For the ones who leave.
I've been thinking about disillusionment of various kinds.
Why some people realize they just don't like science enough. Why girls decide not to major in math even though they got straight A's in the subject up through high school and it always came naturally to them. These kinds of things.
Every time I've quit something by choice, it was because I felt I just couldn't make myself fit in. I was not welcome, and nothing I could do or say would change that. No matter how much I wanted to do what I was doing, I knew I would have to give it up.
Sometimes these things were obvious, like being physically incapable of throwing a basketball. Okay. I figured that out pretty early on, and I was never invested in becoming a basketball star. (Besides, I grew up before the WNBA, so it wasn't like I had any role models until it was way too late.)
But with most other things, I reached a tipping point. Something just broke.
My favorite teacher moved away, and my confidence in the subject disappeared like a cloud on a windy day. Poof!
The other kids were not like me, and I felt isolated and fell behind in class when we had to work in groups. That subject, which was my favorite and best, became my least favorite class and a source of constant stress.
Lately I feel like something in the science part of me just broke and I can't put it back.
What broke is the delicate cocoon that let me pretend it didn't matter that I'm a Female Scientist, revealing a secret that I kind of forgot: I have been a Female Scientist all along.
Cocoon is actually a good metaphor in this case, because I think for a lot of us the dream is that we'll wake up one day and just be Scientist, with no qualifying label attached.
And then something inside me just broke when I realized that's NEVER going to happen.
Intellectually, I've always known this. But I'm not sure I really understood what it entails. There's so much baggage that goes along with this, and much of it on a daily basis.
I've been blogging all this time trying to come to terms with this as a major setback that has, in ways large and small, adversely affected my career and my relationship to science.
I'm one of those people, for better or worse, who just doesn't want to see things go on as they are when they're clearly not working very well. Science is not working well for me because of the way I've been treated. And that has been colored, ever since grad school, by the stain of sexism.
For a long time I've tried to tell myself I didn't really experience much sexism in grad school, and compared to being a postdoc that's basically true. But the truth is, none of my work was judged as fairly in grad school as it would have been otherwise.
Even my thesis adviser, whom I would never say was outright sexist, had some unconscious bias that caused undue distrust of my results, which meant I had to do additional experiments where I wouldn't have otherwise. It meant I had fewer papers, and my one "really good" paper was sent to lower-tier journals than it would have been if I had a supportive mentor who appreciated the importance and quality of what I was doing.
I know this because my one "really good" paper is pretty well-cited, and because very similar work from other labs made it into Big Journal. But mine wasn't even submitted there, so I'll never know if I really had a shot. Maybe it was just too political, but I would have liked to be allowed to try.
And it's hard not to realize, when you really stop to think about it, how much of a difference that one paper being in Big Journal would have made, every step of the way. For fellowships. For the papers that came later. For jobs now.
In my field, we don't publish a lot of little papers, we publish big ones every few years. So if your big paper doesn't go into A Pretty Big Journal, you've just wasted not just some time, but usually several years. Which is, in the life of a grad student or postdoc, pretty much all there is. And biologically speaking, those are usually your best years. Your hot shoe-wearing years.
This week I found out that yet another grad student in my building dropped out. She was there for a long time, and the explanation was that she "just didn't like it enough". But I saw this girl working, and she worked hard enough for me to know that she couldn't have hated it that much. People who hate science just don't show up. Or they show up and surf the web. She was not one of those.
But seeing this happen again and again and again, and always quietly like this, makes me angry and sad. Because I know she was the only girl in her lab. And nobody in that lab was encouraging her.
The thing about being a minority is, even if nobody is actively out to get you, you know you're a minority. You know it all the time.
Instead of being told you suck, you're being shown. Every day. How different you are, and not in a good way.
You don't have to be a genius to see how the guy next to you gets all the favors and pats on the back, while you have to beg for scraps.
You stretch yourself, you literally bend over backwards, but eventually something breaks.
And it really is like a tree falling in the forest, because nobody is ever there to hear it.
This post is for the ones who leave.
You're braver than me.