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How do you picture female scientists?

How do you picture female scientists?

You might have heard about the film “Picture a scientist” by Sharon Shattuck & Ian Cheney. It shows the personal struggle of three women to overcome gender barriers in science. In doing so, it highlights three key issues:

    • prejudices and biases against women related directly to the history of the university that have never been challenged (this part of the film is subtly underlined by the historical drawings, the pictures of the university buildings and their statues),
    • additional biases that women of color are confronted with, and
    • sexual or other forms of harassment that demotivate, slow down or even stop short the career of women in science.

I did not exactly know what to expect before watching the film – except of course that the film is about women in science. The film becomes very emotional shortly after starting; I could hardly continue watching through Jane Willenbring’s disturbing account of her horrible harassment experiences during field work in Antarctica and the solitude that she experienced while facing it.

Writing these lines makes me feel like crying – as several protagonists do as they tell their stories during the film. I also feel the way I have felt so many times over the course of my career – desperately powerless to stand up against the misogynist aspect of male-dominated academic culture.

I think about of those many moments when I desperately tried to stay calm and respond nicely and politely as if nothing bothered me – since as a woman (in science or elsewhere) either you are nice and polite or you are treated as a hysterical female who has been carried away by her emotions.

During my engineering studies, I had to carefully choose my clothes – otherwise my fellow students would make bad jokes about whether my success was based on my body or my brain. There was this fellow student who told me that the male professors only pretended to be interested in what female students had to say; in reality, they just enjoyed ogling over their bodies.

Unbelievable but true, once a male professor even asked me to get up in front of the class to examine how I was dressed.

I did my engineering studies (1996 – 2001) and my PhD (2001-2005) in an environment where sexist jokes were the norm. Perhaps things have changed slightly since then, but my first experience of science without this pervasive culture was only in 2010, when I started my first job in a group where inappropriate comments did not happen, not even over drinks in a bar. Since then, I have been very lucky to work in institutes where colleagues actively fight any form of harassment. However, I know that unfortunately this is not true for everyone.

Things have also evolved internationally and especially at EGU, which has made tremendous efforts to fight inappropriate behavior during its conferences (see the EGU code of conduct). Some of you might ask yourselves if it has actually ever been a problem. Is this or that really “inappropriate” behavior? Let’s have a look at the example Jane Willenbring gives in the film:

Is it really funny (or appropriate) to hear your male colleagues speculating how ‘good’ the night was after you had dinner with one of them? This kind of joke is still standard at conferences and many women know what it means to be the object of such jokes.

How would you react if a female postdoc told you that she could not have a scientific discussion at her poster because two male postdocs continuously made comments about how she looked and what she should be doing instead of talking about science? I did not know what to tell her to protect herself in the future; and I did not take any further action either. Why? Because such incidences were just normal in my career; the only thing you can do is laugh and pretend it does not bother you. If you also watched the “Picture a scientist” film that may ring a bell: were you not shocked when Jane Willenbring’s colleague thought that she wouldn’t care?

Laughing it off. That’s also what I did when a highly respected professor yelled across the official conference dinner: “Bettina, you know my room number!” What else could I do if nobody else in a room of 50 people reacted?

What if everyone thinks it is funny when a professor flirtatiously says: “Talking about science with you? This would be a waste of time.”

I also did not stand up when a highly respected professor answered during a PhD party: “Women in science? That’s a contradiction”. In fact, nobody did.

This list of disrespectful comments could go on and on. This is certainly the most obvious part of how some colleagues create a working environment where only the toughest women “survive”. And do not forget: these comments are often paired with disrespectful comments about people of color or with homophobic jokes. While those jokes are less and less tolerated, it is often still acceptable to make jokes about the roles of men and women in general. Such as:

“Men should only take care of children once they can go fishing with them.” (a comment of a professor during a coffee break discussion, at a moment of my career when I was still thinking that children were incompatible with an academic career).

Besides bad jokes, the most discouraging to me personally, particularly in the beginning of my career, was the dead end that I ran into time and time again when I tried to talk about science with men. That’s exactly what Jane Willenbring also said in the film –  what she did not say is what it triggers inside: a permanent questioning whether your work is not good enough or interesting at all.

I keep thinking that, after all, I was just exposed to verbal harassment and inappropriate remarks. It is important to stress here that many women in science have far worse experiences, as the film showed so well through the stories of the three women scientists.

Looking back at this side of my academic career is not a nice exercise. A big question remains: why have I never reacted ? not a single time! not to defend myself, not to defend someone else. Perhaps it is because I was too used to it since my first days at university – but this would be a too simple explanation. Of course, I was scared of what could happen to my career if I stood up against something that was widely accepted. Of course, I asked myself if it could become worse.

Perhaps I could have made a difference, but I did not know how.

Now that I am a full professor and a group leader, I certainly have to stand for zero tolerance against disrespectful behavior of any kind. And I challenge the readers to also ask themselves whether and how they would stand up in similar situations.

Let’s also keep in mind that it is not the victims’ responsibility to change – our academic culture requires a transformation from head to toe, implicating every single one of us, men and women, to ensure that no scientist experiences any form of harassment ever again. Are we up to the challenge?

 

Further reading:

 

Acknowledgement

This text would not have been possible without the invaluable input of several  colleagues and friends. Thank you all for your encouragements!

 

(EGU Editors note: comments on this post will be moderated, and as with all our blog posts, commenters are expected to follow EGU’s Code of Conduct and behave respectfully)

Bettina Schaefli is a professor for hydrology at University of Bern (Switzerland). Her work has a strong focus on predicting current and future water resources and related natural hazards across spatial and temporal scales, with currently a strong focus on snow-influenced environments. She was the head of the Catchment Hydrology Subdivision of EGU from 2016-2019 and is an editor of Hydrology and Earth System Sciences.


4 Comments

  1. For all those who have not yet seen the movie, please note that “Picture a Scientist” will be screened as part of the #vEGU21 programme. You will have the opportunity to see the movie from Saturday 24 to Monday 26 April (see https://meetingorganizer.copernicus.org/EGU21/sessionprogramme# for more information).

    Also note that 2 Great Debates will address these issues during #vEGU21: GDB1 “Challenging discrimination in the geosciences: amplifying unheard voices” on Monday 26 April, with the participation of Jane Willenbring (https://meetingorganizer.copernicus.org/EGU21/sessionprogramme#) and the ECS-led GDB5 “Bullying in Academia: towards creating a healthy and safe working environment” on Thursday 22 April (https://meetingorganizer.copernicus.org/EGU21/sessionprogramme#).

    Reply
  2. Thank you so much for sharing this Bettina. It hurts me to read all the examples you give; unfortunately I recognise many. Even though it is hard to share such experiences, I think it is really important for creating awareness of what women in science go through on a regular basis. As they say in the film: ‘Consistent gender harassment actually has the same impact as a single episode of unwanted sexual attention or coercion’.

    Reply

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