by Hillary Green

For all you aspiring female scientists out there

What’s it like to be a woman in science?

Hillary Green, a research scientist, offers advice to other young women in STEM fields.

Hillary Green-Lerman, a research scientist, offers advice to other young women in STEM fields.

Sometimes, it’s like having two jobs.  My first job is to analyze computer simulations of drug molecules interacting with proteins.  My second job is to run an unofficial public relations campaign that promotes women in science.  Some days, I kind of want to quit that second job.

I’ve traveled around the country giving scientific talks aimed at inspiring young women to major in STEM fields.  I visit my company’s hiring office to find out how I can help with efforts to increase diversity at our office.  On days like these, I feel like my second job is really important, and that I’m actually helping to mentor the next generation of young scientists. 

There are plenty of good reasons to be a scientist: great pay, intellectually challenging work, a chance to make a difference.  But what we don’t always tell young women is that it’s also really hard.  I loved having long discussions about quantum mechanics with my college professors, but I wasn’t so happy when those same professors told me that most women in our department were a drain on university resources.  Now that I’m 25 and 4 years out of college, I enjoy asking questions during our chemistry team meetings, but I’m not so thrilled that anything I say or do at these meetings is a reflection on ALL women because I’m the ONLY woman.  Today, I’m excited to be working crazy hours on my research, but I worry that, in the future, this kind of schedule just won’t be compatible with being a good mother to my hypothetical children.

So, which story should I tell about being a woman in science?  The one where I’m thrilled to be working on cutting-edge projects that might someday cure diabetes or lupus?  Or the one where I’m frustrated with the family-unfriendly male-dominated culture of scientific research?

Rather than talking about female scientists, I’m going to talk to female scientists because, girlfriends, we just don’t see enough of each other.  So take off your lab coat, turn away from your Python scripts, and let’s share some helpful advice.

Dear young, female scientist,

Welcome to our club, and get used to being the only girl in the room.  Things are changing, and you’re helping to change them. But for now, you’ll often be the only woman in the lecture hall or the meeting room.  Take a deep breath, and remember that you worked just as hard as everyone else in the room to get where you are.  You’re not an impostor.  You’re just awesome.

Don’t worry if others claim that a certain class is easy, when you think it’s really hard.  Most of the time, they’re exaggerating, but even if they aren’t, this isn’t a competition.  If you study hard and learn the material, your transcript will look the same as theirs, even if it took you twice as long to do the work.  The goal is to get an education.

Take a programming class.  Just about every area of science has a computational branch (bioinformatics in biology, quantum calculations in chemistry, controls theory in mechanical engineering) that is doing really exciting work and is desperate for someone with your background with a little knowledge of Python or Java.

Don’t be the note-taker.  As the only girl in the group, you’ll be asked to take notes during lab.  Tell your partner to pull out his smartphone and make a voice recording.  You want to be at the table doing the dissection, wiring the circuit, or using the AutoCAD software, not standing in the background and scribbling notes.

When you’re looking for jobs, don’t just apply to the ones where you meet every single one of the requirements.  If you know how to do half of the job and think that you could learn to do the rest, apply.  They probably won’t find someone who can do everything they want, and your other talents will put your resume at the top of the pile.

When you get that job (trust me, you’ll get it), there will be lots of big team meetings.  You’ll be tempted to sit at the back of the room or away from the central table.  Fight that instinct and sit with the senior scientists.  You were hired because they think your opinion matters, and you need to be where they can hear you.

One day, one of your co-workers will make a comment that makes you uncomfortable.  You might not realize how uncomfortable until a few hours later.  Once you’ve thought about it and are able to articulate what didn’t feel right, take him aside and gently explain that you didn’t think the joke was funny.  You’ve just helped him to be a nicer person.

Don’t let anyone yell at you, and don’t let anyone interrupt you.  If someone tries, even if it’s your boss, calmly, quietly, and privately explain how you want to be treated.  Try saying “it’s hard for me to answer your questions when you constantly interrupt me,” or “I don’t do my best work when someone is yelling at me.”  It’s really scary, but everyone will have more respect for you because you stood your ground.

Cultivate some female friends outside of work. Meet other ladies at conferences, at synagogue, or at yoga class.  Make time for the women in your life; they’ll help keep you sane.

Be a mentor because you want to, not because you feel like you have to.  You signed up to be a scientist, not an activist.  That’s fine.  If you have some free time (after you’ve taken plenty of time for yourself, your partner, and your family), it will be rewarding to meet other women interested in science.  You’ll be proud to help them find their voice and join the research community.  It’s not your second job; it’s your privilege as a member of our little club of women in science.

Good luck, and start experimenting!

Your friend,


© 2011 Lilith Magazine