After college graduation, I snagged a position on the east coast in coastal conservation. My role was on a research team studying terrapins, these gloriously ornate reptiles who nest in the New Jersey salt marsh region, and who tragically crawl across suburban roads or get snared in crab traps.
It was a full-time workload that came with shared housing. I learned a lot and formed instantaneously close friendships as one tends to do when they eat and work and spend every waking hour with others. I was obnoxious in the common way that people can be when they are first unleashed into the world. Like most 22-year-olds, I wanted to explore my career and the social scene this new place presented.
This was the beginning of my conditioning in the gendering of science, the “You’d be great at education” assumption. I’d been certain ever since I began studying Hawaiian green sea turtles in high school that I wanted to become a turtle biologist, which is why I sought out this seemingly random role on the Jersey shore. It wasn’t a stab in the dark, it was an attempt at upward mobility and a bold leap.
Yet every time I turned around, I was encouraged to go into education by some male peers and told by my more reserved female peers that it seemed a fitting career choice for my personality. These were wonderful people, I doubt they thought these statements were sexist. I barely registered it as such then. They think I’m good at relating to people, I thought, how nice of them.
But how often do we tell men who intentionally acquire research positions that their “bubbly” personality makes them great for education and that they should reconsider their trajectory based on our judgments? I’ve never heard such words uttered to an aspiring young man.
At the end of our program, we each were required to present research findings at a large seminar. I worked hard on my project assessing the ideal habitat preference of terrapin hatchlings in the wetlands. I joined a practice session where a several-decades-older white male scientist was present, evaluating our performances. I nervously recited my conclusions, and, when I completed my presentation, this scientist said to me in front of the group, and I quote without embellishment, “You sound like a ditz.”
Perhaps he thought he was doing me a favor. Perhaps he wanted me to speak in a more formal tone which is a valid critique and would have been useful. Perhaps he took my ‘umm’s and ‘like’s as California colloquialisms that indicated my intelligence or lack thereof.
Most likely, he did not consider that as a newbie sharing results for the first time, I was self-conscious. What would a gregarious woman like me feel anxious about? Well, for starters, not being taken seriously by her older, power-holding male superiors. I was a good sport. Good sports laugh it off, and that’s what I did.
His comment cut deep and I think of it often. To me, he said loud and clear, “You don’t belong here.” I kept at it and tried on another research position for size. I moved to a national park and joined a small team assisting an aquatic biologist by electrofishing in remote creeks, sampling fish populations.
I lived in ranger housing with another woman my age, inconsistent-at-best phone service, and no access to a vehicle. I couldn’t afford a car as the small sum of money I was paid barely met my basic needs. The job was seasonal and my roommate’s position timed-out before mine. We were petrified by the isolation, and were burdensomely aware of and accounting for those who knew how defenseless we were.
Without a consistent means to get to the grocery store, we’d walk or hitchhike 6 miles, which scared the living daylights out of me as it only further showcased our vulnerable status. These living conditions were not clearly communicated when I accepted the position. Did my male superiors consider women’s lived experiences while creating these job “opportunities?”
Sure, maybe I’ve seen a few too many shows depicting violence against women, but it’s statistically much more likely that I personally know the reality of this violence and make calculations accordingly. My roommate and I dragged our mattresses into the living room and slept next to each other on the floor for three months with a clear view of the entrance points of our home and with a plan for escape.
As my roommate’s season neared its end, every day felt increasingly stressful. I had a hard time concentrating. I’m supposed to stay here alone like this, is this seriously the plan? I caved and talked to my supervisor, breaking down in tears. “I promise I’m not a flake. I’m sorry I’m crying. I’m embarrassed about my fear of being here by myself. I have to leave when she does,” I said. I don’t blame him, and he didn’t know what to do. He was kind, and he told me not to worry, that he respected my choice. Was it really a choice?
I’ve got it good, living in the land of the privileged. There are many other indicators that I have no control over that could have further stacked the odds against me, and although being a woman never feels easy, I remind myself how much harder it could be.
Every sector would benefit from the perspectives that an education mentality provides; we’d have better experiences at the doctor’s office, in the boardroom, and at science conventions, if we were trained as educators first and foremost, if we were equipped to understand and support the needs of others.
While we never know when we will spark inspiration in another person, we can actively prevent creating circumstances that deter someone from actualizing their dreams. Ambition is a delicate thing. When we discuss equity and hyper-focus on race, gender, class privilege, ableism, the lgbtq+ community, and more, it’s not some manipulative agenda.
It’s because people are treated differently and unfairly, are afraid for their lives, and are the product of our society’s entire history of domination and oppression. It’s because access and lack of it, and the resulting dearth of diversity, is a real problem in science. It’s not millennial entitlement or a liberal talking point, and it’s not up for debate. It’s scientific fact.
Rachel Kippen is an ocean educator and sustainability advocate in Santa Cruz County and can be reached at [email protected]