I’ve been home for the last month or so, waiting for my visa to the US to be processed, writing papers and catching up with science in general. I might have too much time and energy on my hands, but this week I came across two news items, which really drove me mad. First, I saw a multi-page advert for AcademiaNet (“The Portal to Excellent Woman Academics”), highlighting all the amazing female scientists that are part of their network. Then I read these portraits of female scientists, who double as crime writers, singers, beauty queens… on Discov-her. I’m sure these ads were published with the best intentions: giving women in science role models to look up to. But here’s the thing: I’m a “woman in science” and I ab-so-lu-tely HATE such ads. Is it not enough for me to know how the odds for a career in science are apparently stacked against me from the get-go? Do I also need to be reminded that there are super-women out there who manage to juggle a successful scientific career, a family and maybe even a second alternative career? Being bombarded with such portraits is not encouraging – it’s intimidating.
Don’t get me wrong: I have enormous respect for the women who were portrayed on these sites. I even find their their stories motivating – but only in low doses. If I come across stories of mega-succesful female scientists everywhere I look, then I all I get is a severe case of impostor syndrome. Reading these portraits I get the feeling that average or somewhat-above-average women do not exist in science. That the ones who make it are either insanely driven or extremely gifted. Maybe both driven and talented.
What if you’re just a pretty decent scientist? Have you failed if you don’t achieve all those things the role model female scientists have? Or are role models in science like fashion models: their awesomeness and perfection has a degree of unattainability which we may strive for, but in the end, they are just another way to highlight our imperfections?
Personally, I think it’d be great to see a more realistic picture of the women in science from time to time. Maybe something like the stories of the women behind #DistractinglySexy or #ManicureMonday? One could still show high-achieving female academics, but by putting their achievements into a more representative context would be a considerably more helpful for young scientists like myself.