“There’s no way a 16 year-old blonde girl could have done this project. She looks more like a model than a scientist.”
That’s what I was told as I waited to present my project at the science fair – a project I had worked on for two years as a high-school student at Texas Tech University. I remember a female judge coming to tell me (probably because she felt sorry for me) that’s why the judges weren’t coming to my science fair board to ask me questions. I had been disqualified in the judge’s minds by my gender, and possibly by my hair and height too (I was tall for my age). I ended up losing that year. All to the boys with not-as-good projects.
This week, the WSJ published an op-ed arguing that Dr. Jill Biden should drop the ‘Dr.’, saying it sounds and feels fraudulent, called her kiddo, and argued that no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child (after delivering two children of my own, I guarantee the logic of that is way off – we deserve way more than a Dr. after delivering a baby…but, I digress…for the love).
After reading that op-ed, nearly every woman in academia or medicine I know said a collective…well, I probably shouldn’t repeat that here. But, most of us felt those statements on extremely personal levels. We have been told to drop the ‘Dr.’. We have been sent messages that begin with, ‘With all due respect, ma’am’ and then no respect is actually given in the response – quite the opposite and some is harassment. We have had to say “I’m still speaking” in too many meetings. Many female public health officials and scientists have quit, been fired, or frankly, harassed to a level that is scary during this pandemic.
And, this is not new. Women are used to this, sadly. When we are introduced at conferences, we are more likely to be introduced as Ms/Mrs/Ma’am than what we are: Dr. In a study of over 300 introductions at Grand Rounds or professional academic conferences, women were introduced by their professional titles (Dr.) only 49% of the time by male introducers (compare that to women introducing their male counterparts by the professional title 95% of the time). Some of us have been mansplained at conferences from an audience member where we were the speaker or attended conferences where the panels were manels (remember the “Let her speak!” story from 2017 or the recent “I’m speaking”?). For women of color, the misogyny and sexism are even more pronounced across all fields.
𝐀 𝐬𝐞𝐚𝐭 𝐚𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐭𝐚𝐛𝐥𝐞
In my PhD program, I would read books on women who had gone before me in science or leadership, like RBG, Katherine Johnson, and others, who had to fight for equity, respect, and their own bathrooms – all while I was pumping for my 3 month-old nursing baby at an academic conference – on the floor of an airport or hotel bathroom since I couldn’t find a nursing room or a plug in the stall. I started my PhD program with a 2 year-old and 3 month-old – so it’s all a bit of a blur. But, I do remember distinctly going to conferences and looking for the women at the table.
The big, fancy table at the front with the big-shot panelists. Someone who looked like me. Sometimes they were there. I also remember watching strong female academics during my schooling – Dr. Adams, Dr. Van Rie, Dr. Behets, Dr. Robinson, Dr. Lund and too many others to name. I watched them have a seat at the table and strongly advocate for those of us coming behind them. Now, as a mentor to students myself, I tell them a few things (if you’re a former student of mine, you know what I’m about to say), and I’d like to tell you too – especially after the op-ed.
𝐖𝐞 𝐡𝐚𝐯𝐞 𝐧𝐨𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐭𝐨 𝐩𝐫𝐨𝐯𝐞, 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐧𝐨𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐭𝐨 𝐥𝐨𝐬𝐞.
Being a woman in science/academics/medicine/leadership does not mean we have to prove we are better by going the extra mile. We do not have to be loud, aggressive, meek, weak, kind, bossy, generous, or stingy. Let’s just be us. That is enough. That is success.
We also have nothing to lose – so, let’s take some awesome risks. We can elevate one another, promote each another, cheer on one another. If we are mansplained or interrupted, we speak up – for ourselves and one another. In other words, we can speak in a collective voice to pierce the glass ceiling that is cracking more and more. This is not about being anti-men – I have lots of men who are allies. This is about being pro-women. We are better when we have both at the table.
