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As a woman in science, I need to conceal my femininity to be taken seriously

It’s a thesis I tested myself. It proved true.

Analysts work in a lab in England in January, 2012.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

When I’m at the lab, I dress as invisibly as I can. I wear dark jeans, boring, long-sleeved shirts and hoodies, and casual shoes. My hair is tied back into a sloppy bun, and my makeup is minimal. I look like I live in an organic granola commercial.

I gave little thought to this uniform until a few years ago. At the time, I was a teaching assistant in the psychology department at the University of Toronto. I was helping my students prepare for the midterm exam that I had just finished putting together. My partner at the time had been teasing me about the bun, so I decided to start wearing my hair down.

I debuted my bun-free, feminine hairstyle on midterm prep day. One student asked me what I thought was on the exam, so I outlined the topics that would be covered. He gave me a look of skepticism and began to lecture me on what would really be on the midterm.

For a moment, I was frozen in shock. No student had ever spoken to me like this before. To prevent him from confusing the other students, I interrupted his monologue and reminded him that I was the TA and had designed the exam. He kept going and going. Nothing I said could convince him of my authority.

As a woman who works in a scientific field, it’s an experience I’ve had before. This incident was a prime example of “mansplaining,” a term used to describe when a person, often but not always a man, explains something in a condescending manner to someone they assume is less knowledgeable.

While I’ll never know if my student’s behavior was tied to my hairstyle, his actions are compatible with building evidence that women scientists are taken less seriously when they dress in a feminine manner. Either way, the bun was back the next day. I felt myself downplaying my femininity, slipping back into a uniform that made me feel more comfortable in my workplace.

This experience is likely familiar to many women in science. In the months since the election, the science community has politically activated, inspiring more discussions of marginalized groups in science. The recent March for Science even sparked a larger discussion about the underrepresentation of women, indigenous people, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and people of color in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Through all of this, I’ve found myself wondering what it would be like if I were a man working in the scientific community. What kind of advantages do men in STEM have over me?

As a first step to answering this question for myself, I performed a gender swap experiment on Science Twitter, an online community I turn to for STEM-themed conversations. I spent a week tweeting with the profile picture of a woman, then switched and spent a week tweeting with a male profile picture. I was surprised to discover that the experiences had subtle but important differences that meant a lot to my self-confidence and emotional well-being.

I’ve experienced subtle sexism throughout my career as a scientist

My parents were the first to push me toward science. I remember being 6 years old and squirming with embarrassment in the spice aisle of the grocery store as my dad delivered a lesson on how and why salt is iodized. In high school, I became interested in radio astronomy. My proudest moment was during my graduation, when the emcee announced that I’d be pursuing astrophysics in university, prompting a gasp from the audience. These days I might have rolled my eyes at that, but young me was overjoyed to be more like the boys than the girls.

That changed once I got to university. At each step in my education — from astrophysics to computer science to neuroscience — I’ve gravitated to spaces with progressively greater female representation. My current lab, for example, has always been majority women. Nonetheless, when I leave the lab, I have to contend with work environments that are far less welcoming to women.

Once I enter these predominantly male science spaces, I have a go-to set of tactics. My clothes and my bun are just one part of my “woman in science” toolbox. I also have scripts prepared for encounters that demean my intelligence or objectify me. When someone oversimplifies their science for me or appears to be testing me, I have special phrases to quickly convey intelligence. A reference to Fourier transforms or quantum mechanics always works — their eyes brighten, and a truckload of technical jargon spills out of their mouths.

I have a speech prepared for the times that fellow scientists hit on me at conferences. “Are you with someone?” they’ll ask. “Why yes, I’m here representing the Lab for Thinking, Reasoning, Creativity, and Educational Neuroscience. Would you like a copy of our poster?” I’ll reply.

