Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On little boys and science

One of the commenters took offense by misreading an earlier comment, and said that women in science might be like "stupid little boys".

I think what started this confusion was when Dr. Girlfriend said

I feel like my inner 11 yr old boy is being forced to wear a dress again.

That comment actually really resonated with me. She didn't say anything about little boys being stupid.

Far from it- I think many scientists wanted to do this for a living because in theory you get to be a little boy forever. You get to be curious; you get to make things and make messes; you get to play. And get paid! What could be better?

I think for some girls it is really difficult being socialized into our expected (and dare I say, outdated?) roles - we don't want it, we resist, and maybe we just say FUCK NO.

Dear men of all ages, please try, if you can be so brave, to put yourself in our place. Try to imagine this crazy scenario: through the sex chromosome lottery, the 50-50 flip of a sperm coin, you had the opposite luck.

Try to imagine that you woke up one day and realized you were a girl.

For me, it started when I was about 4 years old.

There were huge fights about what I was supposed to be wearing.

At that age, maybe some kids have a very clear sense of what gender roles mean, maybe some boys like trucks and some girls like dolls already, but I wasn't one of them. I liked both; I liked neither. Toys of all kinds were equally fun or boring; I didn't care. I played with whatever was around me.

So here's an example. I remember one fight before a special event and I was supposed to wear a dress. The conversation with my mother went something like this.

YFS: What do you mean I can't just wear what I usually wear?

Mom: Because you're a little girl. This is what little girls wear.

YFS: Why? I don't want to! It's not comfortable! The lace is itchy!

Mom: I know sweetie, but it's what people do. Besides, you look so cute.

YFS: But I don't want to! I don't care if I'm cute! I hate being itchy!

And so on and so forth.

But the shit really hits the fan when you're about 11 years old. All of a sudden, you're bleeding, you're supposed to wear a bra, and for some of us, it's like

What is this shit? What did I do to deserve this? This is NOT FUN! I didn't sign up for this! Nobody warned me this was happening! Oh god my life will never be the same! This is so not fair!

It's not that we want to be boys, necessarily, it's just that it all seems so... extraneous. Bodies seem overly complicated; bodily functions just seem messy and pointless and it all seems to be so disproportionate and unfair.
Boys do seem to have it easier.

But up until about age 11, we could be more or less just like the boys, so far as we can tell. We could wear jeans every day, or we put shorts on under our skirts and climbed trees.

Now we have to worry, at least some days, about what we're wearing. About making sure we have supplies. It's messy, and it's distracting, and it's immediately apparent that we don't really have control over our bodies, much less our lives. What else have our parents been hiding? Is everything just a big lie?

Age 11 is also when, for many of us, the gender roles about careers start to become insistent. We start hearing:

Girls don't do that. It becomes a catchphrase, from our teachers, our classmates, and our relatives of all ages. And it applies to everything, from wanting to grow up to be President of our country to whether you're allowed to have your elbows on the table at dinner. Or the reminder that when you're wearing a dress, that you have to make sure to cross your legs.

My sister, for example, embraced all of what girls were supposed to do, and was forever trying to force me to "behave".

Little did I know, some aspects of my life would always be this way. That even if women like my sister would never be my first choice for friends, they would be my peers, my colleagues, and my supervisors. They would enforce conformity in all things, starting with all the outward feminine appearances.

And sure, it's easy to learn how to look like you care. You can wear a skirt, and cross your legs, and keep your head down. But it doesn't mean it makes any more sense than it ever did. It's still not fair.

So yeah, some of us pine for the 11-year-old boy days. We didn't understand that having to grow up and wear a dress meant people would be constantly ogling our breasts. That we would be assumed to not only want children, but that we would be accused of making our careers secondary, as if that were a weakness (!), and therefore falling behind in our careers, if we did.

