Good night horror stories of women in STEM during women’s history month – part 1

Good night horror stories of women in STEM during women’s history month – part 1

A few years ago, on the 8th of March, I went for drinks with a younger friend. Let’s call her Anika. I needed to vent because I was unhappy in my workplace. Anika, a recent addition to my “Andreea’s friends” WhatsApp group, asked me about the experiences the other ladies in my group had. It was then when I realised that most of my female friends either had left academia or were in the process of leaving academia.

Notably, the two male friends in the group were still hanging on. One of the men is at his 4th postdoc and the other is still in the same postdoc position since 2014. Any other woman would have given up way before that (not that anyone should). So what makes men more resistant and why women leave academia at a higher rate creating a leaky pipeline?

I started telling Anika about how my other girl friends gave up academia after years of sexism and sexual harassment. Anika – a Masters student at the time – asked me: “So why are you encouraging me to do a PhD?”

Since that 8th of March, I always wanted to share my friends’ experiences as women in STEM. This women’s history month, after discussing these experiences with them, I’ll do just that. At the end, I will tell you what I replied to Anika, i.e., why I didn’t leave academia.

Through this series, I will talk about sexual harassment, the diminished career support women receive, sexualised jokes and comments on women’s clothing, internalised misogynism, and other instances of everyday sexism. For empowerment, each section will be linked to one of my favourite feminist songs.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault or “Stand up, raise your fist if you’re experiencing this”

Research showed that the prevalence of sexual harassment in US academia, at 58%, is second only to the military’s 69%. In my experience, sexual harassment hits women in STEM as soon as they hit puberty.

When I was in high school, I was on a physics scholarship at one of Romania’s elite private high schools. As such, while the mornings were dedicated to regular classes, the afternoons were spent in a small group of physics students with one of Romania’s best physics teachers. I soon noticed that our (male) teacher was a bit too touchy-feely with the older girls. As my class turned 15-16, he started touching us as well. We were overly hugged or wet kissed on our faces. Once, while I was explaining my solution to a tough physics problem, he started playing with my hair while sitting at the desk behind me. I turned and gave him an angry look until he stopped.

But the creepy behaviour just escalated. When I first qualified for the national team for the International Physics Olympiad, this teacher gave us two bags of hard liquor to celebrate my success on the train back to our city. It was an overnight train across Romania. Moreover, he chose me and another female classmate to share the sleeping cabin with him. I took some of the alcohol to celebrate with my friends and left the cabin. These male friends idolised my teacher; little did they know. The last thing I saw in our sleeping cabin was my drunk teacher grabbing my classmate and dragging her in his bed.

But teenage girls are not the only ones who fall victims to older men. One of my friends at a Max Planck Institute was continuously sexually harassed by her supervisor. She was compared to a wild horse that needs to be tamed or told “What would I do to you if you were mine!”. Even when she had amazing results in her PhD project, the Max Planck supervisor would say in front of everyone “I would marry you for those results”. At other times, he would tell my friend about his sex life or how he is cheating on his wife when he is going to conferences. Finally, he would come behind her and give her neck massages. The neck massages were also how other Max Planck directors would treat female PhD candidates.

Another friend would also have a touchy-feely Max Planck director boss. But like me, with my physics teacher, she would reject his advances while witnessing how other women got career advantages because they let themselves touched by the director boss.

Women get less career support or “I don’t wanna bend […]/ I just wanna be your friend”

The last story brings us to stories of how women get less career support than men in academia. One of my friends told me about young women’s relationship to their superiors:

I have seen women being quite suggestive to their superiors.

But I have another take on this: It is not women’s fault. I’ve heard the take of one of those “blessed” with the support of the Max Planck director boss. She felt powerless. She didn’t know how to say “no” to the advances. She just went along because she was afraid of the repercussions a refusal would have. Even though none of my friends use their sexuality to get their careers helped by male superiors, we shouldn’t take other women down for this because they are victims too. Sexual harassment is under the control of the men in power. As women, we should say “Hallelujah, sister, whatever gets you going”.

