Frisky Rant: I Am A Scientist, Not A “Lady” Scientist

Earlier this year, Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt and Biochemist at the University College London found himself with a bit of a PR problem when he tried to analyze the gender gap in science. According to Hunt, the real issue was that women were just too damn sexy for the white coats. While men in science tried to do to work in the laboratory, apparently women were just running around making trouble by having breasts and creating insurmountably distracting amounts of sexual tension. Appropriately, the internet flipped out over the fact that a person living in the 21st century would think that this was something to say out loud, to a reporter, without at least a moment’s pause. Think pieces were generated, and instead of resigning to their fates by quitting their jobs and stocking up on “sexy scientist” costumes for Halloween, women took to Instagram, showing themselves in various research settings and undermining Hunt’s thesis that there is an undeniable sensuality to be found in a female wearing a level 4 biohazard suit. Eventually, Sir Tim resigned and the internet moved onto the next asshole of the week.

Hunt’s comments seemed unfounded for a number of reasons; first of all, gay people exist, which is kind of something you would think a Nobel Laureate in Biochemistry would understand. Second of all, there’s nothing to suggest that a laboratory setting is some kind of special aphrodisiac; people are equal opportunity fuckers, surely willing to have sex in a number of workplace environments. Lastly, despite the fact that Hunt had likely worked alongside numerous women for years without being able to contain his many boners, there are plenty of other heterosexual members of the opposite sex who have managed to coexist with women in the workplace just fine. Easy as it was to identify the mental traps Hunt had fallen into, I realized that it was even easier for me to believe that someone in his position and with his educational background would say what he did. My anger was short-lived, if it existed at all, because I was all too familiar with women in science being seen or presented as women in science, rather than just scientists.

Misogyny runs deep in many professions, and it shouldn’t be surprising that you’ll often find it most blatantly expressed in fields that are persistently male-dominated. However, I have been lucky enough to work for nearly a decade in research without ever experiencing sexism in the workplace; I’ve found that the people who tend to have the most damaging attitudes about this issue are, scarily enough, the women I know who are doing science.

For example, a friend of mine recently told me the following story: when she was an editor at her alma mater’s alternative paper, she unwittingly found herself pushed to the forefront of a controversy she had little interest in resolving. The scandal itself was predictably college, involving a boringly chauvinistic piece that relied on rape-culture for humor. Understandably, angry campus activist groups aligned to protest, an apology letter from the staff editors was issued, and ultimately my friend, one of the only female editors, was asked to partake in a discussion panel about the incident. When I inquired as to whether or not she attended the event, she said she was furious that they had even asked; she flat-out refused to engage in the dialogue, and was offended that they had the gall to question her status as a feminist in the first place.

I was perplexed. Why would my friend, a very smart, self-reflective person with no openly disclosed fear of public speaking reject the opportunity to help lead a debate about sexism on her campus? Her side of the story, which I was sympathetic to, was that the protests felt too opportunistic for her taste, and focusing on her coursework was more important because in the long run, she wanted to do her best to make a career for herself as a scientist, hoping to help close the gender gap at the advanced degree level. My friend’s version of feminism was essentially a standoff between her goal of representing a minority group in a male-dominated field and having the conversation about how to make that happen for everyone, the latter of which in her mind would inevitably distract from the former.

Only that’s not how my friend put it. Her summary was, “I’d rather be a feminist by crushing it as a lady scientist.”

Lady Scientist.”

I cringe every time I think about reading those words, encased in the notorious green iPhone bubble that I so badly wanted to pop in that moment; in all my professional contexts, my name has never had a gender asterisk attached to it, so why is it that many of my female friends and peers with medical degrees and PhDs waiting for them want to impose one on me? Can’t I just be a scientist? Internalizing the sexism we face as women in science by “caveating” our chosen professions will only make it more difficult for us to naturally place ourselves into those environments, both in our own minds and in the real world. Creating this tenuous link between gender and skill set will also provide people with the opportunity to exploit that link and make unfounded generalizations, adding fuel to the fire that ultimately engulfed our British friend, but persists beyond him today.

Furthermore, I can’t get behind the idea that having a dialogue about progress is mutually exclusive with being progressive; in fact, what my friend did was essentially excuse herself from a potentially uncomfortable or difficult conversation by somehow turning her career goals into a sort of feminist credo, using the opportunities she had been afforded as a cloak for avoiding conflict. In the process, she also silenced those who didn’t have an amplified voice like her own, who couldn’t speak from the experience she had.

While I promote a feminism that shames no woman for her take on ambition (or for anything really), I also think that partaking in these conversations is necessary to the process of making change happen; it provides us with an opportunity to examine areas of unchecked privilege and listen to people with different perspectives on the same issues. Without the debate, there wouldn’t be women in science in the first place, and without a woman willing to step in to die of radiation poisoning for her work (what’s up Marie Curie?), the debate wouldn’t mean much.