And we had no idea how much information we wouldn't be getting. That not just little boys, but also old boys have a club. And that we wouldn't be allowed in it. Just because we got the girl card in the sex chromosome lottery game. I mean, seriously. What???

I guess my point in having this blog, and in criticizing the post by Greenspun from 2006, is that it's fine and good to talk about how fucked up science is, but for women it's especially heinous.

It's as much about our misguided expectations being even farther off the mark than for other careers.

The chasm between "inner little boy" playing with science for a living and the reality of being sexually harassed and discriminated against makes it that much harder to take.

I really did think that scientists, of both genders, would be more aware, more educated, more observant, more rational, more willing to embrace new ideas and change, than most other people in other careers.

But my inner little boy could be really naive like that.

He says hi, by the way.

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At 1:58 PM, Anonymous Female post-doc said...

Did you ever hear the song "When I was a boy" by Dar Williams? It's wonderful.

At 2:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome post. Nice job of articulating coming of age to the other side.

At 3:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realize that I am very lucky, but my parents raised my brother and me the same way. I didn't like trucks, but he did like dolls, and they didn't care. We both liked playing in the dirt. We both got to go to the science festivals at the local museums.

So I, personally, do not have an inner 11-year-old boy who doesn't want to grow up so that he can stop playing outside and learning cool things. I DO have an inner five-year-old girl like that, though, and she's a little peeved that you assumed she was a boy because she likes science.

Like I said, lucky.

At 4:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ya ever since I was 4 years old my mother has been trying to get me to be a conventional female. She's still trying. Whereas she used to try in vain to get me to play with barbie dolls and not be running around climbing trees with my brothers, now she's trying to get me to settle down and have babies and bake cookies.

At 4:18 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

I didn't REALLY realize I was a girl scientist until today. There were major boys' club moments today, and, since I have not personally encountered this before, it was really, really overwhelming.

And damn....I didn't get boobs until 14.

At 4:28 PM, Blogger Kea said...

You are a great writer, YFS. I didn't know how to say this ... but yes, this innocence is the cause of many problems for us. They, the big boys, actually expect us to KNOW about kissing asses and all that, because, heh, that's what all people do, right? It never occurs to them that we just want to do science. They don't actually believe that's possible. And of course, it isn't possible ... but we are the last ones to figure that out.

It's like when a new job was 'arranged' for me by my PI ... without consulting me in any way to check up on the fact that I could not possibly accept a job on a research topic in direct conflict with ideas that I have worked on for DECADES. He just thought I would bow my head, and take the job ... because it was a paid science job, and isn't that all I wanted anyway?

At 6:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This Pete Seeger song is a must for this post. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgzl1Sai4Y0

So sorry Unbalanced. I get steamrolled on a regular basis by the No Gurlz sign. It's always overwhelming. For me, it's seriously like being punched in the stomach. The "DID THAT JUST HAPPEN?" feeling stops me dead in my tracks and time stands still long enough to etch the event in my brain forever.

At 6:30 PM, Anonymous Abel Pharmboy said...

This is a superb piece of writing - you just served up a beauty. You remind me of why I started reading you about five years ago.

Thanks for this. Not just as a scientist but as the father of a little girl about to turn eight.

At 7:07 PM, Anonymous Paul said...

YoungFemaleScientist said:
I think many scientists wanted to do this for a living because in theory you get to be a little boy forever. You get to be curious; you get to make things and make messes; you get to play.

An affirmation of this sentiment:

At 8:56 PM, Anonymous Autistic Lurker said...

My sister, for example, embraced all of what girls were supposed to do, and was forever trying to force me to "behave".

oh jeez that did resonate with me and my brother (being autistic mean that I have to learn some manners...)

A.L. (I used the Lurker moniker in the past but it is too common).

At 10:29 PM, Blogger Bee said...

I have 3 brothers, two of them older than me. When I was a kid, I had to wear the clothes they had outgrown. And believe me, past age 11 that wasn't fun because my butt clearly wasn't a boy's.

