It’s not just in STEM: Sexism outside of work holds scientists back

Sexism in STEM is rampant; you don’t need me to tell you that. From 113 pages of sexual assault/harassment allegations (U of R, 2017) to the Google engineer memo (also 2017), there are dozens of examples each year of sexism inside STEM environments. But it isn’t just the sexism that women experience in their fields – at conferences, in the office/lab, etc. – that makes it harder for women to succeed in STEM. Misogyny and sexism outside of the workplace can also negatively impact women’s performance at work, and thus the progress of their career and their science. How do two things, seemingly happening in different spheres, overlap? A recent, personal anecdote will allow me to illustrate.

Last Friday, I gave a presentation to the new first year graduate students in my department; while I normally wear field pants and a t-shirt to work with my hair in the always-convenient messy bun, I dressed up (make-up, nice jeans, a blouse, straightened my hair) to give myself a confidence boost for the talk. After the presentation, we all went out for drinks at the local bar; I had one beer, and was a little buzzed on my walk to the train at 6 p.m. so I called my fiancé feeling bubbly and excited, to check in about our plans for the night.

While chatting with him, I heard some noise behind me and saw a group of young men on bikes headed in my direction, mostly on the sidewalk and pedaling fast. I shuffled to the side, concerned I might be taking up too much space and force one into the street (into oncoming traffic) to avoid me. I heard a loud ‘slap’, then laughter, as the men pedaled by, jeering and turning back around to stare at my wide-open mouth as my hand flew to the seat of my jeans where one of the men had slapped me. Hard. On the phone, my fiancé asked me, “What was that? Are you okay?”

My first response was anger – the happiness that my buzz had provided was immediately replaced with a boiling sense of hurt and fear. Long after the men had left my view, long after I was on the train and then home, I could feel the force of that man’s hand like a brand on the private skin of my person. That something so humiliating and invasive had been laughed at by so many people only made it worse. The idea of being tipsy in public (or at all) again made me feel sick, as though I’d be inviting future assaults, so I stayed home instead of going to the bar with my fiancé and our friend as we’d planned. The happiness I’d felt over my talk, my look, had dissipated so that I now felt disgusted, looking at these clothes that had played a role in my humilitation. More than the pain of the actual event, was the knowledge that, in public and in broad daylight (not that it’s any better in private, at night), these men felt entitled to my body as a sexual object – and that such a sense of entitlement to another’s person often leads to far worse pain than a slap.

Not only was the event just generally scary and infuriating but, immediately after, thoughts like: ‘this is why I should never dress up’ and ‘this only seems to happen when I go out after work’ began to intrude. From now on this event will be in my brain, even if I immediately dismiss it, every time I go to dress up for a presentation or a conference – every time I consider going out with my fellow scientists for a drink or dinner. And that’s the kicker – the sexism I experienced in my personal life is discouraging me from wearing professional clothes that make me feel confident when speaking, and from engaging with my coworkers in social settings.

And these things are critical to my career as a scientist. Communicating your science well, and networking, are critical parts of being in any STEM field. But being sexually harassed on the street makes me think twice about going out with my colleagues to continue the science conversation – I’d rather go home and lose out on valuable collaborations/critiques/networking opportunities than risk another, potentially more intrusive, attack. Having my casual and very appropriate clothing so grossly sexualized makes me think twice about dressing up at all – and when I must (like at conferences), these same outfits meant to give me more confidence will instead make me nervous that somehow I have given my scientific audience leave to think lewd thoughts about me, since this outfit has caused me to be viewed sexually in the past. The less confident I am when presenting my science, the less likely others are to listen to me – and think of me as a competent peer they could collaborate with or recommend for future work.

The men in my department don’t experience this, but myself and other women I know experience this several times a year in varying forms. From outright sexist comments and inappropriate physical touches, to media that devalues and sexualizes us from a distance, our daily lives outside of science are filled with sexism that can push us to isolate ourselves in an effort to minimize the frequency of these negative interactions. Additionally, the time, energy, and resources it takes to move past these constant negative moments (read: microaggressions and sometimes just outright aggressions) means we have less time, energy, and resources for our science; in fact, daily sexism is just plain exhausting. And because the person I am outside of work is the same person who goes to the bench in the morning, when she’s hurting, the science hurts too.

The time, energy, and resources add up over time; I would estimate that the cumulative effects of dealing with misogyny in my life adds up to at least (really, very conservative) eighty hours of missed work each year when compared to men not experiencing the same hostility. This means I’ll need to spend several additional days working to hit the same level of productivity, draining my free time and time for self-care/hobbies (already a limited commodity in graduate school), and further damaging my productivity and mental health over time. Science is draining for everyone, but it’s no surprise women may find it particularly grueling – since our emotional strength is being sapped at work and at home. And it’s no surprise that some women may find their CVs less padded than the men they work with because of all the overtime they’re putting in dealing with sexism – hours that don’t make it on to your list of publications, outreach, or other credentials.

This problem of extra labor and emotional energy that goes unrecognized isn’t just related to sexism; women of color must also deal with racism’s constant drain on their well-being along with the effects of everyday sexism. And that’s just one intersection – gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, body size, and more can all steal time, energy, and resources from brilliant scientists and, slowly but surely, put them behind their coworkers not experiencing this daily harassment. When we work in good, safe environments it can be tempting to say that we’ve ‘fixed the problem’ – or that there’s ‘no reason’ for women/minorities that start on a level playing field to fall behind, other than lack of merit but, clearly, this is not the case.

It’s critical that we work to change the culture of harassment in STEM – nothing is more damaging to our science than the direct effects of working in sexist department or lab. But women in STEM still won’t be able to perform to our best when we are being forced to protect ourselves by missing out on career opportunities and fruitful collaborations for fear of sexual assault or harassment – and that is a big, missed opportunity for everyone in science.