Are you a fighter? A women in science post.


Earlier this fall, I had an interview for a tenure-track job here in Sweden. I didn’t get the job, which was of course disappointing, but that isn’t really why I am writing here. The interview process was stressful and it is tough sitting in front of a panel addressing their questions one after another. It feels a bit like everything about you is on trial. I was prepared to answer tough questions about my work, how I would function in the department, as an advisor, etc. But there was one single question that really threw me: ‘Are you a fighter?’

In the interview, my mental response was basically WTF? It felt like a gender-specific question—are you one of those women who will just trying to please everyone and do as you are told or are you a fighter? Now to be fair, I’m pretty sure the question was asked to see how I would respond and I heard the other candidates had a similar kind of experience. Regardless of the reason, the fact that such a question could be construed as gender-specific was disturbing to me.* It pushed a button because I realised that I am a fighter and what is more I have had to be to get where I am.

I have been incredibly fortunate in my scientific career. I’ve had great, if sometimes difficult, relationships with my mentors and advisors. But really, I’ve had lots of support throughout. I also have not experienced any direct sexual harassment in a professional context. So, in that sense, science has been a safe place for me. This fall, twitter and the blogosphere are showing that this is not the case for many (one summary), which is unfortunately not at all surprising (wouldn’t say I’ve lived a harassment-free life). I have been deeply saddened by the revelations about race and gender and sexual harassment. I truly applaud the bravery of the women who are speaking out because I know first-hand how tough that can be. But I’ve been quiet about my own feelings, in part because I haven’t had my own experiences to share.

Unfortunately, there has been another development recently with an inappropriate/offensive joke video where Einstein is seen sexually harassing Curie. If you are not a part of the “online science community”, you’re probably sheltered from these discussions. Being pretty new to blogging and twitter myself, I’ve felt mostly like an outsider—I haven’t been directly affected by what’s happening and I haven’t known any of the players. But all the events have got me thinking about many aspects of privilege and gender.

Of course there have been times where I wonder how my gender plays a role in where I am. Have I been passed over for opportunities because I am female? Have I been asked/hired/etc because I’m female? These doubts can play a role in undermining who we are as women and scientists. Follow #ripplesofdoubt on Twitter to see how pervasive this can be and #ripplesofhope to see positive reflections on change.

Although I haven’t faced direct discrimination, there have been situations where my gender has been at the forefront:

  • On not getting a talk award (think it was meant to be consoling): “Men are more convincing because they have deeper voices and sound more confident. Your voice is too high.”
  • An off-handed comment about having met with someone in a professional context: “He does like talking to the ladies.”
  • Or undermining responses course evaluations about my appearance rather than my teaching.
  • Or those times I’ve watched younger students/mentees turn to a male colleague to seek answers/approval.
  • Or having your male colleagues worry they don’t have a chance at a job because they are male and thereby implying that you have a leg up because of your gender.
  • Or that time I was talking to a high profile evolutionary biologist and I mentioned my daughter as one reason for not staying on in my PhD to do more experiments. The response “Can you publish that?” immediately told me that I wasn’t in a safe place and reminded me that I could be judged for considering anything other than the science when making decisions.

But like many women, I have tended to shrug these incidents off. I haven’t wanted to be too sensitive, and too, well, female. So I pretend that the comments don’t matter and they don’t affect me. But of course they do. Although these are subtle forms of suggesting that I don’t belong or aren’t good enough, they are a part of what many of us experience.

One positive thing that has come out in the last few months has been that people have begun to speak up. I have come to realise that I need to make more effort to do the same. Although it is tough, it is important to speak up both for myself and for other women. Ignoring and internalizing comments changes nothing. We all need to be allies. I’ve been encouraged by the efforts to be positive and change things for the better (e.g., see here for lots of good ideas on supporting other women). Science is a tough gig; it’s what drives many of us. But I hope we can all move towards a more inclusive place where we support each other regardless of race, gender, age, size, hair cut, clothing, family….. Hopefully discussions surrounding causal and not so causal sexism/harassment can help us all get there.

At the interview, when asked if I was a fighter I was thrown off. I was mad and I struggled to regain my footing in the interview. I highly doubt that it cost me the job but I left the interview unsettled.

The next time someone asks me whether I’m a fighter, I know what I’ll say: I am a scientist. I am a woman. I’m here. Of course I am a fighter, what else could I be?**

Post script: writing about sexual harassment and discrimination while simultaneously watching cartoons is both very strange and comforting at the same time. I’m home with my sick 4-year old daughter and being with her reminds me part of why I want to do my bit to change things for the better.


