The Transparency Project: Ten thoughts on being a female physicist/mathematician/computational scientist

1) Yup, that’s what I do (editor’s note: see title). I don’t like being pinned down into a single discipline/category/niche. That’s me in a nutshell, really.

2) My work is so much fun! I love solving problems, figuring things out, making data tell a story, discovering weird cool things, and knowing that everything around you can always get a little deeper. I love writing about my work. I love talking about my work. So if you meet me at a party and show some interest and a little curiosity, you have been warned.

3) It can be a little lonely around here*. Its not that I am not comfortable around guys. I absolutely get along with guys. Its just that you can’t quite shake that feeling of being “the woman”. I went to a fabulous talk this morning. I plopped myself right up front so I could get a good seat and easily ask a question if I wanted to. Then I peered around at the fifty men seated behind me. Oh there is another woman (do you wave?). (editor’s note: that is my favorite line ever.) The bottom-line is that if you stick around in the STEM field long enough, that whole “leaky pipeline” phenomenon means that the air starts to get a little thin after a while.

4) Its not that I am not used to it. When I worked at an engineering organization that was 10% female, everybody knew me, even if I didn’t know them. I was in a six month course with 10 guys and me and rotating instructors. Standard class opening was “Gentlemen… and Lady.” (editor’s note: groan x 8 hundred. why do people even feel the need to gender their audience at all anyway!?)

5) Sometimes, I walk into a lecture where the audience is, perhaps, 30% female and I think, “ Whoa, where am I? …is this? Oh its a lecture about X. I get it.” (Where X is some area of the STEM field that has a higher presence of women.)

6) In general there can be this odd dynamic when you interact with another woman in your field. Are we secret comrades? Competitors for a limited set of gender diversity slots? Do we seek each other out for a moment of sympathetic conversation. Do we ignore that we both are women because are “so beyond that we just hardly notice anymore”? Are we sizing each other up to see how well we are representing our species? (editor’s note: I feel this way about other redheads.)

7) I can’t say that I have ever faced gender discrimination. I also can’t say that I haven’t. I can’t say that I have ever received anything because of my gender. I also can’t say that I haven’t. I mean, yes, I once had a solid-B-student guy sneer to our high school class that my gender got me into MIT over him. I once had an issue with an overly attentive male colleague that had to get taken to our superiors multiple times. I once told a dude that if he wanted to have a productive working experience with me, he would lose his current patronizing attitude stat. But while I have had friends who have had very clear cut moments of gender discrimination, I have never faced anything so blindingly obvious. Unblindingly obvious? I don’t know.

8) I want to be viewed as innovative, creative, somebody capable of flashes of inspiration, (brilliant? well if we must). I am frustrated that women are more likely to be perceived as hard workers with solid skills who can really be counted on for those soft-skills organizational needs. (editor’s note: brilliant we must!)

This is a video from a project where we thought about attaching spheres to the surface of another sphere. We found that at a certain packing density they could only roll around and rearrange in very restricted ways (Think like a Rubik’s cube.). I am pretty sure that’s a metaphor for something.

9) I would love to reach a point where I am not aware of it. Where I don’t survey a room and count the women. Where I don’t know everybody else noticed me enter. Where I don’t feel like a constant challenge to the norm.

10) What? You want to talk about some of the other challenging gender/sexual identity representation questions? I am going to second hand quote somebody from my workplace to say “We’re not ready for that yet.” Does being a gay woman in the STEM field make things easier or harder for me, or just different? I don’t know. I did recently encounter a jaw-droppingly terrible joking remark from a senior scientist in response to my comment on such-and-such making things difficult for the transgendered. Whoah… we’ve got a ways to go.

Epilogue Thought: I am trying to do my part. I am trying to be informed. I am trying to give back and be a mentor when I can. But I am also trying to hang on in a political environment that is ever reducing the funding for basic research. (that is, the pipeline may be leaking, but its also just simply getting smaller.) I just want to keep on doing what I love. Oh yeah, and I would love to tell you about that too.

Dr Carolyn L. Phillips


*I would like to add that everything I say goes double for any Black or Latino scientist out there. I feel like we are comrades-in-arms, my friends, and I am trying to look out for you when I can. Its just not part of my personal narrative. I am sure you have a parallel version to everything I have stated.

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