I’m an oceanographer. Oceanography, ocean science, physical science – however you want to put it, it’s a male-dominated field. That never deterred me in the slightest, and I never felt that I was disadvantaged by being female. Until my postdoc. It took my awhile to wrap my head around the full story, but in hindsight I was severely marginalized and type-cast from the outset. It would have been the end of my career if it wasn’t for my own tenacity, the incredible support of my science husband (Simon), and my the professional network that I developed during graduate school.
To My Fellow Women in Science & Tech – Do Not Get Stuck in the Girl Box
I graduated from Scripps Institution of Oceanography with a PhD – a stellar school. I left with a great resume and outstanding reference letters. After an intentional break for maternity leave, I started a postdoctoral fellowship at an institution that will remain nameless in this post. My two children* both turned one year old during my postdoc, during which time I published three first author peer-reviewed publications. I only published one in which I was not first author, which was with my science husband Simon (my husband). That’s your first clue that something was off.
It took nearly the entire three years of my postdoctoral fellowship for me to realize how badly I had been placed into the girl box. It was a subtle slide that started off with an unfortunate combination – my enthusiasm and willingness to help out, coupled with an institution where the predominant demographic is white men over age 50, and some stereotypical attitudes associated with that demographic.
How It Happened:
I arrived on the first day of my postdoc eager to meet my new colleagues and get started on my proposed scientific work. There were a variety of hurdles to cross to get my computer, get my computer on the network, software installed, trainings completed, etc. My advisor did not make any major efforts to introduce me to the other scientists aside from those in our immediate research group, so I wandered through the hallways and asked people for help with various technical issues (Do you know where I can get a copy of MATLAB?) and tried to learn about what they do.
It should have been clear within a few weeks that I was in danger. I was asked to help plan a baby shower for a colleague, which I responded to with an enthusiastic yes thinking it would help me get to know people. More concerningly, no one had any interest in talking to me about science. I would ask them and incorporate others’ work in mine, but the curiosity and collaboration was not reciprocal. They were vaguely interested in my proposed project and said things like “that will be a useful study”. In hindsight, I now see they really couldn’t have cared less about my dissertation work on coral reefs and climate change. They didn’t know my advisor or colleagues from graduate school. Everyone had their own project or task, and almost no one was interested in deviating from that task. I was on a fellowship, which sounds great, but what it really meant is that no one had any investment in me or reason to loop me in to ongoing projects and research groups. I was on my own.
At the baby shower, the other organizers and I received accolades on the event planning. Several people, including my new advisor, had indicated to me that my new place of work sorely lacked the type of social events and mixing of disciplines that my graduate school did well. I like event planning. I am good at it. But I made a mistake when I started advocating the idea of the chili cook-off, which my advisor had suggested I do. People were excited! They were finally talking to me! About chili, but still – it was a start that would surely lead to scientific discussion and collaboration in the future.
Let’s cut to the chase here. The chili cook-off was great – a huge success by all accounts. Everyone up my chain of command arrived, brought chili, and thanked me for organizing. In fact, everyone including my highest superior liked it so much that they asked me to do another cook-off. Except they didn’t want another chili cook-off next year – they wanted another cook-off in three months. And another after that. Three cook-offs a year for chili, barbecue, and pies. Help planning the Christmas party every December. Organizing baby showers and lunches. Organize an elaborate potluck dinner for visiting external reviewers and also please make dessert. I worked in a place with very few women, and very few young people, so I was an obvious choice to spearhead and help with all of these activities. At every one, my praises were sung for party planning skills and ability to bring people together. I felt I couldn’t say no. I had become the token young female event planner. I was asked by my advisor’s boss’ boss repeatedly and in person to plan these events “or else the holiday party may not happen.” (Read – this extremely busy man went out of his way to personally track me down to ask me to plan a party, but not to congratulate me on my recently funded grant or publication or anything else pertaining to my actual job description, nor to ask how my job was going.)
I was not without party planning help – but my help had been at this institution longer, and was far wiser to not invest too much time or enthusiasm in these activities. (My help also came solely from the young female demographic, and you’ve probably ascertained by now that there weren’t many of us in this particular research division). I burned out on it too over time. It wasn’t fun, and the time commitment snowballed. People kept asking for more social events, and events with greater complexity.
I love organizing and planning events, but if I wanted to be the party planner I would not have gotten a PhD in science and I certainly wouldn’t be applying for high level research and science jobs.