*When discussing questions afterwards with two male collaborators who where also interviewing, we were able to match most of the things we were asked, except they were not asked if they were fighters.

**I think that men also face some of the same struggles in academia. You have to have a bit of fight in you to stay in this game.

8 thoughts on “Are you a fighter? A women in science post.

  1. This is a really interesting perspective on how even things that appear benign on their face may have deeper implications. However, I disagree with your assessment of the comment by the high profile evolutionary biologist. If we, as a scientific community, are generally judged by the quality and quantity of our research, shouldn’t we be “judged” for things that take away from this? Perhaps it was the time away from work that he judged, and this judgment would have been the same had you decided to take a year long back-packing trip instead. However, I am a female scientist who has put off having a family. Perhaps I am thinking from the perspective of someone who would be annoyed if special consideration was given to another woman who did have a child. Why should I be held to a different standard because I chose not to? In either case, I think your final point about moving towards a more inclusive community is spot on.
    As job availability and funding declines, this is resulting in a kind of competition that becomes detrimental and unsupportive rather than motivating.

    • Although I can understand your position, I’m fairly certain that women (and men) with children rarely get the kind of special consideration in science you allude to because of their children. I think the studies out there seem to suggest the opposite as well but I don’t have time to search for them now… I completely respect your decision to delay children, but I want that to be a choice, for you and others. I don’t think that choosing to have kids should exclude you from being a scientist and I do think that parents should have some special considerations. Should parents be able to take leave to care for their kids? Yes! Should tenure clocks be paused for children? Absolutely! Should the same considerations be given to people caring for sick parents, with sickness/disabilities, etc? You bet! I don’t think that any of these basic considerations means that parents, etc are being held to a different standard though.

      As for Mr. Textbook, there are two issues I take with his response (I wrote a bit on this on ecolog a while back). The first was exactly as you say: judgement for something that takes me away from research. I think that one of the ways that we need to move forward to being a more inclusive community is by stopping judging people on what takes us away from our research; whether that be a child, a sickness, or a year-long backpacking trip. Complete dedication to research, at the exclusion of all else, should never be a requirement of the job. As long as it is, mothers, fathers, and people will suffer for it.

      The second is that the length of a PhD (at least in systems where it isn’t time-limited) is a somewhat nebulous thing. There are a lot of factors that go into deciding when to finish up and although having a good body of work is important, it isn’t the only consideration in many cases. If you’ve done a good job there should always be one more really amazing experiment to do—that is what science is about and how many have worked in the same system or on the same questions for decades. So just the fact that there is another experiment to do is not enough to extend a PhD indefinitely. I’m fairly certain that if I had said that I was finishing up because I had an amazing post-doc to go to, I wouldn’t have gotten the same response. And ecological experiments will always theoretically yield the data that can explain everything that is going on in your system (ok, not really), but the reality is often very different. Would my PhD have been better if I had done this experiment? Maybe, but I did have strong publications that came out of the research that I had done and I wasn’t given a get out of your PhD for free card because I had a child or anything. Could I ask the question in different systems or return to it? Definitely. We did try and fail (due to the warm summer of 2012) once and are back again at it this year… So I don’t think defending when I did was a bad choice. The thing was Mr. Textbook didn’t know anything about how long my PhD was, how much data/pubs/etc I had. Mostly I felt attacked for first not doing the experiment and second the fact that my family was part of the consideration not to. The main message I took from the interaction was ‘you aren’t a serious scientist because you are choosing to keep your family together instead of staying on an extra year (or more) in your PhD’. It isn’t a message I want to perpetuate.

