To be a female neuroscientist

You probably walk down the street oblivious to the inequalities that possess society. You see the news and scroll through websites describing the horrors of racism that still grip our culture, like the bit between a horse’s teeth. You unintentionally describe the people of our world by the categories they fit into without knowledge of the culture, the background, the meaning of that category. You probably don’t even recognize the boxes you create for people. In fact, you probably want change and equality. You are probably a good person. And yet, the system of language and communication we use has placed us into this holding pattern.

I don’t know most struggles. I don’t know the weight beared by most. I know only those things that I have experienced first hand. And given my position, if I experience these pressures and weights and forces upon me, I can only imagine the thread of a rope others must climb.

To be a female neuroscientist. This is a phrase that I wouldn’t have acknowledged 5 years ago. To be a female. I wouldn’t have considered this an important label or identity 5 years ago. But 5 years ago, I hadn’t witnessed the subtleties in my field that ultimately lead to an immense inequality between men and women who become the leaders of our field. Only 20% of papers published in Nature Neuroscience have a female corresponding author. Over half of neuroscience graduate students are female. But fewer than 25% of tenure track faculty are female. Where do they go? Where do we go?

From what I can tell, we are placed into a system designed for males. Designed for the characterstics that men are raised to possess. Like it or not, we (our society) tend to raise our boys to be more assertive, aggressive, ambitious, and powrful. We tend to raise our girls to be compassionate, caring, empathetic. These are the traits that we train our children to have from an early age. It is less attractive for a female to be assertive and ambitious. It probably doesn’t cross the mind’s of most men that they might have to stay home with a sick kid every so often.

My observations of women in science tell me that women in science tend to marry men (if they marry [men] at all) in science or powerful positions. Females in science have some of these ambitious and assertive traits more common to men, but they are offset by the men they marry. When this happens, an ambitious woman has to compete with her ambitious man husband for the ultimate say in the division of household labor, for the location of the job, etc…In my own experience, it doesn’t even occur to the husband to discuss future job options with his wife (me) when he knows which job he wants, leaving the wife between a rock and a hard place. It doesn’t occur to him that what he wants, what is best for his career, could hurt mine. In my case, a single path was laid out for my husband and deviations from that path didn’t even enter his mind until after the committment was made to move for his career.

In other words, my first observation of females in science is that as strong and assertive as we are, we tend to be overshadowed by those who are stronger, more assertive, and oblivious to compromising their own careers because of the way they were trained.

My second observation relates to the reactions of those around me after my husband decided to move to Canada for a postdoc. Frankly, the reactions were shocking and disappointing. Almost every single person reacted to this information by 1) Assuming I was following him to Canada and 2) Disregarding the fact that I hadn’t yet finishd my PhD. This made me feel unimportant, unvalued, and as though I completely lacked control over my life. Why was his career more important than mine? Didn’t they realize that I had no say in his choice to move to Canada for this job? Didn’t they realize that I had to finish my PhD? That I had goals of my own? Wasn’t what I did as important and valuable as what my husband did? And yet the message I received over and over again, whether these individuals  realized it or not, was that no, I wasn’t as important or valuable. I didn’t just receive this message from innocent nonscientists. Females, women, in my field asked me about my moving plans, what I would do in Canada. I had to summon every ounce of control in my body not to scream a these people, who were well aware that I had to finish my own PhD. Instead, I grippd my femininity, smiled, and politely told disbelieving eyes that, in fact, I was staying in Iowa City to finish my PhD and teach and would be applying for jobs in the Midwest where my husband would join me after he finished his postdoctoral work. I secretly wanted to say, you should kno better. You shoul know what it is like to be a woman in a field where the top is dominated by men. You should want to acknowledge my individuality and independence. That I am a person besides my husband. That I have my own choies to make and that my caaeer isn’t second to his. I want this discourse to change.

Because our discourse is fatally flawed. What leads us to these assmptions, these biases? These norms?

The success stories of females in science come when the norms are shattered. When a husband stays home with the kids so his wife can work. Or when a husband uses the powerful position he has to create a space for his wife to succeed.

To be a female neuroscientist takes guts. Because you will have to overcome the world’s perception of what you should do, what you ought to do. The social conventions of society. You will have to use a discourse that make people uncomfortable. You will have to make waves.

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