But I actually like dresses, I find them very comfortable. Unfortunately, most of them don't have pockets, so where do I put the credit cards and my BlackBerry?

At 10:45 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Female post-doc, Yeah, I like Dar Williams. But there's another one I like better by the Sundays called 'I kicked a boy". =D

Anon 2:21, thanks.

Anon 3:42, your comment about your peeved little girl - LOL. So cool.

And that's a great question - I wonder if things would have been better or worse for me re: being raised girlier (or less so?) if I had a brother.

Anon 4:05, me too, except I don't have brothers. I do bake cookies on occasion, but only for me!


Like jc said (see below), that SUCKS re: the boys club.

re: boobs, well that's a whole other slew of posts. but Dr. J & H is the one who wrote extensively about breastfeeding, not me!


Thanks. Yeah, it's interesting. Recently I've heard some theories about how mainstream straight white guys are socialized to "do the right thing" and that includes sucking it up and just plain sucking up when it's "required" or at least when it's expected. And how minorities, gays, and women are hurting ourselves by being unwilling to go along with the status quo.

Seriously. I think this is the broader, even more offensive Larry Summers version of why we can't get ahead in the world. Just a variation on "it's your own fault because you refuse to conform" and how naive that is.

Abel - thanks.

Paul - yeah, cute. I didn't get to do that growing up, which may be why I'm reluctant to give it up.

A.L. - To my mom's credit, she didn't care.

My sister is very much the Miss Manners perfectionist. How can I put this... she got her first manicure in high school. I finally got a pedicure for the first (and possibly last) time last year.

Bee - I like dresses now, too, but I wouldn't if I didn't get to choose which dresses and where or when or how to wear them.

And yeah, wtf is up with these designers and no pockets? Or really stupid looking ugly pockets? Or decorative-only pockets? I mean, I like Project Runway for a variety of reasons, but I'm really not into purses. I wish someone would figure out a solution this age-old problem of Please Don't Make Me Carry A Purse.

that is all. carry on...

At 11:25 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Please Don't Make Me Carry A Purse.

At least where I live at present it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to wear outdoor pseudo army style pants, with good pockets. And I like wearing dresses for special occasions, because I find it amusing when people I've known for a while don't recognise me.

But the purse thing has always been really annoying. I usually avoid them by taking the absolute minimum with me ... eg. put the credit card in my stockings.

At 1:07 AM, Blogger Enginerd said...

I think you hit a lot of nails on the head with this post. It's scary how much "we" as society impose gender based roles and behaviours on children right from birth. And it sucks! I'm sick of people thinking that they know who I am and what I want just from looking at me.

I want science to be my happy playground where people grow a fricking brain and look at me for who I am, and not as a pile of external indicators.

About the purse issue -go steampunk and get one of those cool utility belts? Like a belt made of pockets? I've seen some great ones for sale on Etsy.

At 3:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a fun post, but on a rhetorical level you keep beating the straw out of the straw(o)man that 'we' are justifying actual sexism.

At 3:36 AM, Anonymous Paul said...

Bee said:
But I actually like dresses, I find them very comfortable. Unfortunately, most of them don't have pockets, so where do I put the credit cards and my BlackBerry?

They certainly used to exist--practical, not pretty, "work" dresses that had pockets, if you don't mind looking like a farmer's wife in a western. I think it was just one or two big pockets, which can be either useful or annoying, I suppose.

I just googled "work dresses with pockets" and got some hits, some retro, some trying to be glamorous. I'm sure the search can be refined.

At 4:58 AM, Blogger ConstituentOther said...

Dear Ms.PhD:

Thank you for sharing this piece of your real voice, and it resonates with me wholeheartedly. I was so compelled so I'd like to offer my two cents (as this is one of my research interest).

It is indeed the invisible social conventions and the "supposed to be"s that form a kind of imagination about gender, culture, class, and other ways of categorization.