  2. Hi Amy and anonymous poster –
    I liked Amy’s post and many things said there resonated with me. But I mostly want to comment on the kids issue.
    Before I had one, I also felt that having kids was basically a private matter, like wanting to spend a lot of time on video games, or whatever, and thus shouldn’t be used as justification or criterion to discriminate one way or another. However, now that I have a kid (she’s almost 3, so I’m still a newbie in many ways), I have suddenly realized that there is actually a LOT to the task of being a parent that is seemingly invisible in our society, because men traditionally (still) largely don’t concern themselves with this (yes I know some of you do, I love you all! But be honest: even most of the ‘engaged’ fathers don’t contribute or suffer the costs that most mothers do, not even close), and because women who are mothers keep quiet about it for fear of being judged as uncommitted to their career, or intellectually simple for agreeing to do this child-rearing thing, or whatever.
    To get to my point: no, having a kid should not advantage you in some way (as in: your papers still need to be good quality, and you need a certain number to get a job, etc). But we also need to accept that ‘science’ is not the top priority in the life of every scientist, nor should that be a requirement for a job. Everyone has their own challenges – kids, elderly parents, a sick spouse, their own alcoholism or depression, whatever – the point is that it is unprofessional and discriminating to judge some other person’s decisions about priorities (even if they are about video games, backpacking trips, or whatever). Hire the person who can best do the job, fine; but do not challenge or comment on my career decisions, that is patronizing at best and sexist at worst.
    The sexism-against-mothers thing here is so pervasive because so many of us go so far in life without just any idea of what motherhood is like, and with the illusion of cognitive control that gets destroyed once you do have a kid. And, in my opinion, this is one of the main reasons that women still quit careers so much more often than men. So, mothers, speak up! Talk at work, among friends, etc., about *all* the challenges. Don’t leave your childless friends in the dark, it doesn’t protect them and it doesn’t protect you.
    And if you don’t have kids, accept that you are clueless about this – and if you don’t have any of the challenges in your life mentioned above or any other similar ones – well, be happy for your young and unchallenging life, but also accept that you are still a kid: you have not passed in the world of uncomfortable realities, of responsibilities beyond yourself, of life-changing events that are not under your control nor serve to further your career. But you probably will pass into that world eventually. Remember the tale of the grandfather who only gets to eat with a wooden spoon.

    As a side note, I’m also a strong believer in not keeping graduate students indefinitely – plan your work well, do it, then get out and get paid better if you keep doing the same thing.

  3. Yes, yes, and yes! Everything Anna said with an exclamation point, especially:
    The sexism-against-mothers thing here is so pervasive because so many of us go so far in life without just any idea of what motherhood is like, and with the illusion of cognitive control that gets destroyed once you do have a kid.

  4. Hi Amy and all,
    I love this post (and have shared and talked it to death with anyone that will listen!) in part because of all the things Anna said about being a mum, that so many aspects of parenting are invisible, but also because when you have a kid you DON’T HAVE A CHOICE! Your child is 100% dependent on you (and any other primary carers); they are emotional real human beings that need guidance, love and patience. I cannot choose to ignore their cries of pain or sickness like someone can choose to not go hiking or back packing on the weekend. I cannot choose to not feed them, dress them blah blah blah……you get the point. And this basic human process is often seen to be inferior to science or ambition. Given that “women produce half the world’s food and are still the primary caregivers to children and the elderly, they earn 10 per cent of the world’s income, own less than 1 per cent of the world’s property and represent 70 per cent of the 2.5 billion people living on less than two dollars a day.” ( it’s fairly clear that women do a bloody good job at many things (like making humans and keeping them alive!), and are not valued for many of them.
    The time you take away from academia/science/research is actually none of anyone’s business, but if it is parenting related, then it should be valued for the intention to create connected, positive and nurtured children. All while being a scientist. Surely it’s worth it.

    p.s. All those little comments Amy – they chip away at anyone. We’re all human.

  5. It would be tempting to answer “are you a fighter?” with “are you asking me because I’m female?”
    I’ve been on the receiving end of various gender-based comments including outright yucky sexual harassment as a grad student and postdoc. I got a slightly less-kind version of the “Your voice is too high” comment from a respected *female* scientist and it eroded my confidence while speaking for years. I think I’ve gotten over it and feel that I’m a good presenter now, but the thought that my voice is too high still comes to me at odd moments in front of an audience.

  6. Thanks everyone for the comments! It has been really great to read them (here and on twitter) as my week has been flushed down the drain by a very sick girl. My partner and I usually split these sorts of things more evenly, but triaging both our work situations this week has meant that I’ve taken the lions share of the caring for the poor girl. But it is certainly nice to feel part of a broader supportive community!

  7. With many years of experience, I think I have gotten better at recognizing sort of hidden sexist comments and gently calling them for what they are — but it’s still hard to think fast enough and tactically enough to respond without self-inflicting. I was told at one point that I spoke up too much at meetings. The gist was I was passionate about things that mattered, what I had to say was important, but others might be inhibited from speaking. Now there’s a double edged sword. Later I asked the person if the comment “might have been touched by gender issues?” I pointed out several others (males) who spoke as much and with less objectivity or information transfer and asked if they’d been counseled to speak less. They weren’t… the person didn’t think it was gender related but looked like maybe he’d be thinking about it a bit in the future. That said, things really were much much worse 20 -30 years ago. Thanks for the article and comments.

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