What It’s Like as a ‘Girl’ in the Lab

Posted by in Commentary, Rights

IT’S 7 p.m. on a Friday night, and I’m still in the lab. Earlier in the day, as I was looking through old data, I unexpectedly found the answer to a question that I’d been trying to address for a year. It was one of those rare “eureka” moments in science. But it’s not as though in an instant a spotlight fell on the pictures of cells I’d been staring at, clearing up all mystery.

No, this is the beginning of a new mystery, and I have to repeat months worth of experiments. The other postdoctoral fellow in our group is also here late, the lights over our work area the only ones illuminating the floor. He offers to share his data and some research tools; I gratefully accept.

Would the Nobel laureate Tim Hunt argue that this scene is likely to be charged with sexual tension? After all, I am female, and Dr. Hunt, a biochemist, said at a conference earlier this month that his “trouble with girls” in laboratories is that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” Certainly, then, he must have feared the possibility that two scientists might find themselves alone late one evening, with the aphrodisiacal power of scientific revelation unloosing their inhibitions.

Actually, I doubt Dr. Hunt is concerned about romantic entanglement between lowly post-docs. His “trouble with girls” was more likely rooted in his experience as a principal investigator, the head of an independent laboratory. He was swiftly censured for his remarks, and forced to resign from an honorary professor post and from several high-profile committees, which indicates how seriously institutions take the problem of gender bias. Still, women remain underrepresented in the top levels of bioscience despite greater gender parity at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I believe Dr. Hunt’s statements give us a clue as to one reason the pipeline leaks.

Twenty-first-century science has a great deal in common with the medieval apprentice system. Young scientists, typically graduate students and postdoctoral fellows like me, join the laboratory of an established principal investigator, who is rarely involved in hands-on experimentation, but has near-absolute authority in hiring. Only when this lengthy period of training is complete might a young scientist hope to establish an independent laboratory of her own, but she will always be known as having trained in Dr. So-and-so’s lab.

Unfortunately for young women in science, top male scientists may feel that taking on women as trainees could be more trouble than it’s worth. A 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that on average, male scientists train fewer women than female scientists do. This trend is exaggerated for elite male scientists; their labs are even more biased toward men, but the gender bias is not observed in top labs with female heads.

Encouraging women to train under female mentors won’t help, as there simply aren’t enough female lab leaders. In that 2014 study, women represented nearly half of the graduate students in the biosciences, but only 21 percent of full professors were female. Among the scientific elite, women make up an even smaller fraction — of the 24 Nobel laureates included in the study, two were women.

Certainly many men are full-throated advocates for women in science, but others profess their skepticism openly. One scientist with whom I trained told me that he did not feel that women were cut out to be truly successful in the field, as they were likely to be too distracted by their families. He used his own wife, a scientist with whom he clearly shared a family, as an example.

Given this landscape, a “girl” who is lucky enough to land in a prestigious laboratory may be expected to put up with a lot to stay there. Recently, a postdoctoral fellow asked a career advice columnist with the journal Science about the problem of her mentor trying to look down her shirt. The columnist, Dr. Alice Huang, advised her not only to put up with it, but to do so with “good humor.” This response engendered no small amount of furor, and was soon retracted. Despite this, I found myself thinking that Dr. Huang’s counsel was regrettably sound. Getting on your mentor’s bad side could ruin your career.

When female scientists come together, we invariably arrive at the same conversation. We ask “how do you do it?” usually in a whisper.

For one thing, you borrow an extra-large lab coat when yours won’t button over your baby bump. I went back to work in the lab while my premature twins were in the neonatal intensive care unit, to save my maternity leave for when they arrived home. But this is no different from the hard choices other ambitious women face in many fields.

What sets female scientists apart is the absolute requirement of high-quality mentorship. So as long as the scientific enterprise continues to be populated by people who might find it amusing to hold forth on the “trouble with girls,” women will receive inferior mentoring, compared with their male colleagues, which will lead directly to inferior career outcomes. That is the real trouble.

Share SHARE