Things started to get ugly after about two years. I had written a proposal for funding which my advisor submitted on an idea that we came up with together, but heavily relied on my expertise in coral reefs. The proposal was funded! However, I was not offered a permanent job, even though there was now an obvious source of money to start paying me from and I had demonstrated an ability to pull in outside funding. Simon was more concerned than me, and pushed me to start applying for other jobs. Soon we were both fully entrenched in finding permanent science jobs – an exhausting process. The full details of our dual job hunt are a story for another day, but what you need to know is that we found pairs of jobs at a couple of places that represented a net improvement in work and quality of life for our family. We found those jobs without any help from either of our postdoc advisors or the chain of command at my postdoc. Instead, we did quite a bit of leg work on our own and relied on our extremely wonderful support system from graduate school and some folks at a funding agency, who came through for us in a big way on many fronts.
Without any support from my advisor, I published a peer-reviewed paper on my work as a postdoc. He told me in front of Simon to abandon the work after I had nearly finished, my first and so far only publication in a new field, but I submitted it anyway. It was accepted first go with minor revisions on the same day that my advisor’s boss’ boss, the same man who repeatedly gave me glowing accolades for bringing the division together, who told me with a straight face that he valued me immensely as a scientist and wished me all the best in my new position, who gave a sincere speech in front of others emphasizing that I should reach out to him for help if I ever needed it, notified me that he was uncomfortable providing reference letters for me for the faculty jobs I am currently applying for.
I am forgiving, and I give people the benefit of the doubt. Simon will say that I am far too forgiving and trusting. He has a point, because it actually took me the entire three years to realize that none of the folks I worked with ever valued or respected me as a scientist. They never had any intention of hiring me into a permanent position. They appreciated me organizing social events for them on my time, and thought I was a nice person. They were happy to give me an office and get credit for my publications and presentations when I was funded by a postdoctoral fellowship. They were happy to take the money I brought in. But I will go so far as to say that most of them pigeonholed me from the start as an idealistic young female that wanted to save the world, and to the subsequent conclusion that I was not a “real” scientist.
This is the trap. Simply by being an enthusiastic young female, if placed in a sub-optimal setting (and there are many – I now have a keen nose during job interviews), you risk being labeled as “not a serious scientist” and placed in the girl box. By being female, and particularly by being a younger female, you are at high risk of being asked to spend time performing historically female roles such as planning holiday lunches, which do not further your scientific career whatsoever. If you decline, people then think that you are both not that great of a scientist and mean. If you accept, you have to spend a bunch of time organizing events, and you’ve also given yourself a life sentence that significantly reduces the time available to you for your actual job.
It wasn’t obvious. I’ve heard stories from people involved in cruel or abusive relationships – everyone starts off with high hopes and good intentions, so it is harder to see the warning signs at the beginning – that remind me of the chain of events that occurred. Once you realize that you’re in trouble, you’re already in too deep. Let me be explicit that I did not experience anything at my postdoctoral position that would alarm an HR department or fall into the category of abuse or harassment. Rather, I realized over time that I had been marginalized, likely as a result of my demographic, which was harmful in the long term for my career.
I was naive. Our graduate school, Scripps, is a special place where most of the scientists and students are genuinely curious and want to hear about research outside of their area of expertise. Offering to help with social events is a good idea because lots of people do, so you not only meet the other people helping out, but you have more name recognition and a better chance of knowing your local expert on carbon chemistry or predatory plankton when you need them. I honestly thought that by instigating a few social events at my new place of work, I could foster that type of environment.
Experience as a student, postdoc, or professional scientist depends so much on the institution. I wish I had realized just how different attitudes are from place to place before I launched into my postdoc bright-eyed and expecting the same type of atmosphere I had recently graduated from at Scripps.
As much as I hate to say this, I am sharing my story as a cautionary tale. Avoid pigeonholes. Volunteer strategically. Learn to say no without being offensive. The more we do it, the more women in science will be seen as equals. Use caution when choosing a new workplace – entering a position where you are in an extreme minority is going to mean you have an uphill battle ahead of you. Really talk to other employees, especially more senior women (or more senior folks close to your demographic). Now I’m generalizing, but senior women have always been willing to take time to chat with me behind a closed door about the truths of working at a particular institution. I underestimated that battle in a big way. I hope that you learn from my mistake. I sure did.
* I have two small children. I do not think that being a mother played a major role in this story. The biggest thing that may have gone differently if we waited to have kids is that I would have been more willing to take one of the other postdocs I was offered, which were geographically further from Simon’s position but involved a more engaged group of scientists. I may have picked up on the issues described above sooner and been able to get out faster if I hadn’t been dealing with a newborn and associated concerns about job security.