Wednesday, January 11th 2012

Even When We Want Something, We Need to Hide It

This is a repost of a piece I wrote after the women in scienceblogging panel at Science Online 2011. Seeing as we’re heading into #scio12 season and there will be another women in scienceblogging session (this time in the brilliant and capable hands of Janet Stemwedel and Christie Wilcox), AND a writing for women’s magazines session, I thought it was time to bring this one back.

A few years ago, I was standing outside the building where I taught, unlocking my bike. It was one of the first days of the semester, and I had just finished teaching. I was wearing one of my teaching uniforms: wideleg trouser jeans, a black boatneck sweater, and beautiful forest green heels. Except in really bad weather, I wear heels when I teach because it helps me feel older, like I have some authority. Being sometimes several decades younger than my colleagues, but usually less than a decade older than my students, meant my gender and age made me a sort of sexualized second class citizen.

An older faculty member approached me to unlock his own bike. He complained about where some students had locked their bikes because they obstructed the bike lane. He mentioned that he had told the police but that they never did anything about it. I nodded sympathetically.

“Of course,” he then said, “if I had been dressed like you, maybe they would have listened!”

And just like that, I was no longer a colleague. I was a woman.

* * *

Dr. Clelia Mosher, by valleyviolet on flickr

Dr. Clelia Mosher, by valleyviolet on flickr. Click through to read her story to figure out why I chose her as the featured image for this post.

The perils women sciencebloggers face are not that different than those we face in the real world… though the exposure of the internet can occasionally make it less safe. And the risks that women avoid out in the world, are not unlike those we avoid in the blogosphere. That was one of many important conclusions made in the panel Sheril Kirshenbaum, Anne Jefferson, Joanne Manaster and I ran for the Sunday midday panel entitled “Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name.” I believe Sheril was the one who first suggested the topic.

This panel ended up being a great experience, for several reasons. First, leading up to the session, I had the opportunity to meet with other women at the conference and discuss the topic. I found myself in large, women-only groups on a number of occasions (though I just realized, this happens to me a lot at academic conferences too: I think I avoid schmoozing with men more than I realize, a point I will return to later). Each time, I brought up the panel to hear what they had to say, and they made beautiful points, expressed legitimate frustrations, shared both good stories and horrible ones, and in general kicked ass. There were some seriously smart and savvy women at Science Online 2011.

“Even when we want something, we feel the need to hide it”
Because I’m not sure whether these women want to be identified by the points they made or stories they shared, I’m not naming names here. But after each impromptu mini-panel, I took copious notes. Here is what the women I spoke to had to say:

  • There is serious friend bias in who gets promoted in the science blogosphere, and it ends up that men promote other men quite a lot (in order to avoid potential defensiveness, I will say that we did also discuss several notable exceptions). We need to share the empirical evidence about the fact that people like to read people who are a lot like them, as a kind of sensitivity training for men, to help them train their brains to appreciate many different voices.
  • We are all very, very tired of making a point on a blog, on twitter, or in a meeting, being ignored, having a man make the same point, then having that man get all the credit. Very tired.
  • We still can’t be ambitious without being considered a bitch. People will always fall back on that term if they think you are too aggressive, but the same behavior is not criticized in men. One woman brought up an article she read by a journalist who said, of all the famous women she had ever interviewed (including leading political figures like Hillary Clinton), only Catherine Zeta Jones had ever admitted to being ambitious: the others had denied it. Even when we want something, we often feel we need to hide it.
  • Women already have to be two and a half times better than a man to get the same job in science (referring here to the Wenneras and Wold article), women who blog using their real names have to be even better than that if she doesn’t want her blog counted against her when going up for promotion.
  • Both the attacks and appreciations are different for women bloggers. We get unwanted attentions and compliments on our appearance, surprise that we are an authority on certain topics or have an interest in male-dominated topics, or are bullied in a way that feels gendered when a man decides we are wrong on the internet.
  • The risk-aversion women bloggers display only hurts us. If we continue to be risk-averse women will never occupy positions where they can influence the community of bloggers — we need to take on editorships, we need to manage networks, run carnivals, so that we can then involve and promote more women. The blogosphere, like academia, is not a pure meritocracy.
  • There are differences in the pros and cons of blogging depending on whether you are pseud or use your real name, and different ways you find support in the community.
  • If we think we have it bad, look at other underrepresented groups: the situation is in some ways even worse. We need to avoid the Oppression Olympics and think about how to pull everyone up the ladder with us.

