I’m a woman in STEM

All views and experiences are my own. My experience will be different from other women. Every place is different, every discipline is different, and every person is different.

UNSW, Women in STEAM Photo Exhibit

I saw a Facebook acquaintance post this status: “None of my women friends have ever felt uncomfortable at work or in their environment, we are a family!” and I bunch of male comments along the lines of “yeah me neither” or “I just don’t think it’s common”.

Sorry.

How often have you edited an email for its exclamation marks, perhaps deleting or adding in a smiley face, what about making sure you don’t come off too harsh and changing words for their less aggressive synonyms?

How often have you apologized before asking a question, apologized for another persons nuisances before asking them to stop, or even apologized as a preemptive measure?

Trust me, I’m the scientist.

There have been several times in my young career, that I’ve had to “prove” myself. While I try not to let it get to me, sometimes I just have a bad day. Why is it so hard for some people to believe women can be smart? And they wonder why I have imposter syndrome.

I was at a meeting with an academic, a visiting academic, and multiple graduate students. Before the meeting even started, the visiting academic shook hands with all the males in the room, but me. It was extremely obvious; he went down the line of handshakes like a handshake conveyor belt, until he got to me. Let’s make this clear; I was prepared for a handshake. I used to PRACTICE my handshake to ensure I don’t have the “limp” hand nor a “hand of iron grip” (just FYI I’ve been told I have a good handshake). But instead the dude left me hanging.

High Five Regular Season GIF by NFL - Find & Share on GIPHY
I felt like Number 77.

The meeting didn’t imrpove. Each graduate student then gave a brief overview of their project – all of which were very different. The visiting academic had a question about my project. Out of all the graduate students, he had a question about MY project. This excitement didn’t last long. He asked a question about my project, but he didn’t ask me. He asked my colleague. Rather than directing the answer to me – the person who actually does the project – my colleague went ahead to answer MY question. At this point, I was still mad about the handshake, so this just tipped things over the edge. I just sat listening to my colleague trying to explain my project. I then excused myself, saying I have time-sensitive lab work. No one there was going to listen to anything I had to say anyways. I wasn’t going to miss much.

In my case, this scenario doesn’t happen often in academia. Or at least not to this extent, not yet. But in the “real world” this happens more often than I’d like to admit. But here, I have less to lose, no academic reputation to uphold, no bridges to burn.

I was at a dinner party, where the majority of the people were of an older generation, with my partner. We were being introduced to the hosts: “This is K and his partner Anastasia. They are the ones moving to Australia because of a PhD”. The hosts were gracious, even shook my hand (!), then turned to my partner and say “a PhD, that’s so impressive, what will you be studying?”. Let’s pause here. The hosts had no evidence of who was getting the PhD, they were going off of their own assumptions. But my partner is a good man: “Oh I’m not getting the PhD, Anastasia is the scientists here, feel free to ask her”. I’ve had partners in the past who certainly wouldn’t and have not acted this way.

Expectations.

“When are you getting married?” “When are you having kids?”

How about you ask me questions I actually know the answers to, or questions that don’t question my reproduction. I didn’t expect this impromptu, back-alley doctors appointment to lecture me on my eggs. Ask me about my research.

“Why did you dress up?” “Is there a special occasion?”

Just because a woman decided to switch up leggings for a summer dress, doesn’t mean she has to go to a ball after work. If you want to compliment someone just do it, there’s no need to ask for a reason. Maybe they were just looking for a compliment that day. WHO CARES? This also works the opposite way, please don’t ask someone if something is wrong or whether they are tired because they didn’t put on makeup that morning.

Sometimes people like to dress up when they are presenting. I personally love doing that. If I feel confident, I will give a more confident presentation. There’s no need to:

a) Point this out to the person, especially NOT in front of the people they are about to present to. Like do you think I just woke up in a blouse and mascara and needed reminding?

b) Give me a speech of how “you’re over dressing up for presentations”. Ok cool. Keep doing you.

“But, you’re so pretty”

This was said after I told the person I am going to do a PhD. I have no further comment.

More to do.

These comments and behaviours are not the norm, but they aren’t rare either. We have so much more to do. And when I say “we” I don’t mean just people who identify as women. I mean everyone.

I’ve got one last story. I like to talk to young women and girls about my career pathway, research, failures, and hardships. Early in my career, I had inspirational women, but I had no women mentors. I felt lost, I wanted guidance, I wanted to know I wasn’t alone, and I wanted to have some to relate to. I went to a seminar “Being a woman in science”. This was the first seminar of its kind that I had been to in my 5 years of university. The seminar guest was a very prestigious professor at our university. She had such a rich career. I took courses from her and thought she was very inspirational. She was also retiring, like next year.

Her seminar was about her struggles of getting work as a woman scientist…because she was the first woman scientist in that department for that university. Don’t get me wrong, her seminar was well done and was interesting. It just wasn’t the seminar I thought it was going to be.

These days I have a much better support system of supervisors, female colleagues, and female mentors. I can also talk openly with women about my struggles and experiences – without feeling embarrassed; as well as empathize with women in other disciplines. And the scenarios I’ve mentioned above have happened to multiple women I know, sometimes to worse extents. The above is but an appetizer of what I’ve experienced, and probably will experience in the future. There is still so much more we can do, and so much more to be done.

I don’t ever want to be told to smile. I’ll smile when I’m happy.

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