We are scientists, not women in science

Opinion article


Trying to promote women in science can have the opposite effect. Katherine Bassil, PhD candidate at the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience, tells in this opinion article how well-intented efforts to promote gender equality have led her to feel belittled and discriminated against.

Philosopher, writer, feminist, political activist, and social theorist Simone de Beauvoir once said: “A woman isn’t born a woman. What it is to be a woman is socially constructed.”

It’s been 5 years, 7 months, 21 days and 15 hours since I’ve started my trajectory in academia. Gender equality, a topic that is exhausting the walls of academic institutions internationally, has only been more and more evident to me in the past couple of years. But not in a way that you would expect. I have not really noticed the typical inequalities that come with being a woman in academia, and I have not experienced any typical harassment except for when I was explicitly labeled as a minority, in public, on several occasions.

During my application procedures for a PhD position, I was very confident of my CV, my skills and motivation. I knew I was capable of nailing my interviews and securing a position in a laboratory. That all changed the day I stumbled upon a section on one institute’s website titled “Promoting equal opportunities”. Reading through the text, I was disappointed with how they were portraying women as a minority, and how they stressed (in good will) that they give minority groups (including women) ample attention and consideration during the application process. I couldn’t see this in a good light, instead I was wondering whether I was going to be selected (or not) based on my gender. What about my performance? Is my gender going to determine how likely it is for me to get a position? And why is that even relevant to my application?

Months later, I started witnessing these ‘gender inequalities’ more and more. On one occasion, after observing a lecture given by a scientist, the moderator of the session screamed: “Does anyone have any question? Starting with women! *silence* Women in the audience? Does a woman in the audience have a question?”. I was embarrassed. This was a mockery. Giving opportunities to women in that way is absolutely not promoting gender equality. In the contrary, I felt that this act was in itself an act of discrimination and belittlement.

By trying to promote women in the workplace in academia, women are being ridiculed.

A couple of weeks later, I received an email titled “Call for female PhD & post-doc participants for a workshop on transferrable research skills”. Again! Am I as a female incapable of having transferrable research skills? Do my male colleagues have innate transferrable research skills? I declined the invitation.

By trying to promote gender equality, women are being underestimated.

On another note, women in science, women in STEM, women doing science, etc. are some examples of current Instagram accounts aiming to promote women scientists, engineers, etc. Am I proud? Not at all. In a day where I should feel accomplished, and proud of my achievements, I feel that my community is underestimating me, and misjudging me based on my gender. And with all the historical injustices that have come with being a woman, I truly believe that this deserves the same condemnation.

I do not aim to only condemn these initiatives and gestures, I aim to publicly criticise them for not succeeding in bridging the gap (even though I acknowledge their good intentions), but in further strengthening it and portraying women as incapable, weak and in need of a spotlight to shine.

It is a pity that more than forty years after the emergence of the feminist movement, it is of my opinion that still, we have not bridged the gender gap. With all the statistics and probabilities in the world, emphasising numbers and figures will not help in bridging the gap. Treating women equally will. And that includes organising workshops for women and men together; promoting scientists in general; and addressing an audience as a whole and not women only.

We are equally capable. We are equally intelligent. We do not need special treatment. We do need special considerations. We ask for equal respect, equal opportunities, and equal treatment.

After all we are scientists practicing science and not women in science.

Katherine Bassil, PhD candidate at the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience

We are scientists, not women in science