When I received an invitation sometime in May to give a TED talk at my alma mater, I was unsure of what to speak about. You see, while I was there, I was known for my academic pursuits. People knew me as the girl who got the innovation grant, the girl who won the three-minute thesis competition, the girl who was selected for the sub-Saharan Africa L’Oreal-UNESCO fellowship. Based on that reputation, I figured people would be expecting me to tell them how I did it. I mean, it was not unusual for younger students to come to me while I was there and ask what the secret of my success was. I remember telling one young lady in particular that I always make a decision to give anything my best before I even start on it. She nodded in approval but the look on her face was that of disappointment. It did not seem like tangible advice.
So, when I was invited to give a TED talk, my first thought was to give an inspirational and methodical speech on how to be excellent. I even thought of using my experience to tailor the speech to be “How women can succeed in science”. Surely, people would find that useful, it could go viral, reach a million views in a week and become the talk everyone is raving about. But as I sat in a condo in Toronto, staring at my PC, poised to write my speech, I realized I was about to do a big disservice to all the female scientists who have worked hard in their careers, yet bent beneath the weight of condescension and non-recognition. I remember stubbornly typing the title “How to be a successful female scientist”, but my hands would just not go on to type the self-glorifying speech.
I walked to the window of the condo I was staying in Toronto and looked out at the sky-high buildings, the fields of green and the people who walked hastily down the streets, rushing to their next appointments. Here I was, gifted an opportunity to speak on a huge platform like TED, and I was thinking of telling people how well I had done? Surely, there were other women in the world who had done much better and could give a better speech, but what price did they have to pay for their success?
The realization that came with that question caused my shoulders to drop as I closed my eyes. In what was a rush of emotions, I remembered every single time I had to fight twice as hard as a male scientist to get what I needed. I remembered my friends who cried in the bathrooms at work because their male bosses abused them verbally, harassed them sexually and intimidated them at every turn. I remembered the days I had to call out a male supervisor after he had sent an email in red and bold, claiming that I did not know what I was doing simply because I used a word that was different from his choice even though both words had exactly the same meaning. I remembered the many times I and other female scientists were taunted for not having an ‘MRS degree’ (i.e. being married) and were even told we might soon ‘expire’. I remembered not only the things that were said and done, but also the emotions they evoked. The emotion of feeling like we were not enough, feeling like we did not belong, feeling like we were expected to not have other life interests else we would be considered to be unserious about our careers. I remembered looking at the workplaces we were hoping to get into and realizing there were not many people who looked like us. I remembered the doubt this cast on our career goals. Did we really stand a chance?
That was when I decided to speak about the issues women in science face. I started to read reports on the subject to see what the general trend was. Many reports spoke about women struggling to balance the work life and family, while very few spoke about the conditions under which women are expected to work in science. It seemed like even reputable organizations were trying to tiptoe around the real issues, and instead preferred to blame it on something no one could really figure out how to solve – work-life balance. Please don’t get me wrong, women in science do face issues around balancing their careers and staying relevant in their chosen fields. But, why are the women who do not have to face these issues feeling like calling it quits? These are some of the issues I highlight in my TED talk.
I am aware that the solutions proffered in my talk do not fully address the issues I raised, but I hope they serve as a starting point. Many of the younger students in my alma mater look at me and see success, but what they don’t know is that beneath all that glamour, there was a lot of unnecessary perseverance. While I believe in working hard for my achievements and earning my success, I do not accept that the scales must be deliberately tilted to subject me to the psychological and emotional gymnastics that come with being a female in science. If the men in science are allowed to fail, to not know enough, and are given opportunities to learn and grow, women in science should not be crucified for wanting the same.
If you have not seen my TED talk, please watch it here. I hope it resonates with you, and even if you disagree, I would like to read your thoughts.
Featured image: From the 2017 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science sub-Saharan Africa fellowship. The women shown are female scientists in Africa whose research have the potential to positively impact the continent.