Monday, 8 April 2013

I’m a sexist and I know it

I’m part of a very small minority: I’m a woman, a scientist, an adjunct professor, a mother of two, and wife to a lovely husband who gave up his science career to support his family. Some people may think I’m a role model, but I’m the opposite. People like me usually don’t exist.

I love science. As a PhD student and young postdoc (sans kids) all I did was work in the lab, think of science, discuss science, and occasionally party my brain out. It’s an expensive brain, considering all these years of studying, experimenting, reading, and Google-ing. One shouldn’t use beer and red wine as excessively as many young scientists do. But we usually feel extra brilliant when slightly (or severely) intoxicated and then come up with crazy new projects that surely will result in Earth shattering publications. Sadly, the following mornings I never remembered what precisely these brilliant ideas had been.
These were the intense days of brain masturbation, when nothing seemed too complicated, too novel, or too risky. If we could think it up, we could at least try it.

My life changed. I’m a mom and realised that each day will always be 24 hours short, that sleep deprivation turns the fastest brain into a glutinous mass of slow grey matter, that time spent with my children is much more important and rewarding than publishing in Nature, and that parties with young and sexy PhD students are really not my thing anymore. Yes, call me old (I’m 37).

But I also learned with shocking clarity, that I am a sexist. When I look at successful female scientists, part of me doubts their quality as mothers, not so with my male colleagues. When I see a successful male scientist who always leaves work at 5pm to be with his wife and small kids, I think “wow, what a good dad”, but when a woman does the same, I’m not impressed.

Writing an EU proposal while nursing Lina.
Being a woman, being able to get pregnant and give birth to a child is quite a sexist thing, because men can’t have that and miss the most amazing experience a sexually reproducing mammal can possibly come across. Which brings us to breastfeeding: That, too, is quite sexist. Women have boobs, most men don’t. Newborns expect to be breastfed and have no idea that mom has a career; they simply want to latch on and not let go for the next 12 months (or so it sometimes felt). I breastfed my kids for 2.5 years, that’s 5 years in total, approximately 1.500 litres of milk, and pretty much exactly 1.825 nights of little to no sleep, not including the nights they have been sick after they were weaned.

If you don’t have kids, your day is still 24 hours short, minus 6-8 hours of sleep and the time needed to get dressed, eat, and vacuum the dust bunnies. A great science career will demand most of the time that’s left. There is always a report to write, an email to answer, a paper to review, a bunch of PhD students to supervise
Most women in the western industrialised world have their first child at the age of 30, that’s precisely when our science career kicks off and we are giving it all to get that darn professorship. There, first major conflict.
Biologically, women are the first to be demanded when it comes to tiny offspring, and this is fine. Traditionally, mothers are still #1 even if the kids are 30-something. And this is what still shapes our thinking today (on average). We are the daughters of mothers who had a full time job additional to the entire household work. I have rarely seen a husband cleaning the dishes back then. Have you? That’s what they called feminism 30 years ago.
Today it’s different but some of the old thinking patterns remained - if you are a successful scientist, surely you should also be a great mum. If you are a great scientist and a great dad - holy cow! - you must be superman and your wife must be some kind of… (pick whatever depreciative term you fancy).

We judge the quality of a scientist by the number of his/her publications, how often they have been cited, and how much project money she/he brings in. Depending on the field of research, the stress to accomplish these things can range from high-pitched heart attack like (biomedical research) to quite stimulating and nice (environmental research), which doesn’t imply the latter would be dull and the former more important.

I did, in a way, discriminate myself (yes, that’s possible). I did not want to see a dip in my wonderful science career but also I wanted to be the perfect mom for my kids. I am not an over-accomplisher nor am I particularly brilliant. Writing a major EU proposal and being the head of a research group while taking care of a newborn is insane and I cannot recommend it to anyone. If you think this is role model behaviour, I must disappoint you. It is the behaviour of someone who wants it all. But didn’t we learn from our parents that we cannot have it all? Yet, we still try and it is a good thing to do this, but it is also good to acknowledge that one person has a limited amount of energy.

So is that the reason for brilliant female scientists to drop out of science? Do women represent far less than a quarter of the European senior faculty because they can’t take the extra workload of job and family? Female scientists - better not replicate? Nope. I think the problem is far more complex.

Wasn’t the field of science an exclusively male domain for hundreds of years? Aren’t the hierarchies and structures male inventions? I wonder how science would have developed if women had always been allowed to enrol at Universities, practice medicine, do research, and to be part of everything men were allowed to be part of, and vice versa. If being a mother while having a science career would have been normal for centuries, would it be OK to take a leave of absence of a year or even five years? Would it be OK to be a professor and only work part time so mothers could spend more time with their kids? And here you see the sexist view again - would we allow dads the same thing without making them feel like they are (A) losers because they are away from work so much and cannot accomplish as much as their child-less colleagues, or (B) superman because they spend time with their kids??

Science is a competitive business and one has to be pushy (and kind of intelligent) to get to the top. Girls are raised to be “nice” (as in “not pushy”) while pushy boys will grow into “real men”. This is so engrained in our culture that we don’t really see it and that makes most of us sexists.
No, not the “I club you on the head and pull you into my cave” kind of sexist, but the quiet version, the undertone that we don’t see but practice every day.

I don’t think that the low number of women in leading positions are solely a gender/sexism problem, or that quotas could help to solve it; in fact they can only prettify a symptom. 

We created a society that values competitive people the most. We discriminate against the gentle kind, the non-elbowing version of Homo sapiens and with that lose countless brilliant minds and hands that could make our society much more beautiful and kind.

Stop being women friendly. Start being friendly instead. Stop promoting more women into leading positions. Instead, promote more men and women who are not pushy, offer more jobs to people who stayed at home for years to take care of their children, sick partners or parents. And stop telling young scientists (male and female) that they can have it all. It’s bullshit and you know it.

PS: Female scientists still earn less than their male colleagues for doing the same job; they also receive less third-party funding. I’d like someone to explain that one to me.


1 comment:

  1. just love this. You really made some points. Only one thing, in case you are not aware: Some people may have problems with your use of the word sexism. Because, in a feminist definition, sexism is not only discrimination because of somebodys sex, but it implies having institutional power over someone, because of his sex. By this definition, at the present time, a women can hardly be sexist, since as a women you can have institutional power, but this is rarely because you are a women. Perhaps that is just semantic bullshit but then, perhaps it helps to decide weather the problem is asshole-selection (or pushy people, as you put it) or sexism. I am not sure sometimes.