Women In Science: The Untold Downside to Achievement

Throughout my PhD years, I have worked passionately on the issue of “Women in Science.” Becoming the president of the Graduate Women in Science Organization (GWIS) at Florida State University gave me an opportunity to work on building connections between young professional women and those who were already well advanced in their careers.

During GWIS meetings, we discuss the challenges faced by women in science and talk about personal experiences. Over many years, we have organized events to raise awareness of the contemporary issues that women face, proposing ideas on how to approach the obstacles to a successful career in science. We have composed numerous newsletters on professional and personal life balance, the gender gap, equality in pay and promotion, maternity leave, and so on. We have drawn on decades of social-psychological studies such as the “Heidi/Howard” case scenarios and the “imposter syndrome” phenomena. And yet while women’s right to mobilize for change is a cause deeply rooted in my personality as a consequence of my upbringing, I can’t help but wonder why we rarely ever discuss (publically and openly and with similar passion) the reality that there is a downside of achievement for women in empowered positions. In my opinion, this downside is at the core of our struggle especially in science.

As scientists, the first thing we learn is the need for developing the habits of critical thinking, delving deeper for evidence, and eternally asking, “Why?” and then asking why again. We all agree that self-criticism is instrumental and indispensable to improvement. Therefore, I believe the downside of achievement for women in influential positions, specifically the perception of women scientists by other women in science, is an issue that must be approached, although very delicately.

The truth is that it is challenging to be a woman in science in supposedly open societies, and it is even more challenging in nonprogressive cultures. Therefore, the worldwide collective effort to push for gender equality in opportunity is well-placed. However, it is also true that some women in empowered positions abuse their power. Why influential people, both men and women, might use their positions and make poor ethical decisions is not the topic of this article. Rather I am dissecting the background of why women, and here I mean specifically women in administrative positions, abuse their power, becoming aggressive and acting with excessive competitiveness, especially toward other women.

In many cases, the hard road to scientific success takes women to senior positions where they feel threatened by outside pressures and troubled by internal issues of self-esteem. This triggers a need to develop methods of self-defense. Then, in some cases, these women respond by discriminating against or severely judging other women in their field as a way to prove themselves. There are many assertive and experienced women in administrative or supervisor positions who do not fall into this trap yet many of us have encountered the inexperienced ones who do not handle the problem effectively. This attitude is definitely a consequence of decades of being labeled as inferior and incompetent yet it causes women scientists to become overly critical of other women, perhaps even more critical than they are of less competent male scientists. In fact, a recent study by Jo Handelsman and colleagues at Yale showed that a female student is generally judged, by both male and female faculty, to be less competent than an identical male student.1 This negative experience is directly linked to women’s subsequent decisions to pursue a career in science. This could potentially shape not only women’s participation and persistence in the science domain, but also the field’s long-term perception of women scientists in an undesired way.

In reality, female scientists tend to hold themselves to high personal expectations of productivity and achievement. While male scientists are raised to favor team play, many women feel a constant pressure to prove themselves over and over again. At the same time, while male scientists get to talk about their achievements and aspirations, women in the same or even higher positions are often led to wonder, after every great achievement, whether or not they can “do it all.” Therefore, it is a valid personal ethic in the struggle for equal participation and recognition in science for women to hold themselves to such high expectations and to adopt aggressive approaches to pursuing their goals. However, women, especially those in positions to mentor the younger generations of female scientists, must keep in mind that it is essential not to get self-involved so that it becomes more about advancing our own careers at the cost of the greater cause of Women in Science.

Finally, solutions for many issues that pertain to women in science must come from within the female scientist’s community. Women in science, for instance, must not expect or accept any special treatment due to gender inequality nor should we look for special cooperation, collaboration, or support from other women, simply based on gender similarity. It is essential for all feminist movements to recognize certain issues that could severely dilute the significance and rightful demands of attaining equality in the science community.

What is not desired is a return to the old days in science where successful women scientists made up a distinct minority. When these women gained tenure or strong funding, their success was often dismissed as due to their minority status or a consequence of the need for diversity or simply because they were “charming.” Those days have left scars in the minds of some women who survived and flourished in the struggle to reach significant positions. But if women are to continue to advance in science, we need a working environment that is free from gender-based restrictions and descriptions, even by women. To close the “gender gap,” we simply must assume, dare I even say it, a genderless orientation towards our position in science.

1Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J. (2012) Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 201211286 doi:10.1073/pnas.1211286109.

About the Author:

Hanaa Hariri is interested in the relationship between a protein structure and cellular function. She studied COPII vesicle biogenesis using cryoEM during her PhD with Scott Stagg at FSU, and she is currently working on characterizing the roles of PXA protein domains in lipid metabolism and disease during a postdoc in Mike Henne's lab at UTSW Medical Center.