Story: Becoming one of the guys

Every week I get at least one invitation to an event, a meeting, a workshop, that aims at finding an answer to the question: “How can we increase the participation of women in science?”. I’ve been to many meetings, I’ve had many discussions, I talked to women who made it and to women who chose not to stay; I am a woman in science for heaven's sake. Despite all that, I’ll tell you upfront that if you are here for an answer, I don’t have one. Not an easy one at least. Not one that will change things overnight. I’ll tell you my own story. I’ll tell you how I made it through, in the hopes that some women will read this and will get some ideas for themselves. But more importantly in the hopes that some of the men will read this and will get a tiny bit closer to understanding what it feels like.

I am an experimental nuclear physicist. Physics is very much a male-dominated field. Men have 90% of the physics Ph.D.s in the US. And nuclear physics is right down there with the rest. I have frequently been the only woman in the room, the only woman in an experimental team, the only woman in a meeting. And my approach was to ignore it. Observe how the guys are behaving and follow along. If I pretend I’m one of them, they might believe it too and not treat me differently. Dress like a guy, talk like a guy, go out for drinks with the guys… just be one of them. Especially early in my career I felt that blending in was the approach that I felt more comfortable with. To be fair, I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy so this behavior was well within my comfort zone, and it worked well for me. Maybe it worked too well because at some point the guys even gave me a guy nickname to “feel more comfortable around me” they said. At least I was in. I was accepted. And that’s what I needed.

Once I was “one of the guys”, something else happened that I did not expect. People were impressed with my work. Not because I was doing anything special but because I was a woman. I was doing the exact same things that the male students were doing, and people found this amazing. How can a woman set up an experimental device as well as a man? Shocking, right? We are expected to be good in classwork, keep good notes, be organized, but how could we ever use a wrench in the same way as a guy? How can we get our hands dirty with pump oil? Impossible! It’s just the image they have of women: with our high heels and our freshly manicured fingernails, how could we possibly climb on a ladder to attach cables on equipment? Wait a minute. I could do all these things. And not only that, I loved doing all these things. I loved to climb on top of equipment; I loved to attach the cables, because it was part of the scientific process. If I wanted to get my experiment running, get new results, understand something about nature that no one else has seen before, this was what I had to do. To me there was no choice. It was my job. I had to do it. I wanted to do it. And if people were impressed with that, even better.

Instead of letting my inner feminist take over, complain, and explain, I decided to go along. If performing the same way as the others meant I was ranked higher because I was a woman… that sounds great. I decided that instead of using words to talk about equal opportunities and equal abilities, I would let my actions speak. If they can see that a woman can be as good as a man, they might remember it. Maybe the next time a woman joins the team she will be accepted more easily. And after they see more and more women perform as well as the men, this will be part of the culture. Eventually. We can hope.

This doesn’t mean that everything was a walk in the park. I had my share of interruptions, skeptical looks, questioning eyes, and even inappropriate behavior. Sometimes I reacted, sometimes I chose not to. I found my way around the scientific community, I chose to collaborate with people I’m comfortable around. Maybe not surprisingly, the majority of my collaborators are women. I avoid certain people at conferences. Life is definitely easier for some of my male colleagues, but at some point I decided that it doesn’t matter because science is what I want to do in my life, and I will not let anyone stop me from doing what I love. The problem is that not all women make it through all this. And we should all spend some time to think about it. Sometimes it takes one very bad experience. Sometimes it takes a few “well meant” comments from our colleagues to make us feel like failures. Thank you very much for your feedback, but can you leave me alone now? If you complain they say “if you cannot handle some criticism maybe you are not tough enough for this field”. Does this sound familiar? And you take it all in; and often you have no one to talk to; or you are too ashamed to share this with anyone; and maybe you’ll come out of the experience stronger, or maybe you will decide it’s better if you stay underwater; it’s nice and peaceful down there. I'll find something else to do with my life.

My experience is that words are not enough. I talk to male colleagues who are genuinely interested, who want to make a change, but quite often I realize that they don’t get it. I try to explain that women react differently to certain situations. That accepting women in the work environment and treating them the same as men, might not be the best approach. Sure, you treat people the same, that’s equity, but people are not all the same. And this doesn’t just go for women versus men. It applies to people from different backgrounds, different cultures, and different social status. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. And the fact that the current model has worked well in a white-men dominated field, doesn’t mean that it works for everyone.

If words are not enough, what do we do? Our male colleagues, our fellow students, they don’t know, they cannot know, how we feel because it’s not their life. They don’t know how it feels to get interrupted all the time when you speak. They don’t know how it feels not to be invited to the guy-events, or to get invited and feel even worse for turning them down because it’s not an activity you enjoy. They don’t realize that it hurts when they question EVERYTHING we say, ALL THE TIME.

So, I’ll encourage everyone out there to share your stories. Becoming one of the guys worked for me early on. As I built my confidence, as a gained acceptance and recognition, things got easier. But this approach may not, will not, work for everyone because we are all different. The more stories we share, the more ideas we give to the next generation of women to build on. And the more we help men understand the issues. Because, unless the men get it, there is no hope. Women will always have to fight twice as hard to be heard. Three times as hard to make it through . Ten times as hard to succeed. And many will decide along the way that it’s not worth it.

Artemis Spyrou is an Associate Professor of Physics at Michigan State University. Her field of research is Nuclear Astrophysics. You can find out more about her at her website. You can also follow her on twitter.