Thoughts on being a “woman in science”

Every year, February 11 marks International Day of Women and Girls in Science, and every year I have similar thoughts about it. I’ve expressed some of them online before, and have certainly ranted about them to my partner on many an occasion, but this year I decided to sit down and get them out of my brain.

The crux of the issue is that I struggle with the idea of putting myself on display as a quote-unquote Woman In Science, despite the fact that I am a woman who works in a science-based communications role and is pursuing a masters in a scientific subject. (Of course, some might debate if this counts, but I would say it does.) There are three interconnected reasons for this.

First, I fit the negative stereotype of a woman in science, so am reluctant to make myself visible. By this, I mainly refer to being socially awkward and unattractive, both of which I’ve come to terms with, but I still recognise as an issue – and one that certainly isn’t prevalent among the other female scientists I’ve encountered. When I was a teenager, science felt like a refuge from the need to perform femininity or be socially adept, instead being a space where I could be myself and indulge my passion for finding things out. I was inspired by female scientists (real and fictional) who were similarly passionate, especially when they didn’t fit in with society’s expectations of what a woman should be. However, I think the extent to which I fulfil the negative stereotypes could do more harm than good to any potential scientists who might need some encouragement. That is a big part of the reason my science communication outside of work is currently confined to the Science Museum (where people are generally already interested in science and hopefully won’t be put off by me) and my podcast (which only people I already know listen to, and which crucially doesn’t include my face).

Second, I am childfree for a long list of reasons – another female scientist stereotype I fall into – but issues surrounding having children are, in my opinion, the key thing affecting the progression of women in science. To be blunt, it is pointless getting more girls into science if choosing to have children means they have to sacrifice their career progression. This needs to be solved both in the workplace (sufficient and equal leave for both parents, subsidised childcare, flexible working) and at home (partners pulling their weight). Such change requires meaningful investment and societal change, but for me any “women in science” initiative that doesn’t address this pales into insignificance. At the same time, I’m not sure this is my battle to fight, as someone who doesn’t want children and also thinks too few people really take the time to understand what it means to become a parent before they do it.

Finally, I personally do not feel my sex has held me back from my ambitions. Despite their negative connotations, I’ve benefited from both fitting the stereotype of a female scientist and not having children. Instead, my socioeconomic background and disability are the main issues that have impacted my journey. The former made it more challenging to get into science; the latter made it more challenging to stay in science. I don’t feel qualified to talk about the challenges of being a woman in this field, because they’re not part of my experience.

Science encompasses so many different areas that diverse talent is a must – not just demographically, but in terms of variety of skills, not just the traditional idea of being brainy and hyperfocused. Having said that, an appreciation of science will enrich your life even if it isn’t your vocation, and I don’t believe anything should be a barrier to that.

I obviously believe we should be encouraging girls to get into science, and making it easier for women to stay in science, but for the reasons outlined above I struggle to find my place within this movement. I would love it if being a woman or member of another underrepresented group in science weren’t notable because our talent pool more closely reflected society, but until that happens I think it’s important to be visible. I wish I felt able to do this, because I know I would have benefitted from seeing someone from my background be unapologetically enthusiastic about science as a subject and a career. I just worry I would do more harm than good if I were to really dedicate myself to this effort. Who knows, maybe some day when things have progressed I’ll feel differently, but until then I’ll find other ways to share my love of science.

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