The truth is that women get fewer career advancement opportunities than men. As a friend of mine told me recently:

My male colleague, who had graduated some months before me, was promoted as a senior postdoc and given a chance to grow with the support of two technicians.

While another told me:

I was the last in my group to be allowed to go to a conference in comparison to my male colleagues. Once even I was told that my male colleague should go with my results to a conference.

The latter reminded me of my own experience. A few years ago, I wanted to apply to a prestigious competitive course. I thought that after working one year on a project, I have enough results to be selected for the course. However, the male PI encouraged the male postdoc who just joined the group to apply for the same course with my results, putting him in direct competition with me while using my own work against me.

However, I witnessed much worse while doing an internship in France. A female senior researcher came back from successful years of postdoc research in the the US with her partner. Her partner was offered immediately an associate group leader position (not even junior/assistant) while she, having a similar work experience, was promised a group to lead as soon as she secured funding. But when she won a grant, she didn’t receive what was promised to her because a board of male PIs disagreed. The French gossip mill churned and churned for days. The rumour had it that the only female PI at the institute was the mistress of the head of the institute. This sounds very much as the slut-shaming the victims of the Max Planck director boss suffered. Ultimately, the female senior researcher took her funding to another institute where she received the group leader position she deserved.

One of my friends talks of similar occurrences of women being denied their worth:

 Women not getting the last authorship on their work even though they were leading the project and had acquired a big chunk of the funding for it. The two women I have in mind thought that they don’t want to make it hard on the PhD student first author, wanted to avoid conflict, and were afraid that some students will be reassigned if the big boss doesn’t directly benefit from the publication, or who knows what else they were thinking. Both later regretted not taking action. I learned a lot from this and I try to never fall in that trap. But it’s a bit different in industry. In industry, my bosses don’t care enough about last authorship to start a conflict over it. Of course, the above may also be happening to men. But I can’t think of a man I know in this situation.

Not even when a woman gets a Nobel prize will she receive the recognition she deserves but be victim of the ungracious behaviour her Max Planck Nobel-worthy counterpart would exhibit: Reinhard Genzel presented Andrea Ghez as an emotional woman who made his life difficult in a Spiegel interview in which he argues that they shouldn’t have shared the Nobel prize. Many cannot believe that this interview has seen the light of day in this day and age. But awarding the Nobel prize for a supermassive chasm of infinite darkness is so 2020.

But not all women suffer of reduced career opportunities because of their gender. A friend of mine remembers benefitting her career advancement from being a woman:

I tapped into resources only for women to go to conferences and get extra training in leadership and project management.

Some gender equality initiatives really made a direct impact in my life both as a student and as a professional.

But the same friend also noted about her extensive conference experience:

Getting hit on at conferences f***ed with my brain and self-esteem so much that I think the damage is permanent, seriously! Now, I can’t talk to a new potential collaborator without thinking that he probably doesn’t take me seriously and just wants some female attention because his life is boring or worse. This is entirely a woman issue; men don’t have to deal with this kind of crap eroding their self-confidence.

And we circle back to sexual harassment.

Food for thought

Women receive less career support than men. And when they receive that support, they might end up being sexually harassed, either to get that career support, or by men at the courses or conferences they attend to promote their careers. No matter how smart or accomplished in their field we are, as women, we are victims of sexual harassment as soon as we hit puberty.

I wonder how many girls stayed away from STEM because of creepy teachers. In retrospect, I wish I knew better in high school. I wish I knew that if you are a kid – as all of us were in high school – it’s not your fault when a teacher inappropriately touches you. I wish I knew that a teacher is not cool for offering you alcohol when you are underaged. I wish I knew that you are supposed to report this behaviour to a parent or any other responsible adult. Sadly, almost two decades later, the same physics teacher has his praise sung in national media. So, nobody cared nor spoke up. Neither did I, but “little girls don’t stay little forever” and “they did not owe s**t to a world that thought so little of teenage girls”.

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