And remember… this is what was covered before we even started the panel!

“I want to puke on their shoes”
The panel itself was great, because the four of us panelists had different backgrounds and stories to share. Anne and I are both academics who spent some time in the science blogosphere with pseudonyms before engaging with our real names. However Anne is in a more male-dominated discipline and co-blogs with a man; mine is a bit more equal, but also I study women’s reproductive physiology, which leads to more reflective, sometimes more personal writing. Joanne makes science videos for a broader audience and has a great mind for visuals, humor, and for a really engaging style. Sheril has co-blogged with a man as well, in a high profile website, and has published two books (I must admit, I am frantically trying to finish two books right now so that I can finally start her book The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us!). But again, while I think all my co-panelists had some very important things to say, and some great stories (and awful stalker stories), the audience is what made the panel. Here are a few things they had to say (I wasn’t able to take notes as readily during the panel, but I will link to the video of the panel when it’s up):

  • We need to be clear about how bad it really is to write under your own name — some women have had no problems at all where others have been driven out. Depending on the topic you write about and the kind of audience you write for, you will have different experiences, and many women will have only good experiences. We shouldn’t be too negative.
  • Some people think writing for a female audience is lame. Apparently there is a listserv of science writers, and about once a year a conversation starts up about whether science writers should write for women’s magazines — apparently many people come down on the side of not thinking science writers should write for them. (My take? Any time anyone says there is anything wrong with writing for women, it is sexist.)
  • One fantastic young woman talked about how she avoids discussing her blog with her peers for fear of becoming the “soft skills chick.” Doing anything other than the hottest science seems to delegitimize women very quickly; however in some cases men get rewarded for doing the same thing (examples that come to my mind are picking up extra teaching and service, or having offspring, the latter being empirically supported).
  • Robin Lloyd already mentioned this in her article, but Ed Yong attended our panel (one of, I think, only three men). He mentioned that he gets DMed on Twitter regularly by men who want him to Tweet or promote their posts. He said he had never been DMed for promotional reasons by a woman. I was completely flabbergasted by this comment (and I don’t think I was the only one), because it had never occurred to me that I could even do that sort of a thing.
  • The brilliant Zuska made several great comments (as Sheril pointed out, she really should have been on the panel!). One that really struck me is that we need to interrogate assumptions about women and provide empirical evidence against them. The reason this came up was that we were discussing where attacks can come from, and how sometimes the attacks come from women as well as men. I believe someone made the comment that women can be worse, and alluded to the idea that women make bad bosses for women. Zuska pointed out that when you look at the evidence male bosses are still worse to women than women are to women. And of course, towards the end of the panel Zuska also used what is likely her most famous and beloved line, “I want to puke on their shoes.”

Building an old girls’ club
At the end of the day, being female is a risk factor for unwanted attention if you choose to put yourself out there in any aspect of your life, from your job to your blog. But a risk factor is not the same thing as a foregone conclusion. We can choose not to engage and participate, not to take on positions of power (like, say researchblogging editorships) or attention (blogging on a network). But we’re holding ourselves, and women younger than us, back. We aren’t directing or shaping the debate. We aren’t holding people accountable when they ignore or forget issues relevant to women and other underrepresented groups.

Women need to connect with each other in private spaces, like email and private forums, and we need to continue to write “life of science” posts that mentor other women. Anne and I have been writing each other every week for a few years now, sharing the work we need to get done, the work we are going to let go and not feel guilty about, the happy and sad happening in our lives. Those emails help me structure my week and make action plans for my big academic projects. What’s more, Anne and I probably know more about each other than many people who see each other every day. And that relationship has given me the confidence to write this blog, to engage with sciencebloggers, to be a mommy and a scientist and a professor.

Be bold. Be ambitious. Be a little bit of a bitch. Plan your life in such a way that it gets bigger, not smaller. I plan my life so that my daughter, now almost three, will feel as though anything is possible; I want to be her example that a woman can occupy space and be pleased with herself.

I hope more of you blog, I hope more of you who already blog promote your blog and get your name out there, I hope you email me or someone you feel you could connect to when you need a reminder that you’re not alone. Because, why be small when you can be big?

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