My setbacks are not the same as your setbacks.
I was reading this month's Scientiae blog carnival about challenges, and noticing that most of the posts are about personal challenges.
When asked about challenges, most women scientists apparently list these kinds of things:
i.e. personal challenges.
Most of us do NOT list scientific hurdles, i.e. trying to get our experiments to work.
Maybe I misunderstand the point of Scientiae, but I think this really is what bothers women in science. It's not the science part that is hard to handle, it's all our other worries and responsibilities that get in the way of our science.
It's especially interesting to me because most of my women scientist friends (current and former scientists, that is) fall into only two categories.
a) Never had problems with the science itself, only the politics/-isms in science
b) Left science, but never realized until much later that feeling discouraged and not good enough at science was mostly because of the politics/-isms
From what I can tell, the main factor in determining which of these two categories women fall into is what kinds of experiences they had prior to starting graduate school.
Those of us who fell into category (a) had already experienced some -isms and/or already had a very strong habit of standing up for ourselves as equals.
Those who fell into category (b) came from families where women had more traditional roles, and/or attended science-heavy schools where women were in the vast minority.
(The unconscious message they got from this opportunity was that women don't do science.)
In contrast, when I ask my guy scientist friends (current and former scientists) about their challenges, they say:
can't decide what to work on
experiments are not working
about to run out of funding
got scooped on a competitive project
and very rarely, they might say:
have to find a better-paying job to support the wife & kids
visa running out
But in general, they are very open about struggling with the science.
Now, there are a few possible ways to interpret these answers.
1. Guys actually are not that good at science. (Take that, Larry Summers!)
2. Guys have fewer other responsibilities and generally don't multi-task their worrying, so they effectively ignore the challenges in their personal lives.
3. Guys do worry about these other things, but they don't talk about it the way women do.
But I submit the possibility that, while everyone has setbacks, they are perceived differently.
When a man does a challenging project, it's called "groundbreaking."
Not so long ago, I was talking about some of the challenges in my project, and a young male professor told me he thought my project sounded "too hard".
I was totally baffled by this, because I was not complaining or saying that we couldn't figure out ways around these challenging issues.
In fact, I was talking about the solutions I came up with, as examples of how satisfying problem-solving can be, and how cool the answers were: i.e., things I am really proud of accomplishing at work.
... Until I realized he himself had chosen something technically easy for his own research.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately since I just had a similar conversation with another "peer" who is starting a faculty position this year. Arguably, his project is not novel at all. And yet, he has a job.
And so I debate if/how to sell myself on the job market. On the one hand, theoretically it's good to do something novel. It's better for science and better for society. On the other hand, it's not good for your job prospects if your project is seen as too risky, or if you as a candidate are perceived as unproven.
My perception is that there are a very few women who somehow slip through the "system", working on things that are extremely novel and extremely unproven. When asked, they invariably say they have never experienced any kind of sexism.
But I don't know if that's true, and if so, I don't understand how they do it.
For the rest of us, our abilities are too often met with a particularly sexist kind of skeptic-ism.
So the rest of us strategize. We say:
1. I will do many more experiments to prove my science is not too risky, and then they will see me as a real candidate.
2. I will change how I am perceived.
You can guess, then, why women often end up choosing the #1 strategy. We play to our strengths.
And so we end up finding the #2 problem the most challenging. Science is easy. It's everything else that makes it so hard.