Here are two facts: (Fact 1) I have two X chromosomes; (Fact 2) I am a physicist. I rarely see why these two pieces of information should be related and/or used in conjunction in a conversion. This time, however, it is the whole point of this post. But I am not going to talk about the outside world and add this post to the extensive list of contents about gender discrimination in academia and in industry.
Nope, today I indulge in one of my favorite activities: listing all the things I hate about myself. In this specific case, things I hate about myself in regard to being a woman (in science).
This is cliché, but it is true. I get very emotional when I am on my menstrual cycle. Stereotypes would want me to be an angry mass of nerves always on edge. Instead, I become an irritatingly friendly bunch of fluffy clothes and hugs. My husband would argue that the second is worse. All that love and the hugs accompany the fact that the world seems so much more moving than it is. I cry for sappy ads on TV, or I am moved if a dog is particularly cute on the bus, and I could tear up for a chewed gum that vaguely reminds me of a childhood acquaintance that once was nice to me. And who loves to cry in public?
For the longest time, I denied that hormones had any effect on me, and that’s what I hate about myself. That I pretended (and still feel like I should pretend) that I don’t get hormonal swings because that’s for weaklings. Being weak/showing weaknesses is not yet accepted in today’s work environment, more so in male-dominated fields. I felt like I should fight the stereotype of the crazy lady on her period by not showing and admitting how I was. When instead I should have been fighting the idea that having those feelings make you look crazy. Because if it happens once a month for the most part of a lifetime -well- there is no point in denying how normal it is. I should just accept it and deal with it. And so should everyone else. So come and gets your hugs, you stupid cute puppy face!
“What would my husband do?”
A few days ago I was watching Season 2 of Mindhunter. And there was a scene that really resonated with me. One of the protagonists, Professor Wendy Carr, is asked by her boss to stop doing something she enjoys and that she is good at; she politely tries to object, with no result. A few scenes later, Wendy is talking with her girlfriend Kay about her disappointment:
KAY – So tell him that. Tell him you want to keep going. He’s not a mind reader.
WENDY – I did.
KAY – I’m sure you were painfully polite. Use your big-girl voice.
WENDY – I’ve never been great at asking for what I want.
KAY – Practice makes perfect.
Wendy is a strong bad-ass woman. She is a skilled researcher breaking new ground in criminology. She is on track for tenure. And yet, she is overly polite and she does not raise her voice to ask for what she deserves.
My parents educated me to become a strong independent woman, to stand up for myself and to work hard to achieve my goals. At the same time, they taught me to be painfully polite and to be a good student. To fit in, to be friendly and likable to everyone, to avoid destroying things.
When it comes to studying, living on my own, choosing a partner, I definitely put in practice the first set of behaviors. But in the workplace, I rarely used my big-girl voice. I realized that I wanted to “please” everyone around. I wanted to be the perfect Ph.D. student in the eyes of my advisors, sometimes prioritizing what they wanted over what I knew it would be best. Sharing my experience with my peers, I realized that this need for fitting and pleasing was stronger in women than it was in men.
Being assertive and standing up for myself, however, would have benefitted my career and my personal life. So, I decided I should improve. My husband is more risk-tolerant and assertive than I am; he is also very successful, I admire him for his beautiful mind and sensibility and he is my favorite person. That’s why I have taken the habit to ask “What would my husband do?” when otherwise I would instinctively smile and reply with a resonant “yes”. This practice gives me time to think of an actionable answer that I would really be happy to carry on, it gives me the courage to say no, or it frees me to aim high during negotiations. I hate that I still have to ask that question, and it does not come naturally to me. Yet. Practice makes perfect, right?
Make-up and shoes.
I almost never use make-up or fancy heels. And even if like wearing them once in a while, I feel extremely uncomfortable every time I dress up. As if I have to justify why I am wearing something more feminine, instead of the usual jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt. Note: I feel like I have to justify something, no one ever asks me, probably no one even notices it. And yet I fear being perceived as superficial and less smart.
Don’t get me wrong: I love my sneakers and quirky t-shirts, and I never felt like I was wearing them to fit in. But when I don’t wear this “physicist uniform”, or when I put on make-up and nail polish, the hideous feeling of not belonging creeps in. And I hate it. I hate that I impose on myself the same stereotypical misconceptions society has against women. I should definitely improve.
Sisterhood and guilt.
