Redefining “real”

Posted By Pamela Gay on Jun 9, 2015 | 11 comments

This blog has gone largely silent for far too long while I’ve put my efforts into trying to raise funds for CosmoQuest, and move other projects forward. At this point, all the proposals that matter are submitted and all the work that was deemed most dire is done. It has been an ugly year, and looking back on things, I can see over and over places where my efficiency and my health were impacted by a constant struggle to live up to impossible external expectations. Over and over, people laid out definitions of “real” and in an attempt to, well, stay funded… and in an attempt to not be judged negatively (because I apparently still try to conform to expectations) I got lost in these other peoples’ definitions of “real”.

I’m going to be honest here. I am not tenured/tenure track faculty. I have no job security, very few benefits, and I spend just about every day worried about where money is going to come from for me and for my team. I have to worry that if I fuck up, it’s going to cost me and my team that next donation, that next grant, or that next opportunity that would bring us just one small piece of stability.  This lack of security means that when I hear expectations laid out by superiors and more senior people, I listen. The problem is, as Fraser Cain pointed out to me, the expectations are such that unless I, and others like me, are capable of walking on water, we have failed, and should just give up and stop considering ourselves “real [noun of the moment]”.

These are a selection of the things I hear, and I know others hear too.

“Real academics work 80 hour weeks.”: I don’t know how often I’ve heard this. It’s a throw away phrase, tossed out with a meaningful look by seniors who want you to know they are watching. You had better be there 24/7 answering their 8am requests for information and responding to their 2am requests for input. The work load gets laid out with the expectation that we’ll work everyday. I’ve even gotten 4am phone calls asking me to change websites. When I got sick and was only working 30 hour weeks (which is more than my contract required), it was suggested I go on leave if I couldn’t keep up. This constant “real academics work 80 hour weeks” background noise, which goes hand in hand with the expectation that on vacation I’ll still be able to submit last minute reports and do any needed tasks, leaves me with the anxiety that if I’m not able to perform instantly in any way requested, at any time and from anywhere in the world… I’m not a real academic and will lose out next time there is funding.

“Real women know they have to take care of their appearance to be taken seriously.”: My entire career I’ve had people tell me I need to be thin, be athletic, dress nicely but not too nicely, and that if I don’t, I won’t be taken seriously. I’m told by well meaning seniors to lose weight, because if you’re fat, negative assumptions are made about your intelligence and competence. It’s kindly pointed out that thin beautiful women are noticed more and have a better chance of being hired and of being heard. This is all said with the tone that makes it clear, I need to lose weight, put my hair up, and take more care about what I wear. Nowadays, when I’m asked to give talks, I’m asked for a headshot, and I have this feeling that if I want to make a career jump or get people to actually pay my full speaker’s fee, I need diet myself into a daily cosplay of Dr. Jane Foster.

“Real scientists don’t have beliefs, they only have facts.”: This is a sword wielded by too many as a way of claiming that anyone with theistic beliefs is dumb. It also means that I periodically have people telling me I am not a scientists because I believe in God, while at the same time they lift up untested theories, like the multiverse as string theory, as fact. I have too often gone silent when those around me went off on someone simply because of the cross they wore; I stayed silent because silence allowed me to stay at the table.

Accompanying these “Real [noun of the moment]” definitions, are a more myriad more comments layered with unspoken expectations. When relationships end, female scientists are told, “Well, now you’ll have more time for your research,” by the same people who comment on the marriage of a male colleague by saying, “It’s good to see him settle down.” When a woman complains about the constant barrage of sexist commentary in science, she’s told to get over herself, to chill out, and sometimes pulled aside by senior women and told she is doing herself and her career no service by speaking out. With men, well, boys will be boys after all. When a senior person of any gender does something asinine, well, they have to be forgiven because of their long a fruitful career. When a junior person missteps, this may be a career ender (and a misstep may be perceived instead of real).

