In lieu of the usual Fangirl Friday post this week, I want to dip my toe into waters that I generally shy away from, waters that may be deemed controversial. Since I am a statistician by trade, and since I (obviously) love geeky things, I want to write today about sexism and culture in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), of which statistics is a branch.
While I don’t want any trolling or nasty rhetoric, I highly encourage readers to chime in with your individual perspectives and stories. Everything here is purely that for me – my own perspective and story, not intended at all to suggest extrapolation to society at large.
Growing up, I was always very good at math, and I loved it too. I was also highly creative and wanted to pursue a career in writing. (Spoiler alert if you are just now joining my blog, but I still have that career goal). Making a living with numbers is much more practical and lucrative though, so here I am. I spend my days programming and modelling data, and for the most part, I enjoy the content of my work. Coding is super fun! No, seriously – that wasn’t meant to sound sarcastic!
But. But. (There’s always a ‘but’). The predominant culture in highly quantitative fields is in my personal experience generally not inclusive of people who share my demographics. Note that I said ‘in general’ and ‘in my experience.’ In no way shape or form am I suggesting that there aren’t fabulous, inclusive, friendly, wonderfully open minded men and women I have worked with.
Requisite disclaimers out of the way, I want to talk about the ways in which I personally experience sexism in my industry. Again, this is just my personal experience. (Can you tell I’m trying to hedge my post again trolling, lol?).
In my experience, there are two main ways in which my line of work can sometimes feel unwelcoming or exclusive to me as a white female stats nerd (and a highly feminine, bubbly one at that).
One way is overt sexism from select individuals, which thankfully is not the norm. My first manager on a former statistics team was a middle aged Indian gentleman who referred to the men on my team by their surnames but called me either just my first name or as ‘the girl.’ About a month after joining the team, he pulled me aside and explicitly told me that I was not to speak in meetings unless spoken to. Yeah. You read that right. I don’t think any of the guys on the team were told that.
But the second way in which I at times feel like a foreigner in my own field is much more nebulous, as it relates to the standard culture of quantitative teams. Virtually every hiring manager I’ve either worked for or even interviewed with for a quantitative position was socially aloof at best, and downright cold at worst. If you’ve never had the pleasure of interviewing for a statistics job (or related field, I’m sure), here’s a run down of what I mean. They focus ONLY on technical questions in the interview process. The entire notion of hiring a candidate at least in part because of his or her charismatic personality or go-getter attitude is foreign to them. They don’t smile. They show little to no warmth or caring or friendliness. Their emails are curt, often with incomplete sentences and no bother for social niceties like “how is your day going.” They possibly don’t even bother to get your name right.
It’s the sort of work culture where you can damn well bet that no one will care when your birthday is, folks don’t socialize outside of work, and few folks self disclose even basic personal getting-to-know-you facts.
It’s the sort of work culture where you will rarely hear “Did you catch that game last night? What a save!” or “Aw, that photo of your puppy on your desk is adorable!”
It’s the sort of work culture where people don’t just randomly bring homemade cupcakes into the office just because.
It’s the sort of work culture where you will hear very little praise for a job well done. Rather, your only form of feedback is not receiving technical criticism.
I realize now that this post has really gone beyond sexism in STEM, because ultimately what I am talking about is the predominant cold, icy, clinical culture of statistics teams in my experience, which also (coincidentally or not) happen to be heavily dominated by men. The thing is, I do proudly embody the stereotype of a woman who loves to be friendly and nurturing. I do love baking just because. I was a bubbly cheerleader. That is who I am. And I am also a stats nerd (and just nerd in general!). So I find myself often feeling so uncomfortable and miserable in these workplaces where personality and friendliness are expected to take a back seat.
Also, whether it’s in my head or not, I don’t know, but I often wonder/worry about how I am perceived by higher ups who truly embody that cold culture. Are they able to see past my affinity for Lilly Pulitzer dresses and high ponytails, to see the stats nerd who loves her job just as much as the conservatively dressed man from China? Does my signature pink lipstick make them even subconsciously value me any less?
Dear Husband and I often joke that my professional life can at times feel like Legally Blonde in terms of being underestimated. And in some respects, I can see how someone might read this and think “who cares what others think? just be yourself!”
To a certain extent, I agree, which is why I continue to dress like a Lilly model and strut into work in four inch heels. I refuse to change who I am for the sake of a job. But, to a certain degree it really does matter what others at work think, because ultimately this is my livelihood, and rightly or wrongly, other people have a say in our salary and our tasks.
Finally, I guess ultimately what I want to say is that even if I could be 100% guaranteed that my salary is on par with others’, and that others’ esteem of me was not at all negatively influenced by my culture and personality, at the end of the day I still feel somewhat of an outsider simply because the cold clinical culture I was describing makes me absolutely miserable.
Is it really so much to ask to want a workplace where I can do statistical programming all day AND work with people who are bubbly and friendly and socially charming? Can’t I find a team where I can explore machine learning techniques AND exchange homemade cupcake recipes? Can’t quantitative prowess and diplomatic charm coexist in an environment?
Alas. I’m done with my soapbox for now.
Does any of this resonate with you? Do you ever feel like an outlier in your workplace culture in whatever your industry is?
Until next time,