My lost thesis chapter-thoughts about women, diversity, science and academia
By Maayan Yehudai
Third year into my PhD, I was sitting on the subway, reading “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren, when something popped in my chest.
A sink opened in my stomach and my sight became a blur as tears started dripping on the pages. Luckily, you do sometimes see people cry on the subway, so I cried and cried on the train, relieved this one thing is not forbidden by the unwritten NYC subway book of rules. I cried as I got off the train and kept crying as I walked home. I kept crying for hours, mourning my dream of having to not sacrifice anything in the perfect enlightened world. I was crying because this book felt like a slap in the face to the helpless young girl I said goodbye to at that moment, who still believed she could “do whatever she wants” or “be whoever she wants to be” when she grows up.
 Jahren is a tenured professor whose book has presented one raw version of a woman’s trajectory in science.
Now, I want to share the story of starting the Gender and Diversity discussion Group at my institution, how it began and how it evolved. I want to share this story for the sake of anyone who could learn from my experience of doing science while building a better community. Many points in my grad school years were simply hell and very few people come out on the other side of doing a PhD and say: I am as sane and un-traumatized as I was before. I know I did not come out the same. It took me some time though, to embrace the change and to understand that I can be a part of the environment that makes me who I am and that I can actively belong, to create something anew, and that this lesson may be useful for other people as well.
What does “being a part of the environment that makes me who I am” mean?
Back in Israel, when I was preparing to move to NYC and start my PhD, I heard unsettling things about my new department, which is isolated from the main city campus. People were using terms such as ‘toxic environment’ and the numerous rumors about sexual harassment, bullying, and students dropping out sounded threatening. One of the first advice I got was that “I need to be confident and never seem weak” and that I need to prepare myself to be isolated and lonely. There were “narcissistic monsters” I was told I should stay away from if I wanted to stay safe, but I only had a vague idea of who they were. My first year as an international student, torn away from my roots, was entirely colored by those notions. When I started I immediately noticed that everyone in the program were quite younger than me and the culture differences I encountered, were translated in my mind as this subtle hate for the alien I was, inside this new and foreign environment. It felt that no matter what I do, I don’t fit in and this notion was built on top of feeling powerless, underachieved and inferior. As an older, international, single, female student, this powerlessness was amplified. I never thought somebody would look at my grades and dismiss me in a way that made me feel like less of a worthy person for not getting A’s.
People around me had different surviving mechanisms, and it seemed like acting to change anything was not a recommended strategy. It seemed like students were desperately trying to suppress their depression and being burnout, surrendering to the notion that a PhD is meant to be a never-ending guilt trip. It was worth it for the science, that’s the way it has been for years and it used to be worse, and if things get bad for you, well, you can swallow a pill or two to not get these panic attacks and manage to sleep at night, but if they still don’t like you, you’ll just drop out. I was trying to cope with these new and unexpected levels of difficulty, as my frustration grew stronger. I was over 30, fuming at the world, even though I was smart, talented and allegedly successful. I was upset at how impossible it seemed to feel like I am the ‘best’, even though I was in the best place there can be. I felt betrayed by myself for deciding to come here and take my try on this, instead of staying back in Israel and continuing my life there, where I would have had a better chance putting my roots down. I chose to pay this price for investing in my brain and “dumping” the certainty and comfort held in all the other options. Nevertheless, it always felt like this was the courageous and right thing to do. So, if I did make the better choice for myself, why was I in so much pain? Why was I crying on the subway with no control?
I stick out. I put my hand up and ask questions. Sometimes the question turns out to be smart and sometimes it does not, but I always get feedback for it. One male professor once asked me if I have a problem with my armpit lymphoma that I keep raising my hand. Sadly, for him, that didn’t keep me from raising it again. When you are a girl, your behaviors are perceived differently than if you are a boy (Blakemore, 2003; Storage et al., 2020). I never considered myself “good at being a girl”. Some fellow women have told me they wished they were a guy because then it would be easier to be themselves. In all of that, the term “A woman scientist” sound artificial to me and I think to many of us. Why is putting the word “women” in there still feels unsettling? What does it provoke?
By the end of my first year in grad school, I got several emails from (female) professors, saying both directly and indirectly that I should speak less, because the way I speak does me no good. I had to justify myself with the excuse of being a student who needs thinks in two languages. The subtext I was reading in those emails was: ‘ We do not understand you and therefor you do not belong. You better put your head down’. I doubt the intention of the people who wrote those emails was negative. It was probably their way of mentoring me. Nevertheless, reading those emails felt like they had thrown me in the water, told me to swim and then left me to either sink or succeed, knowing I can’t swim, or in other words, to drown. Luckily, other mentors told me they believed in me and that they know I will find my way. This priceless support helped me keep my head above water, even though I was never a good swimmer.
The reason why we do not have women and minorities at higher power positions is because the system we are working in is not built to equally sustain everyone who dare to want to be in a powerful position within it. And academia is the microcosms of it. Someone along the way assumed family is not a priority, that people can uproot themselves and move anywhere, and then do it again, and again; that one must exhaust oneself and “suck it up” to succeed; that some people just aren’t “cut out for it” (which obviously leaves folks who are not at the ultimate level of privilege in our society out of the picture). Why would I want to stay in a place where I have to “survive” by assimilating into a system that suppresses who I am and who I want to be? Why should we be bullied and belittled? Why should we put up with ANY poor treatment, even if it used to be worse in the past? Why is it always the same people who choose to act? And how can we prevent this from persisting into the future? Can I turn this reality around? Can I make it into one where the evolution is not a survival fight-flight impulse? I wanted to make these changes happen. I felt my future in academia (and maybe others’ as well) depended on it.