That obliviousness also comes in handy when men insult me, sometimes accidentally. I’ve been told that women are less intelligent because our brains are smaller, because we win fewer Nobel Prizes, and most frequently, because Steven Pinker said so. When I’m good at my job, I’ve been told it’s because I’m not like normal women, or there’s something about women biologically that makes us especially suited to do whatever task I just completed. Sometimes I respond with a groan, but it’s easier to pretend I didn’t hear them.

Most women in science have a set of strategies and accommodations like this, sometimes taught to us explicitly but mostly learned through trial and error. Often, these accommodations are invisible to us, or they gradually become part of who we are. In a 2007 study of the top 100 institutions for seven STEM fields, only 14 percent of tenured or tenure-track STEM faculty were women; only 0.58 percent of the faculty in the same study were identified as African-American, Hispanic or Native American women. This imbalance means that we constrain our emotions to avoid being stereotyped as emotional. We’re more likely to receive negative criticism in science, so we become perfectionists.

Ironically, this additional scrutiny may make us better scientists: When an experiment returns an unexpected result, men are more likely to dismiss it, whereas we’re more likely to replicate the experiment to figure out what’s going on. We’re also, on average, more ethical than our male colleagues.

Most of the time, working in an environment that undervalues us can damage our self-esteem. We may know all about impostor syndrome, but we still worry we’re impostors. We lose confidence in ourselves and misattribute that loss of confidence to inability rather than wage, employment, or funding discrimination. This environment hits hardest against those of us who belong to multiple marginalized groups, such as indigenous women, women of color, women with disabilities, and LGBTQ women.

Understanding this gender bias has almost never helped me on an individual level. Unless a reviewer explicitly states that he’s rejected my paper because of gender — something that has happened before, though not to me -- I have no way to know whether bias was involved. That ambiguity is a confidence killer. Anytime I lose out, I blame myself.

My Twitter gender swap experiment

Until a few months ago, my Twitter avatar was a genderless cupcake. I was very happy as a cupcake — nobody starts fights with cupcakes. It was a peaceful existence. Aside from the name “Eve,” my profile had no gender markers. I had heard that women get harassed on Twitter, but hadn’t experienced it. The scientist in me, and perhaps also the masochist, decided to see for myself.

The goal of the experiment was to see whether changing the gender presentation of my avatar would change the way others interacted with me. I agonized over experimental design, as I always do. Would knowing the gender of my avatar affect the way I tweeted? Could I randomize which avatar I used any given day? Could I “blind” myself, i.e., keep myself from seeing which avatar is tweeting on my behalf? Should I refrain from tweeting anything gendered or let a bot control my tweets?

I finally settled on a process. First, I started by making my gender more explicit on Twitter. I changed my avatar to a stock photo of a generic woman scientist, with a bright, welcoming smile, a lab coat, and very scientific-looking beakers of blue and green liquids. I didn’t change the content of what I was tweeting and essentially ran the experiment as myself, only with a female avatar.

My female avatar seemed to make more mistakes than my cupcake did. She might misspell a word or say “never” when she really meant “rarely.” It amused me at first, that these helpful corrections began appearing just after my new avatar did, but eventually I forgot about it and it became part of my Twitter experience. I adapted and moved on.

Female avatars: Irène Joliot-Curie with a scowl that reflected the feelings of many a woman in January 2017, a wacky mad scientist, and my current avatar, a holder of scientific liquids.

In February, I began step two: adopting a male persona. I Googled “male scientist,” and set one of the images as my avatar. I changed my Twitter name from “Eve Forster” to “Steve Forster,” and announced to my followers that I’d be doing a week-long gender swap experiment. To soothe my fears about conducting an unblinded experiment, I told myself it was a preliminary study, to understand the terrain before tackling a full-scale experiment.

Male avatars: A holder of blue liquids, a wacky mad scientist, and Steve (my avatar for a week) holding orange liquids.