I would like to share the following article with all the traditional males here, and then perhaps after checking this list, you'll see how life might be extremely different if one of the categories you belong to had change.

checklist of male privilege by McIntosh:

Supplementary reading, check list of white privilege:

I'd say that it is very important to reflect on the privileges we receive and thus grow more empathy and understanding for differences. In the end, we are all the same, and we are all different.

At 11:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would just like to add that in my experience being pretty, perky, dressing like a girl, are also usually seen as negatives in science as well. My best friend in grad school was a brilliant, incredibly capable, scientist but because she was a bubbly blonde well dressed woman was regularly treated like an idiot who didn't take science seriously. Conforming to gender roles doesn't get you any further in science then not doing so is my experience. As a woman sometimes I feel like we are damned if we do and damned if we don't.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Thanks, ConstituentOther, for the list. I liked: Complete strangers generally do not walk up to me on the street and tell me to “smile.” It would never have occurred to me to mention this one, but it happens to me ALL THE TIME!

At 2:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

my husband and I try to influence our young neice. She is being bombarded with pressure from her parents especially her mom to be a stereotypical girlie girl. And she's buying into it to the extreme, to the point of pretending to be an airhead cos she thinks it's cool or that's how she's been inadvertently rewarded to behave. So during birthdays when everyone gets her pink frilly things, my husband and I get her things like science kits or baseball bats or skateboards. And her parents and grandparents give us disapproving looks like they wish we were also giving her yet more pink frilly things.

At 4:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think many scientists wanted to do this for a living because in theory you get to be a little boy forever. You get to be curious; you get to make things and make messes; you get to play. And get paid! What could be better?

*big sigh*. Yeah, I'm one of those little boy PIs, except I really am male. You know what? The males don't get to be little boy scientists either. Science is (I have finally realized) a heartless, don't-give-a-damn-about-anybody, churn-out-the-same-crap-as-everyone-else show-me-the-money BUSINESS. The creativity has been squeezed out, along with the sense of adventure and discovery, and the collegiality. Only the egos and the zero-sum granting math and the incremental science and the racing in the exact same direction as everyone else remains.

I'm getting out. I'm tossing my tenure-track career and going to try biotech and see if it's any different there. Wish me luck.

At 4:48 PM, Anonymous Hope said...

Count me as another lucky one. My mom loved to dress me in beautiful, delicate dresses—I liked them too—and somehow I managed to play and do whatever I wanted without ruining them. When I told my parents that I was going to become an astronaut, and later, a scientist, no one told me that I couldn’t because I was a girl. And this was back in the day when Tereshkova was the only woman to have gone into space! Of course, as I got older, I could see that these weren’t typical career choices for women. I suppose that if I’m really honest about it, I thought something along the lines of, “I’m really smart, so these ‘rules’ don’t apply to me.” I know that it hasn’t been your experience, YFS, but that way of thinking has gotten me pretty far. As I said … lucky.

At 5:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 3:42 said:
So I, personally, do not have an inner 11-year-old boy who doesn't want to grow up so that he can stop playing outside and learning cool things. I DO have an inner five-year-old girl like that, though, and she's a little peeved that you assumed she was a boy because she likes science.

Same here.

At 6:24 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Kea and Enginerd,

I had been going increasingly frumpy in an effort to avoid sexual harassment.

Hard to merge the army pants and steampunk belt back in with those clothes, but at this point I could totally start over with the whole rock star look and get hit on by random men in the street. Yippee! Just what I need.

Anon 3:34,

Are you saying sexism is a strawman argument? As in, a false premise that doesn't exist?


I think you can find better things to do with your time than try to suggest where I can shop for clothing online.

Constituent Other,

thanks for the links.

Anon 11:15,

I absolutely agree. I've written about that before, too. My best friend looks like a supermodel and had the same experience as your friend; I've been told at various times to cover up (on one extreme) or not be such a frump (on the other). We're absolutely damned if you do or don't.

