Invited to Dance

A few months ago, I met up with a former department colleague who had moved to another institution nearly a decade ago. It was really nice to catch up. His significant other is in the same technical field as we are, and she works as a (nonacademic) research scientist. As we chatted, the colleague said how his significant other “expects to be invited to dance” (in the sense that she waits to be offered opportunities or invited to contribute), while men never do. He attributed this expectation of hers to her current dissatisfaction with her professional trajectory.

I have thought about what he said many times since we met. I know exactly what he meant, and I know exactly what he described, and at the same time I feel a deep kinship with the woman scientist and an understanding of what she wants and expects, what she believes is expected of her; most of all, I feel her frustration with being overlooked and ignored.

I also feel exhaustion after two decades of playing by the rules made for someone else, on a playfield meant for someone else, among players who are all very different from me. Recently, I was part of a new collaboration. It started with me and a colleague I know well, and another colleague of said colleague. Then there was another, and another, and another, and all of a sudden there’s this big team (other than me, all men), and everyone is talking all over one other, and people are pulling and pushing in different directions, and it is just a mess. This type of dynamics always makes me want to flee. I don’t enjoy these pissing contests and I have no patience for herding cats. The fact that modern funding mechanisms all seem to favor large collaborations with this type of dynamics is definitely not a great thing in my book.

Collaborations depend on the people in them and can’t just be thrown together haphazardly. I have several long-term collaborators, but I have also had probably 3-4x more that were short term. There has to be enough technical complementarity and mutual respect in order for things to work long-term. Often, one of the ingredients is lacking. Often, the lacking ingredient is the second one.

I think of my former colleague’s partner, and her expectation to be invited to dance. I don’t blame her. I think I expect that, too. We as women in the physical sciences STEM, where 10-15% of us is still the norm, are always entering rooms full of men, conversations full of men, collaborations full of men. We are always being evaluated and devaluated by men. Behavior expectations we have to adhere to are those made for men. There is nothing inviting, nothing welcoming about the whole enterprise of science, because it is made by men and for men, who seem intent on measuring metaphorical d*cks and hazing each other all the way to retirement. We women are among hostile native inhabitants of our professional fields, where we need to play by the rules that are often antithetical to how we were socialized to behave, and many (most?) of our strengths are considered to lie somewhere between a nuisance and an unforgivable weakness. Our judgement and qualifications are questioned at every turn, regardless of how senior or accomplished we are.

It is an exhausting, dispiriting predicament to spend one’s career being told, often obliquely but sometimes less so, that the reason you are not a more successful scientist is that you are not very good at being a male scientist.


  1. Oh, I would be so angry at that colleague, especially if he was my husband. Perhaps instead of puffing himself up with “men are better because they just jump in,” he should consider another option. For example, “many women have the repeated experience of being shut down, dismissed, and ignored. Eventually they get the message that they’re only valued where they have reason to believe they’ll be valued. For example, when they’re invited to join.” There comes a point when you don’t want to have to fight to be heard and respected and you just want people to demonstrate that they’re willing to behave like decent adults.

    Seriously, jerk outlook on genders there, colleague guy. Way to not demonstrate a little thinking while simultaneously showing that you don’t respect your spouse.

  2. ME TOO

    No, seriously. If I speak up and try to play the same game that the men do, I am told I am too blunt and pushy, and insufficiently focused on others’ feelings. If I do what is expected (sit in the back of the room and shut up) I get overlooked. It is maddening. At the moment I am trying to care less. I hope it gets better next generation so my daughter doesn’t have to deal with the same issues, but I am not optimistic.

  3. I empathize with so much of this post. I feel like I’ve sort of made my peace by focusing on activities that are technically interesting to me but not high profile. It remains to be seen whether this will be a sustainable career strategy (I’m 36 now). It does make me wonder, though, if you have thoughts about what an ideal science-doing environment would look like. Pissing contests suck and are counterproductive, but being able to give and take criticism is essentially, and many well-meaning people lack social skills and tact, especially when they are young.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s