Putting together all the messages, what I hear is a real female (white?), academic scientist is someone who works 80 hour weeks, never gets sick, finds time to maintain a healthy and athletic hobby that keeps her thin and fit, goes on amazing vacations but is available 24/7 to handle any needs that arise, and never lets friends/family/faith come up in ways that might imply they have priority. She is someone who always looks polished in her own style (but not too polished, because that would mean too much effort was spent). The real female, academic scientist  can shrug off sexual harassment without letting it effect her work, and will not complain when she is paid less, promoted slower (if at all), and doesn’t receive awards/acknowledgement for doing outstanding work. She is basically someone satisfied with being allowed a seat at the scientists’ table in the ivory tower, and she will do anything she is asked and shrug off anything done to her just so she can keep that seat.

I’ve hurt my health, my relationships, and my sanity trying to internalize all these expectations, and at the end of the day, none of it is sustainable.

What I’ve learned is I suck as a “real” female academic scientist. I get the feedback through the gossip chain that tells me I’m too sensitive, too distracted by social justice, and I further suck because I’m a person of faith. What I hear is a continual undercurrent of comments that I’m not a real [noun of the moment]. No amount of hard work matters, there is always a reason to knock me down and “put [me] in my place.”

But these are all other people’s definitions. The only definition of real that I have ever tried to pass on to others is one that I learned as a child.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by
side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does
it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that
happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just
to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When
you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit
by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It
takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who
break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved
off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very
shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are
Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams

The definitions of “real” that I face in the my career world are ones that are surreally devoid of love.

I want to rewrite the definition of real [noun of the moment], to simply say: do what you love and do it well, but leave space to be with the people you love; wear the skin (and skin covering) that makes you comfortable; praise often and raise up people of unnoticed excellence; avoid asshats when you can, and when you can’t do what you can to call them out so maybe they will learn (maybe) and so that those around you (the real audience) will learn asshattery is not acceptable.

I want to change the definition… but I can’t alone. Will you help? Will you help bring humanity and praise (where praise is earned) into what is accepted as normal, and work toward ending the current culture of asshattery and unrealistic expectation?


header image credit: © Igor Nikolayev |


  1. Pamela, you are very definitely Real. I got down to just before the story quote and thought, “but think of the Velveteen Rabbit.”

    I will continue to fight unREAListic expectations. Yes, you can believe in God and be a scientist. Yes, you can say, “No, I won’t be available when I’m on vacation; would you be? Really?”

    You are inspiring young people around the world. Show them what it means to be a REAL scientist.

    Maybe we need a t-shirt. This is what a REAL scientist looks like. Maybe we could create a backronym for REAL. Then take pictures of us doing science as well as other activities.

  2. I will. Yes. I know many have been trying to bring recognition to the efforts of scientists and researchers who don’t aspire to be superstars for some time now. The problem isn’t limited to science. Popular culture likes its icons, and will always send sycophants flocking to the William Shockleys of the world, even as it ignores the quiet John Bardeens. (Or Rosalind Franklins.)

  3. Pamela,

    I know we haven’t talked much in… well, a while, but you’re often in my thoughts and prayers. I can’t say enough how much I admire you as a person and professional, and how I’m constantly amazed at the amount and quality of everything you do. That’s especially true when I think about all the crap you put up with–and I’m sure I only know a small fraction of it.

    All of which which I mention to highlight and amplify the absurdity of the requirements others lay on you to be a “real X.” As I see it, you already go above and beyond every day, despite the completely unrealistic demands that society and colleagues place on you. That this isn’t enough for them–indeed, that the demands are doubled or tripled just because of the chromosomes you were born with–both saddens and infuriates me.

    It’s not just academia where this “real X” syndrome occurs. I see it all the time in the business and Government worlds as well. If you’re not available and connected every moment of every day, you’re not committed enough to succeed. (What? You need to SLEEP? Clearly you’re too lazy to go anywhere…) And you forgot to mention that women are also expected to have a family and raise kids at the same time, or else be seen as cold, workaholic b*****s–especially if they’re in any kind of position of leadership.

    It’s not fair. Heck, it’s not even possible. Usually when I bring this up, I’m met with stories of Ms. So-And-So who does it and makes it work, and any attempts to explain the dangers of making policies based on exceptionalism (or even an explanation of basic statistics) are generally shrugged off.

