Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Female Privilege?

Women in Science
via the Smithsonian
Author's Note: There are some important reactions, corrections, and commentary in the comments section of this post

This blog focuses on a lot of the challenges of being a woman in astronomy (and STEM in general). We talk about sexism (of both the explicit and benevolent variety), unconscious and implicit biases, the wage gap, the gender gap, the two-body problem, the leaky pipeline, the impostor complex, work-life-family balance issues, sexual harassment... the list goes on and on. But are there any advantages to being a woman in STEM? Is there female privilege?

In April, Thought Catalog published two pieces about Female Privilege one from a "male perspective" and one from a "female perspective" (I use quotes because I doubt all males reading this blog will agree with the male perspective or vice versa).

In general, talking about female privilege is problematic as this post very eloquently describes. Much of the general "advantages" to being a woman are actually in fact benevolent sexism or other byproducts of the disadvantages that we have in society in general.

That being said, I sincerely believe that talking about the benefits we receive as women are an important part of the discussion. This aspect can get lost because much of our focus is on trying to solve the problems. The challenge in writing this post is that many of the benefits of being a woman in a male dominated field are the silver-linings to a problem-cloud. However, I don't believe talking about the good along with the struggles minimizes any discussion of these problems. By ignoring the silver-linings we might alienate those who would otherwise be our supporters. By ignoring the silver-linings we might inadvertently discourage those who are interested in entering the field or struggling within the field.

So here is my list. I know that not all of these are true for everyone, nor are the following unambiguous advantages. Like I said, many of these "privileges" are byproducts (or the flip side) of problems faced by women in STEM. Often the determinant of whether these will be perceived as an advantage or a disadvantage is whether or not ones environment is supportive. Personality also plays a big part. As a confident, successful, happy, woman in an INCREDIBLY supportive environment, I might have a different reaction to these experiences than others. Finally, I know that many of the below are generalizations and there are plenty of exceptions and counter-examples. Much of the below list was inspired by this post, so thank you to the ladies at Tenure She Wrote.

My 'Privileges', As a Woman in STEM

1. I stand out. I was the only female in both my undergraduate and graduate research groups. I am the only female on the engineering team at my current job. I have been the only female candidate in a job search. I've spoken on panels where I was the only female. I've been at many meetings/talks/conferences where there were < 20% women in the room. As a woman in STEM, I am different, and therefore noticeable and memorable. This can give me an advantage. Of course it can also make me feel like an impostor and result in unwanted attention, but most of the time I find that it benefits me. People remember me, people want to talk to me, people find me intriguing. This has both personal and professional advantages for helping me make connections with other people in STEM.

2. Tokenism can help me get my foot in the door. Many STEM organizations, committees, panels, conferences, departments, and companies are eager to have more women. More women on their advisory boards, more women giving talks, more women in leadership roles, more female employees, students and faculty. Assuming that once I am given an opportunity, I am taken seriously, supported, and treated equally (which is not always the case) this can mean that I am given opportunities and experiences that -- while I am perfectly qualified for -- I might not have been granted if the organization wasn't trying to achieve more gender balance. Again, if the organization doesn't have a supportive environment, and I am made to feel like I am only there because of my gender, then this will do more harm than good. But I've had many experiences where I was explicitly told that I was given the chance to do something because I am female, I kicked-ass at it, and the ultimate result was that I was given access to an opportunity that I wouldn't have had if I were male. Getting your foot in the door is a big part of the battle. I take advantage of these opportunities as much as possible.

3. There are groups and programs specifically to support me. One of the best experiences I had in graduate school was being part of the Society for Women in the Physical Sciences (SWPS). I am currently serving on the AAS Committee on the Status for Women in Astronomy (CSWA). Sure these groups wouldn't exist if there weren't continued discrimination against women and an overall gender imbalance in physics and astronomy, but they do exist and they are awesome. There have been many times that I've struggled in my academic and professional life and having groups like this to support me has been essential to my survival and happiness. Yes, maybe I would have struggled less in the first place if I were a man, but ultimately, if I were a struggling man, I would definitely  feel less comfortable reaching out to these organizations for help or asking to join them (even though both the CSWA and SWPS support and involve men too). Women's groups have been an amazing part of my life, and I feel so privileged be a part of them. If these groups exist at your organization, get involved (regardless of your gender). If these groups don't exist at your organization, start one. There are also women's organizations and events that are great resources for networking and career help. I don't shy away from these events and opportunities. Networking plays a huge part in career success. Almost every job opportunity I have been given was through a personal connection. I take full advantage of all these organizations and events.

4. I get to be surrounded by men in STEM. When I think of stereotypically misogynist and sexist personality types --- scientist, engineer, mathematician or programmer do not come to mind. In fact 99.99% of the men I've encountered in my STEM career have been incredibly supportive, helpful, kind, lovely, human beings. Many of these men are actually feminists who speak-out for and support the women in STEM cause even though it doesn't "benefit them directly" (of course improving the environment for women in STEM helps everyone, but you know what I mean). The geeks and nerds of the world are great! The most influential mentors and supporters in my career have all be men. There are PLENTY of other careers where the egos and personalities are such that I would hate going to work (think Mad Men or Wolf of Wall Street style alpha-personalities). Instead I get to be surrounded by genuinely passionate people who love what they do and are driven by discovery and creation, not money or power. It's an amazing environment in which to work. P.S. The women in STEM rock too.

5. It is more acceptable for me to express emotion. I've written before about my experiences with crying at work. Yes, there are negative stereotypes around "overly emotional women" and this can be used as a weapon for oppression. But in general, it is just more acceptable for me to show emotion and not be penalized for it. It's also less threatening when I (as a woman) display anger or frustration. By being able to be more expressive with less societal and professional consequences, I am able to get support, help, and have more genuine and full relationships with my colleagues than I would if it were less acceptable for me to show emotion. Obviously it would be better if EVERYONE could feel more comfortable being open about their feelings, so again... silver-lining to a problem-cloud. But I appreciate that I have been able to cry at work, cry in my advisors office, show emotion, lose my temper, get frustrated, get mad, and have not been penalized for it.

6. I have more options for what to wear. If I want I can wear the standard tech outfit of a t-shirt, jeans, and a hoodie or I can wear a skirt and heels. If I work in a particularly hot place, I can wear a dress and still look professional, whereas it's harder for men to wear shorts and look professional. I also don't have to deal with the expectations there are in some careers to always wear a suit, style my hair, and wear make-up. I have a lot of options for how I choose to present myself at work, and this overall makes me feel more relaxed and comfortable.

7. There is a dialog about gender issues because of the gender gap. The gender gap in STEM means that a lot of attention is also given to gender issues that arise everywhere (even in disciplines with gender parity). The arts and humanities have similar problems in terms of leaky pipelines, sexism, harassment of women, bias, fewer women than men speaking at conferences, and a general dominance of older white men. But in some fields there is less attention given to these problems because there is not an overall gender gap. These issues are taken seriously in STEM and there is a general dialog both privately and in the media about how to address these problems.

What do you experience as the positives (albeit sometimes ambiguous) of being a woman in STEM?