Amber C. Kerr

Home » Uncategorized » I’m a “Lab Girl” too, but Hope Jahren doesn’t speak for me

I’m a “Lab Girl” too, but Hope Jahren doesn’t speak for me

Hope Jahren has been getting a lot of press lately. She’s a biogeochemist at the University of Hawaii, and she writes a popular blog and occasional op-eds about the process of science, especially about the experience of being a woman in science. Many of my colleagues (male and female) have enthusiastically shared her articles and interviews about her new book, “Lab Girl.” I do not share their enthusiasm, and I’d like to explain why.

Jahren does good work as a scientist, and she certainly seems to be an engaging writer (though not a very humble one – her blog is called “Hope Jahren Sure Can Write“). Where she and I part company is her oft-repeated theme of just how hard women have it in science. I don’t doubt that she’s faced struggles and injustices. But please, Prof. Jahren, don’t try to speak for everyone, and definitely don’t try to speak for me.

Jahren does a disservice to male scientists when she asserts that opportunistic male sexual harassers “have been encountered by every single woman I know” in science. And she extends that disservice to women, too, when she describes an awkward but unremarkable case of unrequited affection as a perverse “evasion of justice”: “On and on it goes, and slowly she realizes that he’s not going to stop because he doesn’t have to.” Uh… well, as a first step, why doesn’t she try telling him that she’s not interested? As one commenter aptly responded, “This is not sexual harassment. In fact, this piece is damaging because it dilutes the real sexual harassment cases.”

Sexual harassment does happen in science; it is reprehensible (especially when ignored or covered up by those in power); and it should be handled with the utmost gravity. But Jahren doesn’t present any evidence that women are more likely to face sexual harassment in science than in other academic fields (or any other profession, for that matter). In fact, the opposite may be true. Furthermore, she asserts that male harassers are a major reason for women dropping out of science, but she only uses anecdotes to support her claim. Meta-analysis across a variety of disciplines suggests that the attrition is largely due to societal expectations and the unfriendliness of the academy toward work-life balance (Ceci and Williams, 2011).

I’ve paid particular attention to Jahren’s writing because I work in a closely related field (ecology), and her polemics about how the deck is stacked against women don’t ring true to me at all. Four of my five advisors have been men, and all of them have been wonderful and supportive, including throughout my two pregnancies (in contrast to what Jahren sees as the “absolute rock-bottom worst” sexism directed at her during her own pregnancy). And I’ve been on both sides of the unrequited-affection equation with male members of my lab group, but we dealt with it like adults – with a polite “No thank you” – and then continued working together.

When I (or other female scientists) make these points on Jahren’s op-ed pieces, there tends to be an angry chorus of responses saying “Well, aren’t you lucky. But get your head out of the sand. Sexual harassment is rampant in science!” Yes, it’s a problem, but if things are really as bad as Jahren describes, it implies that a frighteningly large percentage of male scientists are callous, immoral, exploitative misogynists. That doesn’t seem to be true. I can’t find any credible source indicating that bona fide sexual harassment (see definition below) happens to a majority of female scientists. Even a 1995 study cited by Jahren herself puts the figure at 12%. Any number above zero is too much, but 12% is not a majority, and I would guess that the statistics have improved in the past two decades.

I wonder if in part it is a generation gap issue. Jahrens is eleven years older than me, and perhaps that’s old enough to have caught the tail end of the “bad old days” when women in science were subjected to much more open scorn and ridicule. I am awed when I read biographies of pioneers like Barbara McClintock and Frances Oldham Kelsey and learn about the obstacles they had to surmount simply to have a chance to pursue their passions. I know I am standing on the shoulders of brave women like then.

But it’s not the 1940s any more, or even the 1980s. Though there’s still inequalities to be addressed, the prospects for women in science have improved immensely. I don’t dispute Jahren’s right to tell her own story, but when she makes sweeping statements like “There’s still not very many of us” and “There’s no fitting into the male world,” I feel as though she’s living in a parallel reality. The gender gap is quickly closing in many scientific disciplines (in the United States in 2014, women earned 56% of life science doctorates and 60% of social science doctorates). My own field now seems to have a reverse gender gap: for example, last month, I was in a proposal review meeting with 13 forest ecologists, all of whom were women. (The odds of that happening by chance are about 4,000 to one.)

So, on the basis of my almost 20 years of experience in the lab, the field, the greenhouse, the office, and the classroom, I have to publicly disagree with Prof. Jahren. Women do not always struggle in science because of their gender. I haven’t struggled. I have been nurtured, encouraged, and respected. Am I a rare and lucky exception in my generation? I don’t know, but I am grateful that it is now possible for me and many other female scientists to read about Jahren’s negative experiences and say “That’s not my story.”

Definition of sexual harassment

I’m using the 2016 definition from the University of California’s Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Policy:

a. Sexual Harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome requests for sexual favors, and other unwelcome verbal, nonverbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:

i. Quid Pro Quo: a person’s submission to such conduct is implicitly or explicitly made the basis for employment decisions, academic evaluation, grades or advancement, or other decisions affecting participation in a University program; or

ii. Hostile Environment: such conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive that it unreasonably denies, adversely limits, or interferes with a person’s participation in or benefit from the education, employment or other programs and services of the University and creates an environment that a reasonable person would find to be intimidating or offensive.

This is much more serious stuff than an oblivious male scientist asking his uninterested female labmate out on a date, or a professor asking his recently-married female advisee whether she intends to have kids instead of pursuing a tenure-track career. These things may be all-too-common and annoying, but they do not meet the definition of sexual harassment.

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