Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Working in a male-dominated field: learning to see the positives

I’m a woman and I’m a scientist. I don’t identify with the words ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ because I think they have negative connotations of social awkwardness. I am feminine. I might not wear pink, but I read InStyle magazine, watch Great British Bake Off and paint my toenails. But this post isn’t about reclaiming words like ‘geek’ or removing negative connotations though, far from it. It’s about everyday life as a ‘feminine’ woman in a very male-dominated area of science.

In my research group I’m the only woman. I’ve been to workshops and conferences where I’m the only female scientist attending. I’ve been mistaken for a secretary and asked whose wife/girlfriend I was at social events more times than I care to remember. But I enjoy smashing the stereotype when I point out that I’m a scientist. They always apologise profusely. I understand why they’d assume I wasn’t one, as statistically speaking it’s quite a likely hypothesis.

Sometimes though, people do say inappropriate things. At a recent event one attendee actually used the words “You don’t see many women like you around here, I mean, with such perfect eyelashes and a dress”. Umm… what? I felt so uncomfortable. Up until that point we’d been talking about physics and entrepreneurship. I was wearing a striped Breton knit dress from Jaeger which had ¾ length sleeves and went past the knee – with a very low heel. I don’t expect to have my looks commented on in a professional situation. I made him uncomfortable by staring at him for a second or two. He realized he’d said something inappropriate, started to make apologetic noises, then I let him off the hook and made a joke about it. After all, I can take a complement.

Anyone who knows me can tell you I have no problem holding my own. I usually just give them some feisty banter or a joke straight back. They don’t intimidate me and I don’t sweat the small stuff**. I don’t even notice any more if there aren’t any other women around. I do try to feel flattered if someone complements me on my looks, but there have been situations where I’ve been prevented from effective networking by virtue of being the only ‘skirt’ in the room.

Naturally, I’ve developed techniques to extricate myself from boring men at conference drinks whose only reason for approaching me is that they’ve had a few. Here are a few pointers for the less experienced.
  • Technique 1 (if you respect the guy and think you ought to stay in his good books): shrug off any compliments and talk about science. If it becomes obvious that you have nothing to talk about, mention that you had to meet so-and-so as you’re interested in collaborating on an experiment/paper whatever. If you can, use him for networking – basically, turn the situation to your advantage.
  • Technique 2 (if you just want to get away): say you need to use the bathroom. It’s not like he can follow you. Whatever you do don’t say you need another drink – as he’ll likely get you one and then you’ll be beholden to him for the rest of the evening. (Yeah, I learned that one first hand).

Ladies, we do what we can to get by - I’m sure that men in very female-dominated work environments could tell you of similar experiences. It can be tiring and frustrating and perhaps one day when there are more women in my field it will become less of an issue.

But sometimes we have to see the positives in these situations. For example, as one of the only women in my field just about everyone knows who I am and what I’m working on – it actually does wonders to raise my profile without me even trying.

I know that not everyone has such a ‘thick skin’ as I do, but I’ve learned to enjoy the company of the (often socially awkward) men with whom I share my chosen career. I’ve made peace with being different from them because of my gender. I’ve learned to embrace the differences and celebrate the fact that I approach a research problem differently. In the long run, ‘standing out’ in a good way can only serve to help both my research and my career.

Have you ever had similar experiences? How did you react? 
Do you think my approach works? What do you think I could do differently?

**Of course, you should never, ever let someone’s sexist or inappropriate behaviour go unreported if it’s a problem for you


  1. yes, have to see the silver lining sometimes! another positive: science conferences are the one place where men get to queue for the bathroom and women don't. win!

  2. I am curious about the sentence "I approach a research problem differently". Could you expand on that? :)

  3. Sure. It is not just because of my gender but because I grew up in a different country, in a different culture and went through a different education system (in Australia). But I also have different interests to some of my colleagues - where quite a few of them are really interested in the intricacies of designing simulation code I'm more focused on the physics results at the end.

    For example I have found that during experimental shifts, some people have a set plan and follow it no matter what and struggle if something goes wrong, some people can be drawn in to focusing on something quite specific that might crop up during the shift, but I am more likely to take a step back and say "well hang on, we're going down a tangent here and I'm not sure we should be if we want to achieve A, B and C".

    Equally well, where a lot of my colleagues feel they want to write all of their own software from scratch I take a view of not 're-inventing the wheel' where it's not necessary. We each have our own focus and 'approach' but I have learned not to feel that I ought to adopt a different approach just because 'everyone else is' or because I feel I should - I'm better off sticking to my guns and doing things 'my way'.

    I hope that makes sense!