Yes, Being a Woman in Science Is Hard. That’s Why We’re Trying to Change It.

The focus on the stats means we sometimes ignore the work those underrepresented people are doing to change things.

Photo illustration: A female tech peers into a microscope.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Whenever I find myself on a science panel, I brace myself for the inevitable question: “Can you talk about your experience with discrimination or abuse as a woman in science?” It doesn’t matter if I’m on a panel to talk about my expertise as a molecular biologist or one focused specifically on women and minorities in STEM. In both cases, I’m almost always asked to relive my worst experiences as a scientist in front of an audience.

I’ve gotten more savvy at answering this question: In fact, I’ve gotten pretty good at flipping the script. Instead of talking about what I’ve been through, I focus on my answer on the question I wish I’d been asked, which is “how can we make it easier for women and minorities to work in the sciences?” I highlight the organizers and advocates who have driven me to demand better. I stay true to the reality of my experiences, the bad and the good, while being clear there are real ways to affect change happening all around.

I feel that same pang of disappointment when I read media coverage on the plight of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM. The narrative is always the same—centered on the numerous ways we’ve been marginalized by our institutions. Of course these conversations are important: They provide windows into the obstacles women and minorities face, and create a broader awareness of those challenges. And they create a public record to hold those with power accountable for maintaining a toxic status quo.

But despite best intentions, that same flavor of media coverage piles up to paint a picture of what it’s like to be a woman in science that is both jarring and, in my experience, does not really reflect the complete reality. That’s because these pieces frequently ignore the change-makers working to fix a broken system. They perpetuate a narrative that paints women as passive victims, rather than people who are wise to science’s systemic inequities and advocate for change from a well of evidence and lived experience. Spotlighting injustice while ignoring the solutions we put forward erases our agency.

It’s time to flip that narrative. Yes, we are scientists who work under a system that wasn’t built for us. But we’re also organizers, advocates, and each other’s allies. We know there is work to be done to make science a more equitable and just enterprise. So we’re doing it. After all, we are trained as scientists so we understand how to identify a problem, collect and make sense of evidence, and propose informed solutions. And we’ve been wielding that expertise to organize and advocate for science to do better by us.

As a woman in science who was caught up in the first travel ban while visiting my family in Iran, I threw myself into 500 Women Scientists, an emerging grass-roots organization committed to making science open, inclusive, and accessible. The group launched in the wake of the 2016 election with a pledge signed by over 20,000 women and allies to stand up not only for science, but for the rights of women, minorities, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA. Their efforts are one in a long line of initiatives, campaigns, and podcasts led by women and underrepresented minorities who are transforming obstacles into opportunities to push for better. The women leading Ciencia Puerto Rico have mobilized their network to transform STEM education in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Podcasts like Michelle Barboza-Ramirez’s The Femmes of STEM have worked to highlight the unsung histories of women in science. Scientists like Stephani Page have created hashtags like #BLACKandSTEM and #marginsci to create spaces for women and underrepresented minorities to find each other and discuss their experiences and solutions to the challenges they face. These conversations extend into web series and blogs like VanguardSTEM, acting as a dedicated space for emerging and established women on color in STEM to share their work and general wisdom. Databases like Diverse Sources and 500 Women Scientists’ Request a Scientist have provided journalists, conference organizers, educators, and policymakers with thousands of women and underrepresented minorities so they can no longer justify their esteemed “manels.”

We also need to support the simple representation of scientists from all backgrounds just doing their work and sharing their full selves with the world. For example, Science Sam is a neuroscientist who talks about her work in the lab on her Instagram account. A few weeks ago, Science magazine published an op-ed that somehow argued that it was disturbing that “these efforts are celebrated as ways to correct for the long held and deeply structured forms of discrimination and exclusion that female scientists face.” It certainly is disturbing that the important work of representation is done without compensation, recognition, or reward, often by the underrepresented groups who are already penalized by the current system, and is subject to mockery or dismissed as a frivolous hobby.

Science Sam’s Instagram account is certainly not the only way in which we are trying to fix the system, but her efforts are a means of combating these problems by offering different depictions of what it is to be a scientist that subvert the stereotypes. Like countless communicators like her, she shares her work as a woman in science alongside her interests, hobbies, and personality, and in doing this, she normalizes another view of who can be a scientist. And indeed, I was relieved to see Science Twitter mobilize to follow her example, flooding the internet with #ScientistsWhoSelfie, which itself is a powerful argument for how simple representation can help correct the narrative.

This kind of work deserves to be amplified every bit as much as the underlying problems of inequity it seeks to solve. We have the power to build our own channels that amplify the voices and ideas of our fellow change-makers. But those voices could travel a whole lot further if they were highlighted by the those with a wide reach and authority—the press, educational and research institutions, and scientific societies. That kind of visibility can build better advocates and allies, while attracting support to sustain our efforts. It can help us continue to find each other, cross-pollinate, and build coalitions for change (which should include people outside of underrepresented groups, too). It can help all of us challenge ourselves to envision a system that is better than the one we’re in.

I’m often asked how we should inspire girls and young women to pursue science. We should be open and direct about the challenges they’ll likely encounter as they advance through their careers. We should also point them to the women and minorities who are working to make science better so they know they never have to settle into the narrative they’re handed.