I recently attended a discussion of a group of female scientists. We were all graduate students and postdocs coming together to talk about issues faced by women in science. One of our exercises really resonated with me. We were asked to make a list of any words that have been attributed to women. They had to stop us after a while because this list can go on forever.
Shrill, aggressive, motherly, bitchy, reserved, confident, cute, weird.
Next, we were asked to assign a positive or negative value to each word. Shrill, aggressive, weird were negative. Confident and cute were positive. But then we came across a few words which were connotatively ambiguous such as motherly or reserved. These words could be positive or negative depending on the context of the sentence, the situation, or the speaker's/listener's perception. Being motherly and caring for others is not necessarily a weakness, but can be a real strength in creating a supportive environment and building up your colleagues. Being cold or reserved could mean rude or distant, or at that moment you are focusing on yourself and taking care of your self-interests.
Then we were told to think about circumstances where negative words could be considered positive and vice versa. Shrill could describe someone who's so excited about something that their voice just happens to go up three octaves (So what?). Weird could mean someone who just thinks differently from yourself or expresses themselves in a unique way. Conversely, someone who is confident can come across as arrogant and entitled or someone who is called cute could be a subtle dig at their naivety.
In many male-dominated fields, women have felt the need to adapt in order to survive. Never show weakness, always be on the aggressive. However, this creates an environment of exclusion, a weeding-out of anyone who doesn't exhibit these very specific qualities. It's truly horrible when the lesson some women learn is to perpetuate these beliefs and create a cycle of abuse for their own mentees. The real loss is all of the people who are pushed out of their field because they don't fit a specific mold.
There is not one way to be a woman in science. There is not one way to be a woman in any field.
Women need to empower other women. Build each other up instead of taking each other down. There has always been a huge emphasis on getting girls and women interested in science. This is great and should continue happening, but there also needs to be systems in place to support women once they are in their fields.
Going to talks and hearing women open up about their struggles gives me hope. Listening to their successes and failures makes me realize that others have gone through their experiences and have achieved success. I don't have to put on this mask of being super confident and aggressive. Instead, I can let my passion and sincerity show (and develop a less forced confidence) and help support other women to do the same.