I set a few rules for myself: During Steve Week, I wouldn’t mention my gender identity to anyone and would allow people to infer it from my avatar. I made no changes to my profile description, which didn’t reference gender. I could tweet about things that were traditionally female-coded, and use hashtags like #WomenInSTEM and #MarginSci, but I had to do so with the understanding that I was tweeting as a man.

Immediately, people started responding to me in a more positive way. My tweets got more likes and more replies, and those replies were free of the condescension I’d come to expect from Twitter. On the first day, I encountered a troll who called me names, but those tiny, nitpicky criticisms went away. It’s easy to identify and disregard a troll who calls you names. Someone who appears to be tweeting in good faith and has a very slight problem with what you have to say is more likely to slip under your skin. This second group seemed to have fewer problems with my tweets when I was Steve.

At the end of the experiment, I remember thinking: I was really funny on Twitter this week! I felt smarter, more confident and authoritative. I even slept better, an average of 18 minutes longer per night, according to my sleep-tracking app, SleepBot.

At first, I attributed all of these things to the positive associations I had with being male. Expectations can have a big influence on how you feel, and I attributed my newfound confidence to a maleness “placebo effect.” I thought perhaps I had imbued the image of Steve with positive characteristics such as intelligence and confidence, and this may have led me to perceive those characteristics within myself. I had noticed that the nitpicking had completely disappeared, but that felt so minor that I assumed something else must have contributed to the boost in my mood. Those minor criticisms couldn’t have affected me so negatively, could they?

In time, I discovered that the effect on my confidence was indeed that subtle, and to understand why, I should explain what it was like to tweet as Eve one week previously and then again one week later. Just like tying my hair in a bun in real life, I’ve figured out how to tweet without making waves: avoiding certain hashtags, phrasing my tweets as nonconfrontationally as possible, and qualifying everything I say. When I want to tweet about a fact as a woman, I research it thoroughly first to ensure I have every tiny detail exactly right.

As Steve, I stopped getting pushback, and my confidence grew. I gradually realized that even if I made a mistake, I’d be given the benefit of the doubt. I didn’t need as much precision and no longer had to worry about how my tweets would be received, which saved me time and emotional energy. I no longer second-guessed myself, and started tweeting less cautiously. In my hubris, I forgot to use those safeguards the following week. After two days of using a female avatar, the attacks, nitpicking and “mansplanations” were back, stronger than ever, and my stress was back to its original level.

Preliminary lessons from a preliminary experiment

While there is still a lot to unpack from my experiment, the main lesson I learned from this exercise was the difference between noticing the presence and absence of discriminatory behavior. The former is much easier than the latter, especially within a society that masks inequity so well. Noticing the subtle confidence boost because you’re not getting picked apart for every word is much harder than noticing it drop.

I’ve long assumed that my experience working in science has been directly related to my intellectual ability and the quality of the research that I’ve done. My experiences during this experiment suggest this may not have been the case. If I could put on a male avatar in real life, would I feel more confident, and be more comfortable challenging my colleagues and defending my opinions? I wondered how much of my career progress has been hindered by the emotional and professional burden of having to prove myself to a higher standard than male scientists. How often have I hindered the progress of scientists more marginalized than me?

I have to point out that I have it much better than many others in science. I’m lucky at my current job, where I haven’t experienced harassment at the hands of my colleagues. As a white, able-bodied woman, I’m insulated from the daily violence, both minor and major, inflicted on women of color, women with disabilities, indigenous women, and LGBTQ women in the scientific community and in society at large. I also benefit from the structures that oppress them, and have the prerogative to ignore those structures or not.

This is a lesson that all men and white women in science must learn: We must continually remind ourselves that our experiences are profoundly sheltered. Not only do we lack the experience of underrepresented scientists but we have difficulty even knowing what to look for. It’s our responsibility, on Twitter, in science, in life, to find out for ourselves, and to actively work against the structures that systematically exclude underrepresented minorities from science. Here is a good place to start.

Eve Forster is a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Toronto. She uses functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to study the neural underpinnings of analogical reasoning, and tweets @EveForster.

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