On Being a Woman in Science

by Wendee Holtcamp                                                                                     


"Why doesn't anyone take my ideas seriously?" I asked an older, graduate student friend, as we chatted outside a college pub.


"It's the way you look," he said bluntly, "Take off your makeup and reduce the size of your hair."


"That is so petty," I rolled my eyes to heaven. "Why can't my ideas be judged on their merit and not the size of my hair?" Granted, this was the late 1980s when big hair and makeup were in, especially in Texas.


Shortly after the exchange I flew off to Australia to study rainforest ecology. For three months I lived in a cabin in the woods, took cold showers, and learned how to do field research trapping rabbit-sized rats. Ah heaven! I came back with unshaven legs, flat hair and no makeup.


True to my friend's words, I fit right in to the science culture at my university. Makeup-free and with straight hair, I completed my Bachelor's and then my Master's degrees in Wildlife Ecology.  I worked well with all my professors, earned As, breezed through my defense, and published my research in a top journal. I was able to scale tall buildings in a single bound. Sure, I worked hard, but people really listened to my ideas.


Then I got married, and had a daughter, then a son. For the next seven years, I retreated from science to raise my kids and embark on a science-writing career.  With family in tow, I drove the Alaska Highway, and tracked sea turtles on the high seas. I wrote about armadillos, rooftop gardens, and poop-squirting caterpillars. All the while raising my two lovely cherubs.


Somewhere between changing diapers and reading Captain Underpants, makeup crept back on my face.  I re-embraced my womanhood. I became a fashionista. Or maybe I was just hiding my budding wrinkles. I fit right in with my hip book club friends. We shopped, we gabbed, we went to see the Vagina Monologues.


But when I started working on my Ph.D. -- ten years after I'd completed my undergraduate degree, reactions from friends and family ranged from jubilation to hesitation to disdain.


"I'm worried you're never going to cook dinners now," my husband fretted, who already lamented my sporadic interest in all things culinary.


When I asked if she was excited for me returning to school, one of my hip book club friends told me casually that she wasn't into "collecting degrees."


Nobody in our extended family had ever received a college degree until my cousin and I earned ours. So maybe I was entitled to collect degrees. My aunt thought so. "You are setting such a wonderful example for your children!"


But I wasn't so sure. My daughter, in her typical precocious way, told me, "I don't think anybody with a child who is eight should get their Ph.D. You are just too busy all the time."


"But I can't let daddy have a Ph.D. and not me," I countered. "I want one too!"


"What does it mean exactly to have a Ph.D.?," she asked.


"If you have a Ph.D. it means you're really smart."


"You don't need a Ph.D. then. You're already really smart." 


And if the family reaction was difficult, it was nothing compared to what I've heard from male professors. 


One professor told me, it was too bad our university didn't have a graduate program in science writing (in other words, maybe I really shouldn't be in science).


One professor asked me if my fear of flying was a "sex thing."  Taken aback, I mumbled, "ugh… no."  Then he added that there was a book about sexual liberation called Fear of Flying that was popular in the seventies.  My book club friends hated the book. I found it complex and intriguing, but we all agreed it was inappropriate for Professor X to mention it, with its heroine having a lustful, if unsatisfying, affair.


Another professor on the admitting committee who had exclaimed his thrill over my entry to the Biology department later accused me of hubris.


I had to go look it up in the dictionary. "An exaggerated sense of self confidence."


Ha! I tried to tell him he just didn't understand, but I was going to win the Nobel Prize one day. He looked at me as if I'd said I was an alien. He obviously doesn't get my sense of humor.


It seems that the higher I climb up the totem pole of success, the more resistance I encounter.  Whatever happened to those feel-good messages from kindergarten: You can be anything you want to be! Girls can do anything boys can!  Go make your dreams come true! 


What I'm discovering as I journey toward my doctorate is that while women may cheer our abundant opportunities in the 21st century, equal opportunity does not always mean equal treatment.  The little voices of doubt rattle around at the back of my mind.


Am I naïve to think I can raise a family and earn a Ph.D.? Can I be a woman scientist, and not sacrifice my femininity?  Can't a woman be intelligent, confident, and pretty without being reduced to a mere sex object?  Am I to be scorned for dreaming that I may one day do research important enough to deserve the Nobel Prize?


"That professor who accused you of hubris is clearly threatened by you," one friend who is studying psychology told me. "You know," she said, "I have this theory that about men who are threatened by women with a mind of their own…"


"I don't know," I said, "I think it just must be the makeup."


Wendee Holtcamp is a freelance writer published in Audubon, Sierra, Texas Parks & Wildlife, NPRs All Things Considered, and others. She is currently a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at Rice University.