All the times gender bias has reared its ugly head

Maybe it’s because I’m actually intimidating, but I for the most part consider myself fairly lucky as a woman in science. I’ve been fortunate enough to escape the horror stories of exploitation and sexual harassment that fill many of my colleagues’ journals. Yet, the recent story about the lack of medium-sized spacesuits – and the social media chatter about lack of women’s field gear – hit a nerve. It made me question my perceived luck.

I also remembered reading other women’s long list of times gender bias reared its ugly head in a career perfectly devoid of major sexual misconduct. I bet I could write that, I thought to myself. I wonder how long the list would be. So here goes, starting with the most egregious:

  • In graduate school, I was told by research participants (fishermen) that women on boats were unlucky. I swore to them I could pee in a bucket, and they let me on board. It went fine.
  • I once held the office just inside the front door of my building. I can’t tell you how many people walked in and assumed I was the secretary.
  • I was directly asked at a job interview about my spouse and family. I had taken my rings off, and patently told them such a question was illegal.

Just conferences is a pretty long list. Which is unfortunate, because that’s where a lot of critical networking and career development happens. Note that being a mom really upped the game here.

  • I complained once that a conference hall was set at 65 degrees in the summertime, as a matter of saving energy and not freezing attendees. I was told that people in suit jackets would be hot otherwise.
  • I requested a breastfeeding room at a conference, and they told me to borrow a friend’s room in the conference hotel (I wasn’t staying there).
  • The room I reserved for a conference advertised a refrigerator, but upon arrival, it didn’t have one. After asking repeatedly to get one and finally talking to a manager, they took about 24 hours to borrow a fridge from somewhere. That didn’t work. I requested it to store pumped breast milk.
  • We were one room short for a conference that I organized at a venue about 20 minutes from any other hotel, so a female co-worker and I offered to share so that we didn’t have a commute. We were told it was against company policy for women to share because there had been issues in the past.
  • The session organizer at a conference thought I was the student helper who set up all the talks on the computer, rather than one of the speakers.

And the little every day, I can’t even tell you how many times it’s happened kind of thing:

  • I am frequently addressed as Mrs. Thaler. I am not a Thaler and hold a doctorate, thank you very much. It happens so often, the bank recognizes both names.
  • While out for coffee or lunch with a male co-worker, the waitstaff assumes we are on a date. Then we remind them we asked for separate checks. Also, who are all these people going on dates in the middle of the workday?
  • I’ve been called young or confused as a student. Not as a compliment, but as a way to dismiss my science and credibility.
  • Women’s clothes come with no pockets. Normally, fine, I’ll carry a purse. But that doesn’t work well on a boat or in a wet environment. Sometimes all I want is a place to put a pen, or maybe even a phone.
  • I’ve been called intimidating so many times I wear it like a badge of honor. Also, bossy – one of my earliest memories is of an elementary school teacher evaluating me as bossy.

The early years, just to round it out. By far, this is the most depressing category:

  • In second grade, my best friend and I were both evaluated as “gifted” and in need of more than our classroom could offer. He was sent to math and science in the third grade room, while I was sent for language arts. Later in life, we discovered our actual talents were the reverse.
  • My science and technology focused magnet high school was only 1/3 girls. There’s a lot of reasons why, but it made for a different social atmosphere than most high schools.
  • I was encouraged by many to stop taking so much math because I would likely never need it. Well, I do economics now, so turns out they were wrong.
  • Feeling ostracized as a child when I didn’t want to play house or Barbie, but instead collect rocks, play with dinosaurs, and grow odd plants. I couldn’t play with the boys playing dinosaurs because boys had cooties. I’ve learned that 7 year old social systems are hard, and very gendered.

Finally, to end with the sweet, the times that sticking out as the odd woman in science really mattered to someone:

  • The time a fisherman bought me a sausage biscuit for breakfast, his way of saying I was part of the crew.
  • Students at a workshop in Papua New Guinea told me I was the only woman they had ever seen teach at a collegiate level. I nearly cried.
  • Several students in an environmental studies class I used to teach thanked me for being a good female role model, something they felt lacking in their lives.
  • The friendships I’ve made by bonding over the lack of pockets in women’s clothing. Together, we will burn down the patriarchy.

So there’s my story. I hope someone reads these and helps stop these scenes from playing out in future generations. Let’s all work to make a world where sexism isn’t an integral part of the fabric of life. If you’re at all curious why women leave science, this is why. I’m still here, but I’m stubborn.


  1. Rhonda P Warner · April 2, 2019


  2. Michelle Wcisel Jewell · April 2, 2019

    Here’s to all the women who would love to support and share this post on their social media platforms, but won’t since they’re worried that their current/potential employer may see it and think of them negatively as “that kind” of a “difficult woman.”

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