Friday, March 8, 2013

Happy International Women's Day!

In honor of International Women’s Day I decided to post about what it’s like to be a woman in the Baran laboratory.  I was put up to this by my male peers.  I am currently the only female graduate student; we also have two female post-docs (who are awesome).  On an average day, I actively ignore sexist remarks made by insensitive colleagues, endure creepy co-workers in my lab hitting on me, and politely decline flagrant displays of male chauvinism cleverly disguised as chivalry when peers offer to bring the 20 liter of chloroform up from the first floor to the fourth.  Just kidding: the first case never happens, the second case only happened for the first few months and the third case, well, I let them carry up the chloroform.  

Working in a lab full of men isn’t like working with 25 brothers.  It’s like working in a lab with 25 people…who just happen to refer to you as the “lab mom.”  Yeah, I guess from a hardcore feminist perspective that is disrespectful.  Does it bother me? Not at all.  For the most part, they treat me like I am any other colleague and I return the favor.   When I arrived here I felt pressure to prove myself.  I didn’t want to get the lowest grade in the class.  I wanted to be perceived as smart—just like every other first year student in this program as well as every other program on the face of the earth.  When I got an NSF did people think I got it because I was a woman?  Yeah. Is there an element of truth to that? Yes, probably... Do I let things like that bother me?  Maybe…but I had no control over being born female and it’s not my fault that society decided to start actively recruiting women into STEM fields and it’s also not my fault that I’m awesome and totally deserved an NSF regardless of my gender.

It’s a fact.   There are fewer women in the lab.  Sometimes I am asked why that is—I am sure sometimes Phil is asked why that is as well.  My opinion is simple: synthetic organic chemistry is dirty and dangerous and involves closer contact with things that make procreation seem riskier.  We are in the midst of recruiting prospective students right now and of the women that visit Scripps very few are dead set on doing “natural product total synthesis.”  I hear things like “methodology” “medicinal chemistry” “biochemistry” “chemical biology” or just “synthesis.”  If the women visiting the chemistry program don’t really want to be in the Baran lab, is it my duty to science to convince them otherwise?  No way!  People should learn to make their own decisions regardless of gender.  If they aren’t interested, I don’t push it.  5 years is a LONG time to do something one is not into, so it’s her/his call.  On the flip side, I would love to have more female co-workers.  If you visited Scripps this year and are actually considering our lab PLEASE email me.  I want you to come here—Brandon NEVER has a tampon when I really need one. 

Do we need more women in science? yes.  More specifically, the field probably needs more women in academia.  Everyone needs a mentor, and I wish I had had more female mentors during my career.  At the same time, I know women don't require female mentors to succeed.  I hope women out there don't just choose to work for a female professor because of her gender.  That, too, is gender discrimination.  

Do I think the "women in science" problem is really as bad as people typically make it out to be? Not in my experience.  All of the negative, stereotypical things that deter women from excelling in science pretty much never happen in this lab.  Some women in science probably think I am making light of a very serious issue.  I invite them to respond!  I would bet most of the people on here reading and posting are men, so I hope the women start talking. 


  1. Thanks for your post, Emily! I am also a female synthetic organic chemist in a lab full of males with a male supervisor (albeit not anywhere close to the size of the Baran lab!); I spent most of this post nodding my head in agreement, glad to hear that there are others in similar situations.

    While I may be the "lab Mom" in my lab, I am not afraid to roll up my sleeves, and do the dirty maintenance jobs or the challenging experimental setup. I am, however, more than willing to ask one of my stronger colleagues to loosen the overtightened regulator, or pick up my vacuum pump so that I can empty the oil. I think it's all about putting your best effort forward, while acknowledging your limitations.

    I would love to have more female colleagues and mentors, and I hope that as I graduate from my PhD and move on to a post-doc, perhaps I'll have that.

  2. Meant to post this a while back, so there you go: