Why 'Female' Science Professor?

Brian Taylor

June 15, 2010

In the URL of my blog, I am simply "science-professor," but the pseudonymous name I use as a blogger is "Female Science Professor." Why the extra adjective? Does it matter in my work as a scientist and a professor that I am female?

Many times it does. In fact, when I first started using the moniker, my reasons were a bit cynical. I had been so often reminded by colleagues, in their words and actions, that I was different from the "regular" (read: male) science professors, that I decided to use the extra adjective to describe myself.

Even today, being different in that way—a woman in a male-dominated profession—has often meant that my female colleagues and I are seen as less qualified than our male counterparts. Often it has meant being told that my professional achievements were likely the result of my gender, not my abilities—for example, being told that a university "had to hire a woman," that the National Science Foundation "had to give a certain number of grants to women," that an organization "had to give that award to a woman" (because deserving men had gotten the award every year for the last century), or that conference organizers "had to invite at least one woman speaker." Some of those "had to" examples might even be true, but, in most cases, what happened was that qualified women were taken seriously and allowed to achieve what they deserved without being overlooked or held to a higher standard.

Being a female science professor has meant sitting in committee meetings with men who believed that they were there because of their intellectual gifts and wisdom but that I was there because, again, there "had" to be at least one woman on the committee. It has meant having my sentences interrupted and my ideas ignored unless a man expressed a similar opinion.

It has meant being paid less than my male peers.

It has meant having people assume that my series of papers with a particular male colleague must be the work of a graduate student (me) with her adviser (my co-author).

It has meant having surreal conversations like this, typically at conferences, but sometimes during conversations with a visitor to my department:

Male Science Professor (MSP), on meeting me for the first time: Your husband is also a scientist.

Me: Yes, that's right. He works on topics X and Y.

MSP: I don't know that work, but I do know his work on A and B (insert accurate description of my research topics).

Me: Actually, I work on those topics, my husband doesn't. His name is (different last name from mine).

MSP: I have never heard of him. The person I am thinking of has the same last name as you. It must be someone else.

Me: But you just described my research. Maybe you are thinking of my work.

MSP: Oh no, I am sure that the person with the same last name as you is a man. His work is very well known and he publishes a lot. When I heard your name, I thought it must be your husband.

True story. In fact, I am that person who publishes a lot on topics A and B. I just don't happen to be a man.

Being a female science professor, particularly when I was younger, meant starting each academic term having to convince students that I was a "real" professor and therefore, if they called their male professors "Professor" or "Dr.," they should not call me "Mrs." It meant encountering graduate students and postdocs who were rudely skeptical that I had anything interesting to teach them. In one memorable instance, when I was an assistant professor, a first-year graduate student who was taking one of my courses said to me: "We're the same age. Why do you act like you know more than I do?"

Being a young female scientist meant being insulted, patronized, and intensely criticized with alarming frequency. In a few cases, it also meant being physically and verbally harassed by men who were unable to treat women as professional colleagues.

As I have gotten older and more established as a scientist, those incidents have decreased, but they have persisted to some extent even as I move deeper into my 40s. As recently as a few years ago, I was told that I was "too young" for a position of responsibility that had been given to men my age or younger many times before. A colleague who is four months older than me, and who got his Ph.D. the same year that I did, was deemed old enough for the post, but I was "too junior."

Has all of this made me angry? Yes, but I do not spend my days simmering with hostility and bitterness, waiting for the next insult or slight. I love my job and I am pretty good at it—both the research and teaching aspects of it—and that fills most of my days with positive experiences that overshadow the jarring encounters with sexism. The indignities have been unrelenting at times, but they have never outweighed the excellent aspects of being a science professor.

On my blog, 80 percent of my posts are about general academic issues and my experiences as a professor, or specifically as a science professor. In the remaining 20 percent, in which I write about "women in science" issues or my personal experiences as a female science professor, I have the dual aim of venting (complaining, ranting, shaking my virtual fist at the world) and informing readers about what it is like to be a female science professor—the good and the bad.

Maybe those personal stories help others who are experiencing the same thing; maybe they are depressing because they show that even a moderately successful, middle-aged female science professor still has to cope with sexism.

When I write about those issues, I get many positive comments, but the topic also invariably generates hostile comments and e-mail messages, some of which say that "man-hating" women like me are the cause of sexism. Although some of my readers wish I would not waste space on those hostile and absurd comments, I publish all but the most obscene and threatening ones because they demonstrate more powerfully than my little anecdotes just what we women are up against. The only other topic that generates nearly as much passion and anger as "women in science" is money.

Despite more than a decade of increasing numbers of female students in the physical sciences, it is disturbing that my profession, my scientific specialty, my university, and my department are not more populated with women. I have read many of the recent reports—there seems to be a new one every year—trying to quantify and explain the lack of women in certain fields of science, engineering, and math. I know that the reasons for the continuing underrepresentation of women, and the actions that need to be taken to alleviate the problem, are many and complex.

I am not sure why I am here and so many other women who have similar or superior skills and scientific interests are not. I do not fit the stereotype of the single, childless monomaniac who succeeds in science by acting like a man. I am married, I have a child, and I am not particularly aggressive (although I can be assertive, a handy trait).

Nevertheless, here I am: a somewhat rare beast—a midcareer female professor of the physical sciences at a major research university, wishing that I were not still so "different" from most science professors. But I'm still enjoying my job and determined to advertise my differences if doing so helps increase, in some small way, awareness of the magnitude of the problem, and thereby helps solve it.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is at