    So I try to change the definition, but it’s hard. I think, though, that I’m hearing more and more people getting fed up with hyperbolic in-group definitions of “real X” (whatever X is: real academic, real professional, real gamer, real writer, real woman, real man…). People are starting to raise their voices, and I want to be one of them. Maybe between all of us, we can finally send the message that enough is enough, and real is whatever you ARE, not what someone thinks you should be.

    You’re not going it alone, even when there’s no one there with you. And if you ever need someone else to talk to, I at least am only an email, phone call, or text away.

    Keep up the faith.

    — Jason

  4. Hey Pamela,

    You are very real to me. I’m a software engineer and entrepreneur that got turned on to astronomy and space through AstronomyCast. It was your episode(s) about how to get a career in space that inspired me to find ways to apply my skills to the space industry, which led me to having the privilege of working on ArduSat-1/X, ArduSat-2, and has now led me to start a new nano-satellite company, Kubos.

    If you’re open to it, I’d love to talk more about how I can help with your fundraising. I don’t have piles of money, but I wonder if we could petition any of the “new space” companies to pitch in.

  5. Pamela, supurbly articulated as always.

    I think Jason’s response is on the money. Screw the unattainable “real [noun-of-the-day]” ideals – you’re the REAL DEAL, and you touch more people in ways that matter than all the asshats put together, and in the end there’s only one measure that really matters – are you proud of what you’ve achieved?

    Thank you for fighting the fight, on so many fronts as always. You’re a superstar and you make me aspire to be more. The world has plenty of asshats – but only one gorgeous, amazing, trail-blazing Pamela.


  6. I am one of your Astronomy Cast fans …for many years… your discussion here reminded me of the following…

    The Layers


    I have walked through many lives,
    some of them my own,
    and I am not who I was,
    though some principle of being
    abides, from which I struggle
    not to stray.
    When I look behind,
    as I am compelled to look
    before I can gather strength
    to proceed on my journey,
    I see the milestones dwindling
    toward the horizon
    and the slow fires trailing
    from the abandoned camp-sites,
    over which scavenger angels
    wheel on heavy wings.
    Oh, I have made myself a tribe
    out of my true affections,
    and my tribe is scattered!
    How shall the heart be reconciled
    to its feast of losses?
    In a rising wind
    the manic dust of my friends,
    those who fell along the way,
    bitterly stings my face.
    Yet I turn, I turn,
    exulting somewhat,
    with my will intact to go
    wherever I need to go,
    and every stone on the road
    precious to me.
    In my darkest night,
    when the moon was covered
    and I roamed through wreckage,
    a nimbus-clouded voice
    directed me:
    “Live in the layers,
    not on the litter.”
    Though I lack the art
    to decipher it,
    no doubt the next chapter
    in my book of transformations
    is already written.
    I am not done with my changes.

  7. Pamela
    The work you have done in bringing real science to the masses is more than the average person will ever do.
    I want to thank you for the inspiration you bring to future scientists and especially astronomers. Astronomycast has helped me nurture the aspirations of my twelve year old daughter who wants to be an astronomer some day.
    I cannot begin to understand the pressure you face everyday to just keep doing what you love, something that any person should look up to.
    Never mind the detractors and the senseless voices. Paraphrasing Issac Asimov “To have idiots is the price we have to pay to have geniuses”
    If by some impossible standard you are ever forced to leave education for the masses behind and pursue a more “real” lifestyle, rest assured that you have done already more than enough for a normal person’s life.

  8. Pamela, you are a human being. A lovely and brilliant, humble, and honest human being. I know you’re not fishing for compliments but you deserve them anyway.

    I also feel that I must meet a certain physical standard to be accepted, valued for what I’m worth ( on merit) and loved. It’s a terrible injustice and I have internalized a lot of those same issues and I am affected profoundly. This is in every day life, this is in the art community as well. If you don’t fit a certain image you’re viewed as less than. Which is incredibly untrue.

