For Me, Science is a Black Hole, Inevitable
In Nor does Burberry make lab coats, Dustbury suggests that anyone who wants to get into science will get into science regardless of the teaching environment. I think this depends on the person.
I have only my own experience to relate–which I think is pretty boring compared to some stories from other women in science. I didn’t have anyone telling me that I couldn’t do science* or that maybe I was better off doing something else. I didn’t have any terrible obstacles to overcome. Then again, going into science or something science related was sort of a given since I was young. Given a choice, I got toys like legos or robot building kits or a microscope. My mom once tried to teach me embroidery and enrolled me in a pottery class, but that stuff didn’t hold my interest even if all the other girls were doing it.
Grade school science classes weren’t particularly scintillating. I was mostly ignored by the teachers in favor of the more vociferous and aggressive students. There was an aerospace class I took in which I was the only female student–but I didn’t feel ostracized at all, probably because I didn’t seem like the other girls to the male students. I’d rather figure out how a plane works than babying around a sack of flour for home ec–and maybe that made me like one of the guys.
By the time I got to college, I was considering majoring in physics and biology. I dropped the physics, but it wasn’t because of the all boys environment of this particular hard science. I’ve met some wonderful physicists–but I was bored. When you find yourself falling asleep at physics seminars on cutting edge research, it’s definitely a sign that this particular branch of science is not for you. Biology, on the other hand, still holds this allure for me as an elaborate, complex puzzle waiting to be cracked. This isn’t to say that physics isn’t important–in fact, it’s very important. To me, the difference is more of preference for what puzzle I want to solve. It’s sort of like how my sister, the artist in the family, views sculpture and drawing. One isn’t inherently better than the other, but she prefers doing the sculpture.
This isn’t to say that environment plays no role. It’s just that I consciously try not to let it affect me to the point that I want to chuck it all to become a hawker at some roadside stand selling tacky souvenirs. The last two years as an undergraduate, I worked in a lab with eleven post-docs, only one who was female. I heard a bit of gossip in that lab–and none of it was particularly nice to anyone. Frankly, you just have to roll your eyes at the latest on dit and continue on with your experiments. More recently, a former post-doc in the lab I now work in (he’s now a professor), once had a female undergrad working for him. On several occasions, he had managed to make her cry–not because he was being particularly mean, but he is very demanding. Two months ago, he had remarked that maybe I should be doing more 24-hour experiments because I wasn’t doing an all-nighter that particular week. And as any reasonable person who doesn’t want to scare the more impressionable undergrads with a loud WTF, I just shrugged and chalked it up to temporary insanity.
There is the assumption that there’s an unspoken notion that if you’re not interested in science all the time, you’re not a real scientist. I will say that this isn’t entirely true. They’ll still consider you a real scientist if you have hobbies–if those hobbies include beer and athletics–hobbies traditionally considered male. Heck, if you’re taking off Friday to go fishing or hang out at the local pub, the professors will happily agree (and possibly even join you). But if it’s something else, well, there’s a reason I do not talk much about my fiction writing in real life (even if what I’m writing about contains microbes and spaceships). Instead, I try to work hard–so that if anyone does find out about my writing, it can’t be used as something to question my dedication to research.
Maybe for some people, they do need the right environment. Another student had talked about how one of her friends went to an all women’s college and became more confident about what she wanted to do after all the feminist-positive reinforcement. Perhaps for some people, science is like an acquired taste. Maybe on their own, they wouldn’t go into science, but with encouragement they might grow to love it–like trying wine, slowly growing to like it, and eventually becoming a connoisseur. Personally, I’m not sure an absolute women-centric route is the way to go. Having a variety of different teaching styles rather than just one or the other might be a better solution. The real world workplace is made up of both men and women. More importantly, the workplace will inevitably include someone who will rub you the wrong way. So eventually, you’ll have to learn to deal with them regardless of gender or how you were taught.
*Addendum: I take that back. There was one time when someone told me I wasn’t cut out for science. It was probably at the lowest point in my academic career. But I guess I’m pretty good at blocking out the bad stuff cause it’s taken me this long to recall it.