Rather than talking about female scientists, I’m going to talk to female scientists because, girlfriends, we just don’t see enough of each other. So take off your lab coat, turn away from your Python scripts, and let’s share some helpful advice.
Dear young, female scientist,
Welcome to our club, and get used to being the only girl in the room. Things are changing, and you’re helping to change them. But for now, you’ll often be the only woman in the lecture hall or the meeting room. Take a deep breath, and remember that you worked just as hard as everyone else in the room to get where you are. You’re not an impostor. You’re just awesome.
Don’t worry if others claim that a certain class is easy, when you think it’s really hard. Most of the time, they’re exaggerating, but even if they aren’t, this isn’t a competition. If you study hard and learn the material, your transcript will look the same as theirs, even if it took you twice as long to do the work. The goal is to get an education.
Take a programming class. Just about every area of science has a computational branch (bioinformatics in biology, quantum calculations in chemistry, controls theory in mechanical engineering) that is doing really exciting work and is desperate for someone with your background with a little knowledge of Python or Java.
Don’t be the note-taker. As the only girl in the group, you’ll be asked to take notes during lab. Tell your partner to pull out his smartphone and make a voice recording. You want to be at the table doing the dissection, wiring the circuit, or using the AutoCAD software, not standing in the background and scribbling notes.
When you’re looking for jobs, don’t just apply to the ones where you meet every single one of the requirements. If you know how to do half of the job and think that you could learn to do the rest, apply. They probably won’t find someone who can do everything they want, and your other talents will put your resume at the top of the pile.
When you get that job (trust me, you’ll get it), there will be lots of big team meetings. You’ll be tempted to sit at the back of the room or away from the central table. Fight that instinct and sit with the senior scientists. You were hired because they think your opinion matters, and you need to be where they can hear you.
One day, one of your co-workers will make a comment that makes you uncomfortable. You might not realize how uncomfortable until a few hours later. Once you’ve thought about it and are able to articulate what didn’t feel right, take him aside and gently explain that you didn’t think the joke was funny. You’ve just helped him to be a nicer person.
Don’t let anyone yell at you, and don’t let anyone interrupt you. If someone tries, even if it’s your boss, calmly, quietly, and privately explain how you want to be treated. Try saying “it’s hard for me to answer your questions when you constantly interrupt me,” or “I don’t do my best work when someone is yelling at me.” It’s really scary, but everyone will have more respect for you because you stood your ground.
Cultivate some female friends outside of work. Meet other ladies at conferences, at synagogue, or at yoga class. Make time for the women in your life; they’ll help keep you sane.
Be a mentor because you want to, not because you feel like you have to. You signed up to be a scientist, not an activist. That’s fine. If you have some free time (after you’ve taken plenty of time for yourself, your partner, and your family), it will be rewarding to meet other women interested in science. You’ll be proud to help them find their voice and join the research community. It’s not your second job; it’s your privilege as a member of our little club of women in science.
Good luck, and start experimenting!