Fighting to Stay

Posted By Pamela on Oct 25, 2014 | 20 comments

There are days when I wonder how much longer I can make it in science as a woman. There are days when I’m not sure I can keep fighting against the bias, the bigotry, and the hate. And there are days when I’m not sure if I can remain competitive in this man’s world where research shows I will always earn less and be viewed as worse for doing the same quality work as a male colleague. (top image by alphadesigner)

If you want to know why women leave STEM, look at how you treat us and look at the messages you tell us.

On January 19, 2005 I arrived to work at the Harvard University Science Center to find myself face to face with a wall of news trucks and a sidewalk of media cables. All along Oxford Street, journalists had gathered to react to the pomp and circumstance that surrounded a speech given by then university president Lawrence Summers. The previous day in a talk at a conference on women and minorities in science and engineering, he’d explained that the reasons there are so few women in science are: 1) women are reluctant to work long hours because of childcare responsibilities, 2) boys outperform girls because of genetic differences, and 3) the hiring pool of women is small (explaining that it’s unclear if the size of the pool was held down by discrimination. Under Summers tenure, the rate of women being offered tenured positions dropped from 36% to 13%. [reference]

In the months that followed, some demanded Summers firing. That didn’t happen.* Some tried to defend what he said as being as good as any other theory out there. That happened a lot actually. A few tried to start a research-based discourse on why women aren’t in science (and engineering/tech) in representative numbers. That happened in small venues without cameras.

In 2006, as I started doing more and more survey based research, I learned a lot about bias. It’s actually really easy to make a woman fail. Thanks to stereotype threat (which works against minorities too), all you have to do is tell a woman that women are poor at math and science, and her scores will drop. You don’t even have to say it. Just look a female student up and down – scoop out her body – and her capacity for success falls away. [ref1 ref2 ref3]

And… if you allow the person reviewing her work to know her gender, they’ll also score her worse when there is space for qualitative judgement. [ref1 ref2 ref3]

The problem of subjective evaluation and being systemically downgraded extends past the classroom. Women earn 20% less [ref]. They are selected for fewer awards [ref]. They are asked to give invited talks less often.[ref] … and I see the proof every time I write a grant budget (or read someone else’s) and go to a conference with award and invited talks.

And then… in 2010 the public discussion of the outright harassment began. How many hashtags have been used and abused as we try to discuss our experiences only to be attacked? The latest fashion seems to be doxxing women – putting women’s personal details out in the public (and often also threatening them with rape and violence) – whenever they speak up. This goes side by side with 1) condescending and snide remarks from famous men like Richard Dawkens who work to place the blame on women who are actually raped [ref], and 2) comments from all sides that “boys will be boys” when the exploits of the famous are revealed.[ref][ref]

And now… we have #gamergate. We have women receiving death threats and threats of gunman creating a massacre if they speak.[ref][ref]

Why do women leave STEM? It was best summed up by Amanda Yoho (@mandaYoho) on Twitter on July 16, 2014:

We are bombarded with the Q “Why do women leave STEM?” In the last wk we have 1.) dehumanization of transwomen on the cover of Science // 2.) Studies showing how prevalent it is for women to receive inappropriate sexual comments from superiors while conducting work // 3.) minimizing the impact of a famous scientist’s sleeping with grad students’ significant others because of his contributions to sci

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 12.16.27 AM

The take away I got from all of this is if you are a famous male you can get away with anything up to and including rape and know that other men have your back and the women you abused will have to defend themselves and hide from a new round of abusers. Meanwhile, it’s totally fine for even science journals like Science to use the sexualization of women to sell, and… statistically inappropriate sexual comments and actions is really just par for the course.

I’m tired. I’m tired of knowing I have to be in the top few percent of everything I do just to get to stay in the game while men have it a little bit easier with paychecks more than a little bit larger. I’m tired of knowing men can abuse me verbally and physically and unless criminal charges are placed… nothing is probably going to happen other than me binge eating chips and salsa while sitting with insomnia at my keyboard (and that only hurts me).