𝐒𝐨, 𝐰𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐝𝐨𝐞𝐬 𝐢𝐭 𝐥𝐨𝐨𝐤 𝐥𝐢𝐤𝐞 𝐭𝐨 𝐡𝐚𝐯𝐞 𝐚 𝐬𝐞𝐚𝐭 𝐚𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐭𝐚𝐛𝐥𝐞? 𝐎𝐧𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐢𝐬 𝐞𝐚𝐫𝐧𝐞𝐝, 𝐝𝐞𝐬𝐞𝐫𝐯𝐞𝐝, 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐚𝐜𝐡𝐢𝐞𝐯𝐞𝐝 – 𝐧𝐨𝐭 𝐛𝐲 𝐬𝐭𝐫𝐢𝐯𝐢𝐧𝐠, 𝐡𝐮𝐬𝐭𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐠, 𝐨𝐫 𝐩𝐫𝐨𝐯𝐢𝐧𝐠 – 𝐛𝐮𝐭, 𝐬𝐢𝐦𝐩𝐥𝐲 𝐛𝐞 𝐛𝐞𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐮𝐬. 𝐃𝐫. 𝐋𝐞𝐭 𝐦𝐞 𝐬𝐡𝐨𝐰 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐧𝐞𝐱𝐭 𝐠𝐞𝐧𝐞𝐫𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧.
I now mentor an all-female team of fantastic undergraduate and graduate students. One of those is shown in Picture 2, Tessa. She is a former student of mine at the Duke Global Health Institute who led a team of Somali data collectors (mostly women!) in over 900 homes and 15 hospitals, resulting in a huge stack of data. She texted me that picture while she was in Somaliland and it instantly reminded me of Margaret Hamilton (shown on the left), a lead computer scientist who developed the code used in the Apollo spacecraft. It was a seat at the table.
Tessa’s work with a female-led Somali team of surgical providers (some of the first female providers in East Africa – Dr. Shugri, a dear friend of mine), shown in Picture 3, paved the way to advocate for universal health coverage for children in some of the poorest parts of the world at the United Nations. It was a seat at the table. I bet that neither Margaret nor Tessa knew where their work would lead.
At that UN meeting, I texted my students Picture 4 with a caption about getting a seat at the table – probably with a funny GIF of Beyonce. This woman was one of the only female voices advocating from the UN floor for her country. She was at the table. Later that year, I went and did career day at my son’s school. One little boy said, “You look nerdy!”. Bless. These 8 year-olds are awesome. I said, “I am nerdy. I’m smart. I’m a scientist. I’m a girl”, to which a little girl responded with wide-eyes “You’re a girl scientist?!”. She saw a seat at the table. And, my own fierce, kind, smart, ambitious, and compassionate daughter comes with me to some of my professional talks or zoom meetings with my colleagues in Africa.
𝐒𝐡𝐞 𝐬𝐞𝐞𝐬 𝐚 𝐬𝐞𝐚𝐭 𝐚𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐭𝐚𝐛𝐥𝐞.
So, I’m not advocating that women prove to be stronger, louder, or really anything at all. We have nothing to prove. But, we have everything to be. Ourselves. Let’s sit at the table, Drs.
Back to the original story – The next year I went back to a different science competition. And, won. And, kept winning. And, eventually was one of the winners at the Junior National Science and Humanities Symposium, resulting in a huge scholarship which meant a lot to a gal from a small (and wonderful) town in NM. I was still blonde, maybe a little taller, and all me.
-Dr. Emily Smith, Friendly Neighbor Epidemiologist
BTW, I ended up doing modelling – modelling awesome multivariate regression models and geospatial analyses to help children in low-income countries. It is one of the biggest honors of my life. =)
***I’m marking this post as a COVID-19 update in solidarity of the many, many female public health officials, MDs, nurses, leaders that have faced these challenges over the past 9 months. I see you, sister.