Thursday, 5 February 2015

Being a scientist - Like a girl

The stereotypical geoscientist is, of course, a geologist. And if you're imagining this geologist you might be seeing a man with a lot of facial hair who spends all day hiking around the mountains in trekking shorts and hiking boots, equipped with a compass, a rock hammer, and a hand lens. Geologists like him are maybe what Sheldon Cooper refers to as "the dirt people". I hate to break it to you: Geoscientists come in all shapes and sizes.
First and foremost, there are tons of awesome lady geos out there. Think Martha Savage, who is one of THE people to talk to about seismic anisotropy (or in other words, the fact that earthquake waves can sometimes travel faster in one direction than another, for example), and a brilliant supervisor on top of that. Think Linda Elkins-Tanton, a very inspiring planetary scientist who spent some years in business before going back to grad school and a little while later ended up as the Director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington (she is now at Arizona State, also check out this blog post about her time at DTM, and yes, planetary scientists are also geos in a wider sense). Or, if you're more into popular science, this would be a good place for a shout out to my former fellow UBC student Mika McKinnon, who writes awesome geo-related content for All these ladies, and so many more, are doing awesome things in the name of science - and defeating the stereotype. The campaign #LikeAGirl, which got a little attention boost this weekend after it was aired during the Superbowl, is a great example of how important the fight against these kinds of stereotypes is. And it works even better if we have examples for how to do it, if we find women we can look up to and respect for their achievements. Similar to the Like A Girl campaign, a few months ago some women in science took it upon them to promote the fact that, yes, you can be a girl of any kind (manicured or not) and do great science. Check out some of the tweets:

Some people complained that this campaign hijacked a hashtag that was maybe meant for young girls. I have to disagree. In a hijacking something is taken away. Showing how you can have hands #LikeAGirl and be an amazing scientist at the same time is hardly taking something away. Quite the opposite, I think it's a great add on.
Being a girl in science is a blessing and a curse. Depending on the field you may be surrounded by the older men, who may or may not think that you are where you belong. In one of my undergrad classes there were 6 of us - 4 guys and 2 girls. We had to take turns in walking through our homework assignments at the blackboard in front of the professor and the rest of the class. When the guys had their turns we all listened to what they had to say and worked on the problem of the assignment. When the other girl or I had our turns we had to write out our solution while the prof was sitting down and making comments along the lines of "Pfff, girls, they don't belong in science, not a clue what they're doing". In the end, our final grade was down to written work, and he had no choice but to give me the top grade in the class alongside one of the guys. When we came to pick up our exams and get our grades he made a big point to congratulate my (male) friend (who got the other top grade). After my friend pointed out to the prof that I had gotten the same grade the prof started stuttering and mumbling something like "yeah, but you were better". I can only laugh about this guy. Of course this is only a minor problem compared to some other stories, and definitely nothing that would have kept me from doing what I set out to do. But you never know. From being ignored through harassed to assaulted - sadly we've heard it all. 
On the other hand, being a girl comes with certain (legit) advantages. In many scientific disciplines we are far from a gender balance, especially when it comes to leadership positions. According to the 2011 report from the American Geoscience Institute, only 30% of the US geosciences workforce are women, even though girls get 40% of the geoscience degrees. That means that if you decide to stay in the field as a woman, you might have slightly better chances compared to a guy with the same qualifications, just because of the "minority" status women have. This advantage may sound unfair to some guys, and it really is, but sadly, until we have a gender balance or something close to it (particularly at the leadership level) I don't think we can afford to not implement this kind of decision making. 
All the same applies not to just to gender, but also to ethnicity, social background, age, and who knows what. Ultimately, I'm going to be optimistic and say that maybe one day we can be balanced scientific society, where hiring decisions are made on scientific merit alone. I hope that the little girls of today, like those in the Like A Girl campaign (also check out this great article) will grow up and run, throw, drive, laugh, cry, sing, do maths, paint, dance, play football - like girls who came into a world with a little less stereotyping. I personally tend to do things to the best of my abilities and knowing when to accept defeat - I run like me (not very far), throw like me (not even 5 meters), do science like me (lots of volcanoes and computers involved), and I stand up for myself like me: According to my dad, my teacher in primary school once told him a story from a field trip where the boys treated one of the girls in some unfair way, so that little 8-year old me ended up scolding them all so vigorously that the whole episode made a lasting impression in the teacher's mind for over a decade (and maybe it's still in there...). I think I stuck to that habit, and I'm not planning on letting go any time soon. #LikeAGirl

1 comment:

  1. Nice article! As you mention, same goes for not only science. In UK there is currently a campaign called #ThisGirlCan that seeks to encourage women to be more active in sports and to not be ashamed of their bodies. This campaign - just like the Girls' Day in Germany - tackles a similar problem to what you mention. :)