In the summer of 2016, I gathered a small group of female colleagues, to talk about issues related to gender and diversity in our research institute. We ended up circling around what’s our agenda and made a list of possible ‘actions’. I came out of that meeting quite frustrated. Not because we didn’t come up with an agenda or ideas, but because it made me feel even more powerless and alienated to myself. I remember discussions of how not to “make trouble”; how not to get labeled as “women who meet weekly to gripe”. I remember feeling so worried about others’ perceptions, what it would mean for us down the road, how to stay within the lines, and still be a “good student”? Everything was semi-secretive. There was so much inner conflict and fear of walking around with a target mark on your back.
That fall, I went to see Hope Jahren speak in NYC. In her talk she said: “please make mistakes. If you want to start a women’s group, do it and do not think about how to do it the right way because then it will never happen”. I realized I had to make mistakes and jump into a journey, without seeing what’s on the other end. I realized I cannot force myself to put my head down. If I ever managed to do so anyway, this is not who I am.
Overcoming the awkward realm of conversation
In December 2016 I started the group and my lead was “no agenda”. We gathered on a Friday morning with coffee and bagels and I just said “let’s talk”. The 30 something attendees of this first meeting consisted of female students and postdocs, lab assistants and some supportive faculty members from all over the campus. I was soon to learn how awkward it feels to deliberately create an awkward situation. It was hard to make people (including myself) who are used to have tables with action items on one side and solutions on the other, think about things intuitively. It felt strange to guide people through some deep breaths and envision what would it look like if it was all perfect? But looking back, I can say that every second of embarrassing silence was worth it, because it created a space for real exploration. Soon after the awkward silence someone started talking and the conversation was flowing. All I had to do was to try and hold the space for everyone to express themselves, and I found I enjoyed doing that. Some meetings included heated arguments, but thanks to these tough conversations the goal was starting to take shape: I wanted to create an environment where no one would feel like they have to apologize for having trouble to fit in. I wanted to create a space where everyone felt that they belonged, a space where one can share with people as they were: people, without titles. And I wanted people to express profound desires and feelings in a safe space, where a real learning would make them see more, and act. In one dramatic moment someone said “hell yeah, you are my sister and this is sisterhood!”. After a while, we also decided to open it to whoever wants to join with no excuses needed, and so I created a community.
Creating a dialog that is evolutionary to everyone who are in it, is deeply challenging. A theme that came up in my conversations with people was often “but what about all those other people, those who really should be in this room talking about these things?”. To me ‘those other people’ didn’t matter very much. I learned that growing is an active choice and it can happen at any conscious age. I have seen this in the group as our attendance has expanded in gender, age and rank and as people were bringing up subjects to discuss and sometimes leading sessions themselves. A new norm was slowly forming and everyone wanted to be a part of it. However, not everyone has the same desires. Privilege often makes people blindsided. No one likes to be called a racist or a misogynist, or to be pitied and looked at as a victim on the other hand. It can be emotionally excruciating to face gender and racial biases, identify them when they happen and make a conscious choice to change the situation and, it is even more difficult to be the ones who suffer from these systemic biases and make the decision to stay, in spite of the notion that things take way too long to change. I was also told by other people they do not see these sorts of discussions as a part of their “work”. I realized I was often failing at making everything safe and inclusive for everyone who came to the meetings, or coordinated in the discussions. I kept reminding myself to agree to fail. To not stand in the way of the process.
Describing the effects of what we did is not a straightforward task. However, after over four years of acting within our group with all these people and the things that happened thanks to it, the institution has come to embrace our goal which is the dialog and connection that forms between people in the community, where one can express who they are and be supported, without it being perceived as compromising the science. With other initiatives that came about and more people on board, these aspects are now inseparable from the identity of the campus where I did my PhD.
Women, people of color and LGBTQ are often fall in the scarier statistics in thinking about their career trajectories. It scares me as a woman to be added to the “drop out” side. The statistics is what scientists use in order to discover what is the reality, but does it really represent it? Most of us would like to have the option of finding our own true path and we are trying hard to find the “right” or “best” way to get on it, and so we often use statistics to do it. But when we make decisions, is it statistics that make us choose one way or the other? Isn’t it also if not mostly, values, faith, intuition? For me it took a lot of growing up to understand statistics do reflect some reality, and that changes often happen over longer periods of time than one could expect, or is able to perceive.
As a woman scientist, I want to work and live in an environment where my feminine way of thinking is not something I have to survive through and suppress, if I want to move forward. I want to be in a place where the masculine, feminine and everything in between-ways of thinking, have room to be expressed. When I think about diversity in science, I think a lot about the meaning of the word paradigm. I also think about what it means to step out of the paradigms we are in. Can we change our individual reality and the world around us from there? And if so how? Is it something that can be forced? Scientific leaps in history happened through paradigm shifts. These shifts were nearly always entwined with the evolution of human society. Are we shifting it now? Are we ready to take down the gate keepers and discover what is beyond the paradigm walls?
Blakemore, J.E.O., 2003. Children’s Beliefs About Violating Gender Norms: Boys Shouldn’t Look Like Girls, and Girls Shouldn’t Act Like Boys. Sex Roles 48, 411–419. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1023574427720
Storage, D., Charlesworth, T.E.S., Banaji, M.R., Cimpian, A., 2020. Adults and children implicitly associate brilliance with men more than women. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 104020. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2020.104020