How many times have you read (or heard) the question: “What’s it like to be a women in [insert male-dominated field here]?” A lot? Yeah, we have too.
A lot of fields are male-dominated, and this includes STEM fields to a high degree. As an example I know from my personal life, my mother and my grandmother worked (or are currently working for) the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This is a government agency, and it deals with airplanes, the locality of the within space and time, advanced technology such as radars, and much more. This is a very male-dominated field today, and was even more so when my grandmother first started in the agency.
This is just a fact of life at this point. Some fields are more dominated by men, and sometimes that can leave women behind. Because it might be harder, or more rare, for women to make it into a field for one reason or another, it’s almost natural to ask women in these fields “What’s it like to be a woman in science?” It can be a genuine question, but it can also be a very lazy question.
Here’s why (so long as I run FemSTEM, which I plan to for a very long time) we won’t ask the women we interview “What’s it like to be a woman in science?”
It’s Cliché and a Weak Question
The question: “What’s it like to be a woman in science?” definitely fits here.
We’re never going to know every woman’s personal experience with being a woman in science. Never. And while it might be interesting to ask someone this personally, so that we can get a deep understand of their personal struggles or rewards from being a minority in the system, we all know the general idea behind it. When it’s asked as an interview question, you’re generally going to get the same basic answer. It’s, of course, harder in most cases. You’ll maybe hear a generalized story about how a male co-worker (or some) may have bullied, or harassed said woman, or you may hear about other women telling the interviewee that she can’t do it because she’s a woman.
But here’s the problem — the key words her are generalized and basic. Most of the answers you will receive will be the same answers that most other women are going to give you.
Let’s face it; this is such a vague question. A vague question is often times a weak one and is going to warrant a weak response.
If you really want to ask a variant of this question, it might be better to talk about the specifics of a situation in which sexism may have occurred, and then ask the interviewee if they can relate, or if they’ve experienced something similar.
No One Seems to Like That Question Anyway
A great example of being just plain tired with this question is the example of Actress Lucy Liu.
Actress Lucy Liu, probably best known for her role as Joan Watson on Elementary, has faced a similar dilemma as to what we’ve described here. Back in October of 2016, the internet blew up when she asked that people stop asking her what it was like to be an Asian-American actress in Hollywood. She is an actress who was accepted before the big push of diversity in the industry took place.
“I had this moment of, I was just thinking about it. I was just so glad I was accepted into this wonderful group because of my work, not because I am Asian, and now they’re trolling the fields for people who fit that. I want to be acknowledged for my work, not for my ‘fill in the blank,’” She told the New York Times.
And we don’t want to acknowledge the women in STEM fields just because they ‘fill in the [diversity] blank’, either. That’s not what this website is about. Though it focuses on a minority in the field, yes, we don’t want to make it seem like the only reason we’re acknowledging them is because they’re women — because we’re not.
The goal of this website is to show more women (especially young women) how great STEM fields can be, and encourage them to take a part it in. Not to fill in a blank.
It Can Come Across as Borderline Sexist …If Not Completely So
When you want to ask “What’s it like to be a woman in science?”, you have to ask something of yourself.
Are you really interested in what they do and who they are, or are you just interested in them because they are a woman in a male-dominated field? If it’s the latter, you may have a problem. This can come across as sexist because you care more about their gender than what they do or who they are.
Women are people. People work in science, and tech, and engineering, and math. It’s okay to showcase a woman in science who is successful despite the odds, and it’s okay to have a woman-focused group. It’s also alright to talk about the fact that things just aren’t fair in these industries sometimes. But how much attention are you bringing to the woman part of the equation? It can be a fine line.
And if this question wasn’t already asked so often, maybe we would ask it from time to time. But the bottom line is: it’s just not an interesting question anymore. If it ever was to begin with.