13 October, 2013

The challenges of being a female scientist - especially with sharks

DNLee is a professional blogger for Scientific American.  She’s a biologist, focused on animal behaviour, mammology, ecology, and an extremely well-known scientific communicator because she combines her intelligence with serious wit.  This is why Biology-Online.org editor ‘Ofek’ asked here to write monthly content for their site.  After his request, she asked for more details – how many blogs would they like, scope, etc – and most importantly, what is their pay-rate?  ‘Ofek’ then explained that she would not be paid and that she should rather look at it as ‘great exposure’.  She then thankfully declined his offer – and then he called her a whore

DNLee then wrote an entertaining piece for Scientific American about this interaction – which is all too familiar to us vaginas in science.  In a shocking twist, Scientific American removed her blog, saying:
“Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.”- Mariette DiChristina

This has sparked a large online debate on gender inequality in science, a boycott of Scientific American, and a #2 worldwide ranking twitter campaign #StandingWithDNLee.  So yes, Ofek, this has indeed been great exposure!  If you want to read DNLee’s SciAm post that was removed, you can click to this blog, one of many that had the foresight to copy her cached original post.  Deleting posts always works, said no one ever and the Scientific American blog admin…

Is this debate warranted?  Yes.  Whether or not you have a dick is the best predictor of how well cited your publication will be (this is exacerbated by the fact that women authors are much less likely to self-cite than men).  Women are still more likely to leave their scientific field than pursue higher level academics – because men are paid more, get more funding, and are appointed to higher positions faster than their equally qualified vagina counterparts. 

NOTE: The following is written from my experiences.  This is not to say that everyone will have the same experiences in all fields throughout the universe in perpetuity, etc...

Unfortunately, ladies, shark science may be one of the worst fields to have a vagina in. Take the white shark circus for example – you’re either billed as a butch Shark Man, Ultimate Shark Guru, White Shark living legend … or a gentile mermaid that swims with sharks to protect themIf you refuse to be type-cast to the above extremes, your life will be difficult.  You will either have to grow an extra layer of fat around your tongue, or you may be silly enough to speak out. 

I started off as a tongue biter since all young women have to in the beginning.  One day, women scientists will be selected for their ability to confidently debate scientific topics – even to men! – but we are a long way off.  In my experience, the young women scientists who are selected to ‘make it’ are the ones who are seen but not heard… at least in the beginning. 
Once you are ‘established’, or (in my case) work with an extremely rare higher ranking male that does not consider supporting you a threat to his masculinity, you can begin to speak publically about issues important to your field.  I began to take public stances on white shark conservation issues about 2 years ago.  I used Uma Therman as an avatar in public forums since men are more likely to engage with attractive women and the majority of the ignorant posts in this forum were authored by men.  This tactic seemed to work, as these men interacted with my posts for over a month before banning my account, whereas they would ban other female authors of similar informative posts in 1 day (after 1 post that contradicted their stance).  I still periodically include relevant scientific information into white shark debates or correct erroneous statements, and as a result, I get called a whore ­- or equally insulting sentiment - once a month:

At least read the study, for crying out loud!  In this case, the corrections I recommended to this facebook group were silently rectified in the end, but I won’t hold my breath for an apology.  Also, do not get the impression by this post that bullies are only male – female ones definitely exist too!  Such comments have now lost their venom, but I can understand how other female scientists would be put off from engaging in scientific debates publicly.  Remarks such as bitch and whore are not rare, but I encourage you… no, I implore you not to be put off.  They are just bullies who will target anyone they render as an easy punching bag to their own low self-esteem.  

Like the above case, some of these bullies have successfully disguised themselves as respectable scientists/conservationists/etc.  You will end up being suckered into working with one of these fools during your career, but don’t worry, we have all been there.  Learn from the experience, keep calm and carry on.  Also remember, for every one bully you encounter, there are at least five silent  ‘good guys’ out there.  Bullies just make the most noise (i.e. Ofek above) so it seems as if the world is full of them.  Cultivate the ‘good guys’ and have the strength to remove yourself from the bullies you encounter.  They will only – and intentionally! – bring you down until you say when.

This is why I encourage more scientists - especially females - to engage the public, if only to drown out the bullies.  Currently, constructive scientific discussions are limited to the protective walls of conferences and symposia, when they should be discussed publically, ad libitum.  Invite the abuse of bullies and trolls to learn how to manoeuvre this brand new world, because the future of online scientific communication currently stands to be dominated by these loud idiots.  You hold the power to shut them up. 

To the prospective woman scientist/shark researcher, I cheer you on big time.   I also want to warn you, it will not be easy.  There will be tough times ahead and you must prepare yourself (by cultivating ‘good guys’) for those low moments.  Remember, ‘this too shall pass’, both the bad times and the good.  

UPDATE:  Ofek was fired.