Kea -

Someone else had a post about smiling recently. Maybe Unbalanced Reaction? I don't remember now.

Anon 2:40

good for you! and your niece is lucky to have you!

Then again, most of the girls I know who were raised super-girly rebelled against it later and went totally butch. You never know!

Anon 4:33,

You're the second male person today who told me he's leaving a tenure-track position.

I wonder if the ivory tower will fall down when all the men get out?

Anyway, I agree with your assessment and wish you good luck!


This line delicate dresses—I liked them too—and somehow I managed to play and do whatever I wanted without ruining them makes you not just a woman, but a superwoman already at a young age. I was always making messes! And getting yelled at for it!

And the thought something along the lines of, “I’m really smart, so these ‘rules’ don’t apply to me.” is very impressive.

I certainly never thought I was smart enough to get away with that- maybe because my family was always saying, while girls should be able to do what boys do, I should always keep in mind that none of it necessarily applies to me, because I'm really an idiot.

Thanks, mom and dad. I'm sure you would have said the same if we were boys. Right?

Anon 5:54,

Hey, two ain't bad! We'll take what we can get. I wonder if you and 3:42 are much younger (even just a few years)? I think my sister (younger than me) already felt much less constrained by gender roles than I did.

At 9:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is great.

I absolutely have an inner little boy. When I was a kid, I tried my best to be girly and it never really worked, I wished I was a boy, but really I just liked doing boy things.

These days he is thrilled that I have a job where it is socially acceptable to wear jeans and sneakers and play with cool machines. My inner little girl I hold responsible for my long-term addiction to America's Next Top Model. We're all trying our best to get along.

At 11:36 PM, Blogger Michael Jackson said...

I recommend a book by Frances Conley M.D., "Walking Out on the Boys." Have you read her story?

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 9:11,

I like ANTM too. I wasn't sure who to blame for that! Most of the time I just assume the inner little boy is a flaming gay (!).

"Michael Jackson" - I did hear of that book a while back. Haven't read it yet, but I will. Thanks for the reminder! I'm always looking for these kinds of books.

At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Hope said...

@YFS: Superwoman? Nah … just different. I also celebrated the day I got my period. I had a mad crush on a certain actor, and I felt that change brought me one step closer to meeting him, marrying him, and bearing his children one day. Of course, the novelty wore off pretty quickly….

I think that parents sometimes worry about this stuff too much. I don’t think it matters if your daughter prefers trucks or dolls; what’s important is that you raise her to believe that she can be anything she wants to be.

In that respect, I feel sorry for you, because it sounds like you didn’t grow up in a very supportive environment. Sometimes parents with good intentions will be very hard on their kids, thinking that it toughens them up for the real world or something. Of course, you can also go too far in the other direction. But there’s a big difference between telling your child that she’s special and with hard work, she can accomplish anything; and telling her that because she’s special, she should just sit back and expect everything to be handed to her on a silver platter.

At 9:35 AM, Anonymous Mister said...

We all have childhood issues, men as much as women. Stop whining and be grateful you even had a mother and a sister, maybe you just hate her for making you look inadequate, which is what elder siblings do.

At 9:36 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I have become a reader of your blog out of morbid fascination for your writings and the reactions they inspire in your 'followers'. It's biased of course: anybody with a brain will just ignore you (just like your supervisor!). It also really astonishes me how well you are capable for blaming the universe for your own misfortune! It's human nature: whenever we fuck up, we blame someone else. Other people aren't smarter than you, they have cheated in some way (by being male). You have no capability of self-reflection. If you do, then tell me this: what aspect of your personality is SHIT and has led to failure?

I have always fluked my way through every program there is, and sheer laziness, apathy and stupidity have prevented me from looking better (i'm too fat), performing better (I am doodling right now) and feeling better (i could have been honest to people or recycle more).


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