[Content Note: Contains references to sexual assault and rampant misogyny.]
It’s Ada Lovelace Day today, and over the years I have profiled various women in the sciences, technology, engineering and maths to celebrate. But this year, Ada Lovelace Day follows close on the heels of the publication of an article exposing decades-long sexual assault by a leading astronomer at Berkeley and the complete failure of the university to deal with this in anything even resembling an appropriate manner. And this has made me realise that while the work Ada Lovelace Day does in inspiring girls to pursue careers in STEM is hugely important, it is also absolutely vital that we tell girls the truth.
And the truth is ugly. The truth is that Geoff Marcy is far from an isolated case. The truth is that Nobel laureates in your field may feel entitled to make you the punch line of a joke. The truth is that in a corporate career in technology your boss may ask you when International Men’s Day is. The truth is that you will be offered as a perk in job adverts, that you will be (illegally) asked about your childcare plans in job interviews, that in all likelihood you will be consistently underpaid compared to male colleagues with the same amount of experience doing the same job as you just as well. The truth is that these things happen to middle class white women, and god help you if you’re marginalised and oppressed on another axis as well. The truth is that all those micro- and macroaggressions add up.
The truth is that your best bet is to invest significant amounts of time and energy to keep yourself and other women safe. Not because this should in any way be your responsibility, but because no one else will. You may have to stand up to your boss in front of your younger and more impressionable colleagues and tell him that International Men’s Day is all the other 364 days of the year. You may have to walk out of job interviews in tears. You may have to pass on applying for that start-up job because it would involve working with dickbags who see you as a perk. You may have to seek out other women in departments you’re applying to to find out which of your prospective male colleagues you should avoid. (Or later, you may have to be the one warning younger women.) You may have to make a choice between filing a complaint for sexual harassment and finishing your thesis.
The truth is also that you’re not responsible for the shitty state our society is in, or for the behaviour of entitled male colleagues towards you or other women, and that you can’t single-handedly fix it. The truth is that standing up to your boss, or filing a complaint may hurt your career, and may cause you even more distress than the original incident, and you would be fully justified not to do it. The truth is that neither choice will make you feel good about yourself.
This is not to tell you that you shouldn’t pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or maths. It’s not even to tell you that these fields are that much worse than others: we’ve seen similar bullshit in politics, investment banking, the legal profession, and pretty much any male-dominated field. The corollary is that any field which somehow becomes female-dominated also automatically becomes devalued. So, you know, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But please please do pursue careers in those fields! The only way anything might change is if enough of us bang our heads against those brick walls that they (the walls!) eventually crack. Be aware, though, that chances are that your head will crack first. Walk into this with your eyes open, do what you can to keep yourself safe, seek out and build support networks around you, try to help others where you can. That’s the best you can do. That’s the best any of us can do.