Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Baby Quilts and Science and Femininity

Bug quiltA long discourse on femininity in science. But first, let me show off my work.

Bug quilt! Courtesy of my favorite aunt's excellent quilt teaching. Also, notice the hippopotamuses (big green blotches). Indoctrinate 'em young! Bugs and animals are cool! For a dear friend who is not, at present, expecting a wee one.

Pooh quiltPooh quilt! For my friend C, due in May, who is an artist of very definite opinions (though my mother says 'HAH! Raising a child is one long assault on your artistic sensibilities!'). Plus, the Pooh fabric was too cute for words.

Lab benchThrilling lab bench. For contrast. That's right, I work amidst this chaos. I made all of those darn solutions. AND I know where everything is.

I meet a lot of people who are amazed either a) that I can sew, bake eclairs, and apply makeup, because I'm a scientist or b) that I can do science research, hiking, and journal editing, because I look too girly.

I do have a point. I think this is part of a dangerous myth: Women scientist do not partake of the traditional feminine virtues because a) they are too busy being scientists or b) that identifies them with the Mom role or c) being a scientist places one outside the realm of traditional femininity and removes one from being a woman. Conversely, women who bake well cannot be good scientists. Maybe they spent too much time learning cookie recipes instead of injecting oocytes. ['Bake' here is: cooking, cleaning, sewing, childcare, laundry, mending, shopping...]

As it happens, I know how to do 'homemaker' things because my parents grew up poor. We're talking hunting squirrels for food, poor.* Among the 'upper classes' these are leisure activities, but in my family they are survival skills.

I would imagine this myth springs from the dominant old-white-guy paradigm: Old white guys are scientists; they do not bake; therefore scientists do not bake. Their wives and secretaries bake. Their wives stay home; their secretaries are subordinate. Therefore women who bake are not professional scientists. In my lab, I see mental binning going on all the time: girly girl or scientist? Wearing a pretty dress implies somehow that one cannot be serious. If one wishes to be taken seriously, one does not bring in cookies. One does not wear gauzy outfits, ribbons in one's hair, or pointy heels. Above all, one does not dress like a secretary (or like anyone else who doesn't have to worry about bleach, radiation, and coomassie blue). One wears jeans and a polo shirt every day, because that is the paradigm's uniform.

Speaking of this, a woman I know used to bring in cookies every week for her lab. And then - surprise!!- they treated her like a secretary, down to typing and proofreading. On a related note, there is a young woman in the next lab over who wears sweaters with pink bows on them. Shudder. However, her adviser is a sensible, egalitarian man who sends (male) postdocs with new babies home ('Take a month off! And get out of here!'). In fact, one day when I was gently telling this woman about all the kinds of discrimination I had personally experienced, she said 'My goodness, I had no idea. But it's not like that in my lab.' Well, lucky her. What happens when she goes to a conference?

I think this attitude of 'bows and cookies are incompatible with science' comes about because 1) there aren't that many female faculty; 2) statistically, female scientists less often have children or partners than do the male faculty; 3) women faculty have to be tough to survive;** 4) doing home-maker-y, unpaid-labor stuff is seen as weak, irrelevant, and unnecessary; 5) therefore they don't, in public. (Codicil: I doubt the women faculty like their colleagues enough to bake them cookies. Or have the time or energy. I don't. Either one.)

There is a certain necessity to 'act masculine' to get ahead: speak assertively, don't back down, argue, play dominance games. Being seen to do girly things ruins one's credibility in some strange way.
There is a paradigm from centuries of straight men running the show. There is a stags-in-mating season paradigm. As someone else says, we all play at being some mean aggressive person. There is not yet, as far as I can tell, a strong female paradigm among [most] professional scientists. Women play tough to not get steamrollered, and baking cookies isn't tough.***

One day, there will be a world where it is okay, everywhere, to wear pink frilly things to lab. One day, young women will have strong female role models who will not fear the wrong pair of heels ruining their professional credos. There will be many professors and postdocs with kids. (I have had exactly one female mentor with children, and her baby was born nine months after tenure review, which is also known as buying into the system. Or at least: being afraid to go against the dominant paradigm, often with good reason.) One day, tenure will not depend on when you have your baby. That day is not now.

*Also, Grandpa Frank was a bootlegger because they could starve by selling it as corn, or eat by selling it as 'shine. And Great-Uncle Jughead ran sugar for the Mob. I am not making this up.
**And after hearing Titania's stories of the Bad Old Days, one can see why.
*** See also this, especially the paragraph that starts "In 16..." Why yes! Those are all the ways I've learned to be mean!