Throughout my career, I was extremely lucky. I cannot recall a single time I was discriminated because of my gender. This makes me blind and dismissive of a problem that is very real. I don’t live that sisterhood bond with other women in science that had to deal with this issue. And, oddly enough, I feel guilty: I should be fighting this war, but I don’t have the experience to advocate for this cause. My “silence” makes me feel even more guilty.
It’s particularly harsh when life comes holding a sharp needle to burst the bubble I have been living in. The last time this happened it was with this tweet thread by Dianna Cowen, a.k.a. thephysicsgirl. She shared comments she received on the line of “You-are-pretty-smart-for-being-a-girl” or “girls-don’t-talk-physics”. I felt pretty mad (and sad) -they were talking to me too! It hurt even if I wasn’t the girl on the other side of the screen. But even then I still wondered if I had the right to feel that way. And this double questioning what I should feel or not feel is what I hate.
The role in society.
For the past year, I was a stay-at-home wife. But I wasn’t completely off work. During this time, I completed my Ph.D. thesis, wrapped up a research article, taught science using lego part-time, and even made my first illustrated book. But a feeling of failure was there all the time to taunt me. This failure perception wasn’t coming by not being fulfilled. It was actually a pretty good year. I loved the opportunity to take a break for the first time in my whole career, and I got the time to complete projects I could only dream of.
In my mind, though, I was failing because I was “wasting” my Ph.D. My stupid brain would be worried to reinforce stereotypes about women roles in society. It would whisper to me at night: “After 10 years of physics, here you are: cleaning and cooking for the husband.”
I am mad at myself for two reasons: allowing these types of thoughts, and being and feeling demotivated by their content! I strongly believe women should not be judged for their career choice. We can be equally successful as stay-at-home moms and as company CEOs. I wish my inner voice would be more respectful of my rational thinking and of a new definition of success I am only now learning to accept. What is worse is again self-doubt. Did I study physics just to defy stereotypical roles? I know this is not true. But this negative thinking mines my own beliefs at times.
I have fun when I think of physics mind experiments, when I learn about new research, or when I lose track of time playing with instrumentation in the lab. That’s why it is especially frustrating to self-doubt myself. There is a pressure on women that have chosen my path to be forever committed to their call: we cannot allow ourselves some time off, because we might risk getting labeled as “failing”. And sometimes I hate the fact that that labeling comes from within.
No, it’s not about sex. It’s again about showing society that I am worthy of my position. This whole list could have been summarized with this last point. I feel the constant duty of having to prove myself, especially as a woman in science! As if I have to prove that I am smart. That I am supposed to be where I am.
My favorite example is pink quota: I hate pink quota! But mostly I hate myself for constantly questioning my achievements because of pink quota. Instead of being confident, I wonder if I was chosen to fill the quota rather than for my skills. I know that pink quota is needed in extremely male-dominated sectors, and yet I feel that my value is undermined by their existence.
All this questioning and doubting make me anxious. I work twice as much to prove that I am as good as I am needed to be, or more. I recognize that thanks to this feeling I improved through all my life. But this is not sustainable in the long run. Because it does not matter how much I work or how much my peers and superiors acknowledge my skills, I always feel like I have to prove that science is my place to be.
I know this is a controversial post. Instead of the n-th post about how awesome women in science are, I wanted to show how nuanced the whole story is. It is a post about bias, and about how bias is difficult to fight and more insidious than it is often presented. I have biases against myself, which means that -whether I like it or not- I have biases against other women too.
In this post, I shared things of which I am ashamed, but it is fundamental to do this self-reflection. This is the first step to grow. Knowing my biases, not only I can fight them, but I can improve from them.
Many things I hate about myself are characteristics that once I was proud of. Like hiding my period symptoms, or not caring much about make-up. But what I was doing was neglecting a part of me, so that I could fit in the culture. I was trying to be a man. And not any man, with his ups and downs and his human flaws. But the perfect man, the one society wants everyone to be: the strong, smart, always happy, in-your-face man. An impossible idea that not even men should feel bound to.
Let me finish on another controversial note. Many of the problems in my list, while being horrible situations for women, they are not so great for men either. They too get judged for their performances, for their absence of weaknesses, for the role society expects from them. The fact that these roles were put in place by men themselves does not make it any easier. It must feel quite similar to the self-deprecatory voice in my head when I fight my own biases.
As I learn to be more assertive, to avoid saying sorry about everything, to be confident in my skills, I wish that everyone —especially men– would also be free to be “weak” every once in a while and to redefine their own definition of success and their role in society. I am sure it would be much easier for everyone, no matter the gender, the sexual orientation, the color of their skin, to be themselves.