    Not only that, but having faith in something does deem you a misfit, or that you are suffering from cognitive dissonance orthat you have some kind of deep underlying ignorance. I’m not even in the science world in the way that you are but I read the blogs and I know the popular opinion and I feel personally attacked when I read that I am also less than for having a theistic faith ( which I do not preach, or shovel down anyone’s throat ). I am evidently a sheep that can’t believe in science because I have my own personal relationship with God. I don’t even belong to an organized religion yet in the eyes of scientific culture I am…. I don’t have a word for it, but it hurts.

    So much of what you have written resonates with me deeply and it breaks my heart. I’m not an academic, I’m not well educated, I’m just a failed artist. Not because I have no vision and my work is crappy but because I don’t fit the mold and I don’t play the games/say the things I’m supposed to. Also because I’m a mom and I have a family. I’m not going to forsake them to jet set around the world for ” the shot” and drive myself into crippling debt to do that. When it isn’t necessary, all of the beauty in the world is found in my back yard. I also can’t take full body selfie in sensual poses to lure people in ( sex sells) and because I’m too fat in the eyes if popular culture to make that tactic work. I have digressed in an attempt to show you how these struggles personally affect me , my apologies.

    You are an academic though, well learned, gorgeous, witty and inspirational . You have so much to be proud of and so much to be commended for and I want you to know how much your words mean to me and how much they are appreciated. These words take bravery to write, to put the very flaws that you get shit for out there unapologetically is a feat of immense strength.

    I hold you in high regard for not only your intellectual prowess but your emotional intelligence. Thank you for presenting yourself in such whole way.

    I wish I could help, and if I can please send me some ideas. Also, if you just ever want to talk or commiserate you have my email and I’m Rachael Alexandra on Google plus if you ever want to get in touch. 🙂

    Ps pardon wacky typos and missing words, the joy of mobile posting lol

  9. It is astonishing to think that some of the greatest brains in the world can behave like slave drivers and harbour such stupid thoughts and prejudices clearly humans are dumb and do not have the capabilty to advance themselves.

    Pamela you are nothing short of brilliant and no doubt have been an inspiration to thousands who you have either taught or have tuned into your podcasts. Those who think they are superior in some way and want people to be this way or that moulding them into their perception of “Real” would have got on well with Hitler. Sadly in today’s world no one seems to know where the next penny is coming from the relentless pressure coupled with anxiety is distracting and ruins the experience of being alive. To be told you are not a scientist because of religious belief is just stupid no doubt their God is money and power I would say as they approach the end of their life they might just be giving God a second thought.

  10. Dr. Gay, you’re “velveteen rabbit” real to the thousands of people who you have inspired through your excellent work throughout the years. AstronomyCast has personally impacted me and those around me; I’ve taught a high school astronomy class based on your podcast episodes and Cosmoquest materials. I plan to teach a summer astronomy class at my church starting next month. Your work spreads and multiplies.

    I have no idea how you keep going – you’ve already done more good for humanity than ten normal people. I know you’ve sacrificed a lot to do what you do, and we can never repay you for that. But we can donate to your programs and learn from your materials and spread the love of science to others, and I hope that helps a little bit to make it worth wading through the crap. And if you ever decide you’ve had enough and need to leave crazy-town, know that you don’t owe anyone anything. Rather, we’re all deeply in your debt.

  11. How ironic that a field that prides itself on being on the cutting edge of knowledge should be so far behind the times in its culture. It has all the earmarks of a system that has very little to do with achieving its goals, but instead is driven by an asymmetric top down power structure. Despite the many studies that have shown that the 7/24 work requirement is counter-productive, those currently in power went through that stage and view it as a rite of passage and have no incentive to change it. Your own advancement is as much or more a result of “appearances” rather than actual accomplishments you cannot afford to buck the trend, even if you know that your results will be as good or better if you balanced your life. Again, this is the sign of power plays rather than objective success. I don’t know what you can do, other than look for more enlightened institutions. Cultural change is one of the hardest types to bring about, requiring buy in from both above and below to even start.

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