“… and then I realized you were a woman… why don’t you study something that is more for your gender?” No, this quote isn’t from some sci-fi movie you might have seen in the 1950s. This was a comment said to me in 2011 by a male scientist.
Earlier today I was reminded of one of the most jaw-dropping moments in my life, particularly, as a woman scientist. I guess for me, I never understood there was a divide between men and women. I grew up in a family that told me I could do whatever I want in life- there was no such thing as “this is what boys do, and this is what girls do.” My grandmothers both told me stories of the obstacles they both had to go through as women when it came to jobs “back in the day.” I would always think to myself, “Thank God I never grew up during that era!” Well, I have found out many times throughout the years, the stigma against women in the workforce, particularly women scientist, really hasn’t improved.
Since the time I decided to work with crocodiles, I have been laughed at and scoffed by fellow male colleagues (of course not all of them. Some are actual MEN and are not threatened by intelligent and independent women who want to perform science!). In the very beginning of my training with crocodiles, I was given the hardest time than the guys. I was constantly criticized and ridiculed for every move I made and how I handled the animals. I was also constantly tested intellectually about crocodiles more-so than the guys. And even though I may have more knowledge and handled the animals more safely than my male counterparts, I was still not as good as the boys, and could not be trusted in leading a capture to move the crocs in another enclosure. For many girls who I knew were interested in working with crocs at these facilities, or even other reptiles, gave up. The constant hardship of proving yourself can be tiresome, and many ended up working with the more furry or feathery animals. And it didn’t help either when women with supervising or directorial positions in the facility discouraged you from working with the reptiles, and rather encouraged you to work with animals that were more complementary to women. I of course ignored all the sexist comments and continued to push to work with the crocs, but these type of events made me realize there was a reason you don’t see as many women herpetologists as males, and I was soon to find out this type of attitude transpired into the world of academia.
When I got into grad school, I figured I was going to leave behind sexism and have full support for my decision to work with crocodilian parasites. Within the first 5 minutes of my first meeting with my pre-doctoral committee, I was proven wrong. The first thing that came out of two of the male scientists words were, “Crocs are too hard to study. You need to study something easier for someone like you, a woman.” I couldn’t believe I was hearing this from scientists from a Tier 1 Research school. I was appalled! And then it dawned on me – I realized that all my life I was going to have to fight this battle of constantly proving myself as a woman scientist, particularly one who has chosen a field that is heavily DOMINATED by men. And I can tell you from my own experience, I am never taken seriously compared to my male counterparts, my hypotheses and theories are always scrutinized more-so than males who may have similar ideas, and I am always re-evaluating myself as a scientist due to the feeling of being under appreciated relative to my male colleagues. I always thought I was alone, but hearing stories from other female scientist, I realize I am not and there is a serious problem in academia. And if we are to advance as a society, a culture, and in science in general, then this boorish mindset that women are less intelligent than men must be abolished. Instead of mockery, what the current male AND female advisors need to do is encourage, inspire, and actually mold us young females into superior scientists.
So, in 2011 I was given the grand awakening of the life and hardships I was going to face (once again, not all the time as I know many men are more progressive than others). To be told that as a woman I didn’t know what I was doing, and I needed to send all my samples to a male graduate student who would know more than me on how to work with the samples… just cause. And that I should stop my research now and research parasitism in an animal that is more for my gender. I of course must be hard of hearing, or just plain stubborn, as I don’t care to listen to people like this and I am glad I never did. Upon speaking at schools, I always stress to the young girls that they can choose their own career path- there are going to be obstacles, but to not give up. I continue to struggle in spite of what is said to me, but I hope my struggles, and the struggles of other women scientist will be inspirational to the younger generation of women scientist to not give up, and follow their dreams of a scientific career.
And as hard as we try to change the perception in academia, we also need to change the perception of the rest of the public. I have been asked to do segments on random shows for Animal Planet and Discovery. However, something always goes array and I am told they no longer need me. The reason? 1) “The public won’t take a woman scientist as serious as a male.” 2) “The public isn’t ready to see a young, intelligent, woman scientist on TV.” What is the taboo of a young, woman scientist leading a TV show, or talking during a segment?
So- to all the women scientist out there, we have some work to do to change a barbaric perception about us. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be emotionally tiresome, but if we stick together we will make a HUGE difference for the next generation of young girl scientists… I am willing to take on that task-Are you?