And I’m tired of knowing that those two factors together mean that for the rest of my life I’m going to have to always fight to be in the top few percent just to stay competitive with the top larger percentage of men, and I’m going to have less time to do it because of the time I spend fighting harassment (and when I don’t have it left in me to fight, I’ll still be at the keyboard with insomnia).

Why do women leave STEM? At the end of the day, we look at history and realize just how unfair the world is, and we look down at our breasts and wonder how long it will be before someone grabs them again, and then we look at the door and ask, “What if?”

I’m still here. I’m still fighting. I’m going to keep fighting until I’m completely defunded. What I need is that magic box that gives me a power up and lets me get to the next level.

I’m going to keep fighting, keep working mad 70-hour weeks, and keep trying to find new ways to bridge the public and professional scientists so we can get more astronomy done. I’m going to keep innovating technologies, and I’m going to keep writing grants to keep myself and my staff funded. … and I’m also going to keep owning pitbull mixes who sleep beside me and bark at anything that moves.

I’m still here. I’m still fighting. But I’m so tired, and I understand why women leave.

*Summers resigned in June 2006 after a non-confidence vote of the Harvard faculty. This occurred after public disputes with socialist philosopher professor Cornel West and after financial conflict of interest questions arose with regards to his relationship with economics professor Andrei Shleifer. Summers went on to become the Director of the National Economic Council.


  1. Ms. Gay, so many women and girls look up to you. You’re a role model and inspiration to me, and you manage to brilliantly give voice to the frustrations women feel and the exhaustion from keeping up the fight. And it’s so frustrating but also so validating to hear.

    If anyone needs to stay visible in this fight, it’s you. If women and girls are leaving STEM fields, how much of a blow would your leaving be to the ones who want to join, are still in, or who have left or retired? It would be an awful loss for them, and for us women who aren’t in STEM but who admire your brilliance and nerve. I may not be in a STEM field, but the fields I work and exercise in are majority-male, and you give me courage to face similar situations.

    Please continue to stay and be visible as you can. If it’s possible in any way to draw strength from others, have some of mine when you’re feeling low. Be brave. We need you.

    (tips coffee cup in salute)



  2. I’m glad you keep fighting Pamela. Your fight gives others strength, and each conversation, each blog post, each new hashtag which brings attention to inequality in any profession / interest group / community, brings us one tiny step closer to remoulding society. You make me strive to make it better for women and other under-represented minorities, and I’m sure you make others do the same.

    But DAMN what a cost… Please, please put yourself first, even just sometimes. Your impact will fizzle if you burn out, and worse – my friend, an amazing, generous, talented and oh-so fabulous person, will have to deal with that pain too.


  3. it is not just from the point of becoming a professional.
    I teach juggling at a circus school, and there is a huge difference in attitude between men and woman.
    Not all, but the majority of woman assume that they are not going to do well, and they apologize for not being perfect at it. They apologize even when they are learning much faster than most people. And they often do not accept my critique that they are actually doing very well.
    This sort of internalized humility seems to protect them from worries of arrogance or inflated opinions of their abilities, but it also often interferes with both their enjoyment of learning and their ability to process their learning effectively.
    We need to teach woman starting in Childhood that they are powerful, intelligent, curious, and creative. And that they don’t need to hold themselves back for appearance sake

  4. I’m a fan, Pamela. Been listening to Astronomy Cast and the 365 Days podcasts since they started. You’re very, very much the reason why. You are one of the best I’ve heard at communicating the wonder of astronomy to non-scientists like myself, and I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve learned from you and the projects that you’ve been involved with. And it breaks my old white guy’s heart to hear how much bias there still is in the world. It’s one thing for cowards to hide behind anonymous screen names and fire their flamethrowers of insults up to threats of rape or death across the internet, but to hear you talk about wondering when some colleague will next cop a feel of your breasts just because he knows that there’ll be no repercussions is absolutely sickening.

