freely to about what you want to do with your career. I wish I would have had more mentors in my career. Bachelors and then Masters or PhD so often is the given in science, but a mentor will be able to make suggestions based off experience, what do you really need to get where you want? What is the reality of academic positions? What if you love science, but wonder if there are other opportunities than standing in the lab? I have learned in the last few years that I have a propensity for management and business development. There are times when, despite the fact that this is what I want to be doing, I wonder if I am wasting my Ph.D. as I interact with managers sporting MBAs? The closest thing I have to a mentor right now (I am getting a new one in May) has told me no way, that in his product line he values highly technical managers. But just maybe, had I had someone early on in deciding what my career was going to be like and what life I wanted, maybe someone would have pointed me another way?

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