I went to a discussion about women in science last week. I don’t normally do things like that, since such events have been known to bring on side effects such as the Horrified Hiccups and mysterious aches in the Being Patronised (or should it be Matronised) Brain Cell. When compared to women throughout the ages, I am very privileged in the attitude that my co-workers have to my gender, i.e. that it is a non-issue. I recognise that there are not as many women doing science as men (for reasons which are many and complicated), but I really don’t think that it’s due to prejudice any longer. There may well be isolated cases when this is true, but I can’t quite believe that they are at all representative. However, this change in attitudes is still newly hatched, and this is my only explanation for the persistance of “Women In Science” workshops when I was a teenager. I felt patronised at all of them. And I felt that women were almost being told to have problems, when really the issues being discussed could apply just to much to men as women. Not all men are assertive and confident and they will have problems when dealing with over-assertive and excessively confident co-workers, just as shyer females might. The problem is with the way people are, not their gender.
So. I have not been to any of these events since, and I thought it was about time to see how things have changed. And it was very interesting. The women there found it extremely difficult to come up with instances where they had been discriminated against, even though they were being actively encouraged to talk about them. Now, there is obviously one very important difference between men and women. Women can bear children and men, however much they want to help, do not have to go through the physical process associated with this. The point where the number of women in science really drops off is at the point where they have a family and have tended not to come back to science aftewards. I believe that this is the only time period that really matters in the gender debate. I also have a theory on this, based on talking to other female scientists. Institutions no longer stand in the way of new mothers coming back to work as they once did. But science itself has problems for researchers at that stage that apply both to men and women. Ask any postdoc. We look at the PIs in our departments and we see very stressed people, who work far too many hours on weekdays and on weekends, who have to struggle for funding, fight for lab space and also deal with teaching responsibilities and committees and so on. It’s not just women who look at this mess and question whether their love of science is enough for them to carry on. Men do too. No-one wants a permanently stressed lifestyle and a guaranteed heart attack at 55. But I think that partly because of having some time off to have children and getting some perspective on it all, and partly because they are used to talking about problems more than men, women look at it and decide to do something else. Men still have a bit of a macho attitude to problems and tend to deny them and just keep struggling along, feeling as though it would be failing to admit to the struggle. Women tend to be a bit better about admitting problems. And science shouldn’t be like this. The system should not punish enthusiastic and intelligent people for being enthusiastic and intelligent. So I think that the gender split during the postdoc years has more to do with
the big problems in how science works and the unfair pressure that researchers are often under, at least until they get tenure. This is not to do with prejudice against women in science. This has to do with women identifying the problems in science and refusing to play by those rules. You only have one life. Why should you be miserable in it, just because someone else defines that misery as success?
So I think that women here are in a position to help both themselves and the men in science. Let’s face up to it and sort it out. Let’s change this system where the only security comes with tenure, when the best years of your life are behind you. It’s not a “gender” issue. It’s right at the core of how science is organised. We should find ways to fix it. Systems are huge, but their rules are not written in stone. There is hope.
Right, I’ve made my political point. Back to the cheerful flippancy next time….