    I’m not a scientist.
    I’m not in academia.
    I’m not in any kind of profession where my voice would matter if I raised it in protest along with yours.

    But I am a male, and a white one, and I can let you know that we’re not all slime. And if I ever encounter that kind of behavior in a place where my voice CAN matter, I’ll speak up against it. This kind of bias (whether based on gender, race, or anything else) is not acceptable.

    And finally, in the interest of doing something concrete to help in your specific case, I’m off to donate at CosmoQuest. It won’t be much, I’m afraid. But it’ll be something.

  5. People are prediction making machines. For a lot of people seeing any information that doesn’t match their expectations triggers a negative reaction. This sets things up so that seeing someone doing something better than expected doesn’t automatically translate into ‘go you!’, it frequently triggers actions to make the world feel like it makes sense after all–explaining away, or finding some reason to justify reframing a situation to match expectations.

    Internalized humility isn’t protection against viewing oneself as arrogant, it is protection against triggering normalizing behaviors of others–deflect being ‘taken down a notch’, ‘put in one’s place’ etc. Until reactive push backs and or explaining away of achievement goes away encouraging women to assert confidence isn’t going to lead to the outcomes expected.

    (Btw, I’m a juggler since the 80s-attitudes, expectations and behaviors between jugglers based on gender could warrant similar topics of discussion)

  6. Dr. Gay, you are one of my heroes. I don’t know how to communicate my feeling of sadness and outrage that you have to put up with this kind of crap. It’s just not right. I can only donate to Cosmoquest and tell you that while there are many, many people who deeply appreciate your self-sacrifice, ultimately you should put your own health and well-being first. You’ve already made the world a better place than you found it, and we can never thank you enough for what you’ve done.

  7. You might not have so much angst if you characterized events as they actually occurred. First, Larry Summers didn’t say what you say he said. And your source doesn’t actually quote him. My recollection was that we should be willing to consider actual biological differences as one of the possible reasons for differences in male/female population in advanced research fields.

    Additionally, your summary of GamerGate is delusional. It’s a shared delusion, but a delusion nonetheless. It requires ignoring one side of the issue, and credulously swallow the propaganda of the other side. In addition to take seriously a non-credible internet threat. You know those threats, which occur on the internet all the time, to people of all different viewpoints?

    Focus on actual fact, ya know, like a scientist.

  8. I worked in a lab for a few years, and I made 12% more than my female colleague who was hired at the same time and had more experience. Just one tiny example of a huge problem. Thank you, Pamela, for persevering under difficult circumstances. On the hardest days, you’re still inspiring others to get involved with STEM.

  9. How to evolve beyond being chimpanzee like egotistic primates is the key question to answer all the problems facing humankind/ I don’t hear anyone agree with me, not even within women STEM circles, that we must bring up children with the concept of bilateral descent systems from the very start. At the moment children are mentally molded with the erroneous belief that we are all descended from some unilateral male patrilineal lineage.

    Apart from being plainly self evident we have proof such as facts like mitochondrial DNA that shed light on the existence of female lineage. I believe that the latter phenomenon is derived from women having been literally treated as trophies of war since we evolved from other primates and it has always been so, without acknowledged personal identity, just gens. Celebrated lineage, is a very important shaping factor in the psychology of a child’s mind and we should make good advantage of the human ability to learn from inculcated neuroplasticity to create nice adults for the future. From the point of view that ever since women got the right to vote we humans have become a different psychological species with the same genome as barbarians of the past, we need to be taught actual facts to have any semblance of reality in our lives. At least of a reality we can openly talk about without having to live a lie covertly.

    I feel so empty that I do not know the lineages of my female ancestors. I asked a genealogist recently about it and its the norm. I changed my surname mainly because of that or at least it was the best of reasons to do so. Once you really face up to the mathematics of it all it makes no sense to go back. Daughters should inherit their surnames from their mothers just as boys do so from their fathers and that’s that!

