The Elephant in the Women-in-Science Room

by Jane Willenbring, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego

Scripps Institution of Oceanography recently held a symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of the theory of Plate Tectonics. As part of the symposium, I moderated a panel of women geoscientists and geophysicists who were graduate students and postdocs at that time and many were among those who helped shape the theory themselves. They recounted their stories of being told that they couldn’t do math or science or go on research vessels simply because they were women. When they proved that they could do it, they were then told that they didn’t belong in the ‘community’ in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I suspect the panel members spared us their most painful memories in such a public setting. Interestingly, some of these stories rang true for me too, though I was a student decades later.

A small fraction of women ‘survived’ to become full professors in the sciences 50 years ago even if they were bright and hard-working–much like today. The recently released National Academy of Sciences report on Sexual Harassment notes that these issues are still ongoing, and that for “over thirty years the incidence of sexual harassment in different industries has held steady, yet now more women are in the workforce and in academia, and in the fields of science, engineering, and medicine (as students and faculty) and so more women are experiencing sexual harassment as they work and learn.”

I enjoy these women-in-science panels; I want to understand the plight of women science-pioneers–especially as a woman scientist who has experienced sexual harassment myself. This history needs to be told, appreciated and understood. I have moderated and organized many such panels over the years and one question inevitably gets asked by a young female student who probably has experienced harassment herself. They ask, “what advice would you give to women who face harassment today?”  I cringe when I hear this question because I know what comes next. The advice is almost always some variant of this: “Ignore the hardship and do good work. We did it back then, so you can certainly do it now.” I admit I’ve said it myself! This is, I thought, what some students might need to hear.

It reminded me of how, in the animal kingdom, there are various successful survival strategies. Famous among them are fight and flight, and I’ll add the less-famous freeze and force. Humans have mimicked these in how we deal with conflict–including sexual assault, harassment, and bullying. Observing the animal kingdom, we marvel at diverse examples of these strategies: the tiger, the gazelle, the possum, and the elephant. In academia, however, the senior, women academics have seemed to use a singularly ‘best’ strategy and these women are often greatly admired–not only because of their significant scientific contributions, but also because of the tragically difficult path they must have endured as pioneers.

Largely, that group of women scientists who remained in academia to form these panels and stayed in the leaky pipeline through that time of pervasive and institutionally-accepted sexual harassment or ‘chauvinism’ as distinguished women scientists often refer to it, claim to use a singular strategy of survival. This group of women scientists are forces; they were either so brilliant or so singularly focused on a goal that obstacles were irrelevant, like an elephant charging through the forest.

During these panels, I always note the survival bias in the advice students hear. We only hear from the elephants! What happened to the gazelles, who swiftly and perhaps gracefully left science for seemingly safer ground? Tell us about your delightful life after the academy. Tell us about how you experienced harassment and bullying there too. What happened to the tiger, who fought bravely but rarely ‘won’ such an imbalanced fight? Tell us about how the university made you feel assaulted a second time. Let a student tell you how proud they are of you. What happened to the tiger who ‘won’ but was wounded in the battle?  Tell us about how glorious it felt to win. Tell us how you were labeled ‘difficult’ and experienced severe retribution with men warning their colleagues not to ever work with you.

Observing this last panel, I wondered if I was really an elephant as I have pretended to be for months or maybe decades now. Instead, I think I was a possum. I stilled my scared self until the danger had passed. Let me tell you about the lonely anxiety of the possum and how wonderful it feels to be free in a safe place afterward.

As scientists, we don’t place a value on the particular survival strategies of different groups of animals; each is useful for that particular animal. We don’t–or at least shouldn’t–judge the way victims survive an assault. Survival is key and the strategy used in the moment is secondary and unpredictable. In science culture, we seem to revere the rare and lumbering elephant. Should we?

Certainly, we should value these elephants’ scientific contributions, but I don’t admire these distinguished, senior women simply because they used one specific survival strategy. I find myself amazed at ALL the brilliant women and people of color and LGBTQ and disabled folks who made their lives into something important and worthwhile regardless of whether they stayed in the academy.  I grieve for those whose minds were wasted for no good reason.

Today, I most admire the people (of any gender, ethnicity, race, etc.) who often work behind the scenes to remove the structural barriers in place that prevent advancement of underrepresented groups. I admire the people who mentor students and children in a way that allows them to become their best selves and those who work to rid the sciences of harassment of anyone. I admire those who work toward a day when whole groups of people don’t have to think about how to survive, but how to thrive in academia. Importantly, the scientific contributions of those who lift everyone up can be just as great those as those who step on trainees and collaborators to rise.

From observing some amazing, admirable scientists and mentors, which is certainly a subset of the whole in academia, I’ve noted that those I admire have often morphed into another animal entirely.  I see that many have become what I needed when I was younger. I see some elephants, tigers, possums and gazelles becoming lionesses, protecting the young.  I also wonder if some of the elephants in the room weren’t really just possums in disguise.

Let’s all agree to rid science of harassment, but before handing out judgement of how junior scientists should best handle harassment and bullying, let’s also consider the invisible struggles of others; and let’s agree, before handing out blanket admiration to those who survived a broken system, to instead save our highest admiration for those who actively worked and still work to fix it.

Jane Willenbring is an Associate Professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego and an Op-Ed Project Fellow.

 

2 responses to “The Elephant in the Women-in-Science Room

  1. Dr. Willenbring, you’ve given me a new bit of vocabulary: “survival bias.” And your animal analogies are perfect! Me? I’m a fighter, a tiger. 35 years after my experiences of being harassed and stalked, I’m doing my best to train other women how to resist and persist, as best they can in the situation. Thanks for this!

  2. I’m so sick of white male fragility that can’t take seeing anyone who doesn’t look like them in their field. Grow the hell up, boys.

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