Monday, November 29, 2010

When did I decide becoming a female scientist was cool?

The science blogosphere has been having a big dust-up about two issues: the GQ Rock Stars of Science, and the Science Cheerleaders (here is Scicurious's take, which is one of the best ones). This got me thinking about how and why I decided to become a scientist.

My parents made it very clear to me, directly and in no uncertain terms, that I could do anything, and this was incredibly important. When I had to do a project on the Constitution my mother suggested I do it on the 19th Amendment. When I had to do a project on an athlete I wrote about Flo Jo. When I had to do a project on a scientist I wrote on Marie Curie. (When I had to do a project on animals I chose flamingos, but that is off topic.) I was very sensitive to issues of sexism from a young age, to the point that I reveled in mastering skills I wasn't supposed to master, like math and science. (I will say some of this was beaten out of me by junior and senior year in high school, to the point that I was afraid of math and "harder" sciences beyond biology, despite being in gifted programs and special math classes when I was younger. But the oppression side of things can be discussed another time.)

I remember reading the Jurassic Park series when I was in junior high and high school: the young girl with the computer skills in the movie version impressed me (even as I was annoyed that that wasn't how it happened in the book). In one of the later books, a female scientist whose name I no longer remember needed to take a quick shower. Rather than being all girly about it she grabbed some dish soap to use as shampoo, gruffly saying something that sounded, to me, brilliantly scientific, like "it has the same chemical composition as the main ingredient in shampoo." This character was instantly cool to me, and I honestly wanted to be just like her.

When I was in college, the director of my lab and person with whom I had the most contact in my early years was female. The lab technician in that lab was also a woman. It was really important having the two of them around as I awkwardly fumbled my way through my teen years. I read the papers of other women in my field, and I knew some of them had walked the halls of my school. They all made me feel it was possible. It is no accident I am in a scientific discipline that actually has a decent number of women (at least compared to many others).

At least in my own history, in my own making as a scientist, it was support and encouragement from my family, and an emphasis on female role models who were strong and independent, that made me feel it all was possible. I wonder about the Science Cheerleaders issue: is it that the climate has gotten better for women, or worse, that implicit in the Science Cheerleaders is objectification of these scientists? Is this really third wave feminism, where women can "have it all," or does this make things harder for young women who want to be scientists, because now they feel they have more to live up to?

When I was graduating college and thinking about careers, if I felt I had to be fashionable, attractive, and show a considerable amount of skin to be respected as a scientist, I probably would have chosen something else. I saw women being who they were -- which was as beautiful and variable as you find in all professions -- and I wanted to join them. The fact that I am fashionable now (and that is a generous reading of my fashion sense) is simply a bonus of finally having a living wage.

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