  10. Dear Ms. Gay,

    As a highshool teacher for math in Switzerland, this kind of studies help me to encourage “my” Girls, so their confidencelevel doesn’t drop by someone looking at them up and down. I can raise a youth that is aware of the bias, and help slowly transform the society bottom-up. Thank you for your effort, staying on the top!

  11. These experiences are not unique to science. I practice law in Canada. It’s a very conservative and competitive profession. Despite being more than 50% of law grads in Ontario, we are still only 22% of partners (senior ownership positions) in private law firms. I firmly believe that it’s gender bias that holds women back in law. If you aggressively pursue a client’s interests, you’re perceived to be an unreasonable bitch. If you’re conciliatory and look for common ground to resolve a dispute, you’re perceived as weak and cowardly. Similar types of bias hold back other equality seeking groups. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s nowhere to go where you won’t face similar challenges unless you want to go into a stereotypical female career such as nurse, teacher or family law lawyer (yikes!). Not that those professions are not worthy, but a ghetto is a ghetto. Stereotypes hurt individuals, organizations and countries.

  12. It is changing, but slowly. People like you inspire the next generations and they will make the change happen. Keep at it, if you can. And be aware that there are good stories. I work for a very large government engineering organization. Women and men make exactly the same for all pay grades; women are well represented at ALL levels; while I am sure there are still incidents, I haven’t seen any myself in 25 years here: if you are a good engineer you have a place here and will be respected, no matter what gender you are or even what gender you identify yourself as.

    I believe things will change for the better, but it will take time. Please don’t give up, we need people like you to educate those next generations.

  13. I’m an academic scientist– and a woman. It took me years to realize just how much all that had cost me in terms of productivity. I still love it, and I still do it, but I don’t think I would be an academic if I had it all to do over again. It’s so difficult to know whether or not to say such things aloud, as the only way it’s going to get better is for more women to become scientists. But at what cost?

  14. Dr. Gay I’ve had a dream job where “all the other stuff” made it untenable to stay. Continue to do what your heart and mind say is the right thing to do, I certainly will continue to follow you in whatever your future endeavors are.

    Towards MP here is the link to the transcript

    The article Dr. Gay referred to came out before the transcript was released, so if the reporter wasn’t there she shouldn’t quote him. At that point it was all second hand, speech given 14 Jan 2005, article by-line 18 Jan 2005. Good journalism not to quote unless you were there or had access to the transcript, but to report as told to you by others.

    And here is the link to The Crimson following the release

  15. I’d like to be an engineer someday. But it hurts to know that this is what I’ll have to face. Hopefully, this horrific inequality will dissolve by the time I actually get there.
    It hurts to know that my dream career could be less comfortable than a man’s, I’d earn less than a man, and that I might be looked down on because I was born female.
    You were a massive inspiration when you came to view the blood moon at my school a while back; thank you for doing all that you do. You really did inspire so many girls here. Maybe we’ll even have a bigger physics class next year!
    Seeing women like you, out there changing the world, is keeping me motivated to study hard 😀
    Thank you for everything.

  16. Dr. Gay,

    I have two young, very bright daughters and I depend on the courage and tenacity of women in high-profile positions to continue to fight for equal treatment and respect in acedemia and beyond. I encourage you to remain the smart, daring role model that you are to young women everywhere. I know this is quite selfish of me, in that, what I hope for is a path that does not have to be hacked through when my girls begin finding their way in the world. Keep looking up!

    Bill Brueck

  17. Dear Pamela,
    You are such a kind, enthusiastic and hardworking person, and it makes me so angry that you and other women in science are having to put up with this unnecessary crap. I do not work in science but sometimes I too feel like giving up, staying home so dickhead men can’t harass me in the street, and only seeing the nice, kind men I know such as my dad and friends.
    I too have PTSD, and your soothing tones (and Frasier’s too) on Astronomy Cast helped me through many a sleepless night or anxious train journey. I wish I could give back to you in return apart from the occasional donation.

  18. Whoops; sorry I didn’t read your “Unbelievable” post until after I submitted my last comment. I should have known you were On It.


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