The Ice Queen Syndrome

I already wrote a post on the struggle of being a woman nowadays (Modern Times and the X Chromosome) but today I wanted to focus more on some of the professional aspects.

Before I started being a teaching assistant I had not realized that gender could make such a big difference in the way people perceive me professionally. Last semester, I was teaching with my lab mate and we were both granted grade and comments from the students when the course was over. I invested a lot of energy for the students to try to think by themselves so that they could find the solution without too much help from me and learn as much as possible and be proud of themselves. It would have been so much simpler to give them the answers, but I wanted them to benefit as much as they could from this course and thought they would be grateful for that. It turned out that I was far from the truth. My male colleague who tried to be as tough as he could so that students wouldn’t harass him with questions got a very positive feedback, whereas mine was terrible! And it seems that they even nicknamed me “the ice queen”… Although I always dreamed of having an immaculate ermine coat, this feedback affected me a lot as I had really tried my best to be nice to them and helpful.

While talking with the only other girl in the lab, it turned out that to be pretty common for females to be called “mean”, “cold”, “distant” etc… And some further researches confirmed our gut feeling: when a woman is behaving like a man in a neutral way and not as a “mother” in a nurturing way, most of the time she will be perceived as bossy, authoritarian or even unfair. This one minute video shows very well the bias that women generally encounter.


What stroke me particularly was that those comments were actually mainly coming from female students. It seems that we have internalized those prejudices so much that we don’t realize that we, women, are also responsible for perpetuating them. And it looks more and more like the main reason for not having more women in science or in positions with high responsibilities is not male discrimination but rather a lack of confidence from women. Having always played football with boys as a child, building my brother’s Lego while he was the one inventing stories and loving maths, it never occurred to me that there were things that I was not supposed to like or be good at as a girl. It most certainly come from the environment in which I grew up and I am infinitely grateful to my parents for not having implanted in me those stereotypes.

On the other hand, it is terribly hard for me to understand how women who were raised in a different environment can consider that it can restrict their ability, in particular at the intellectual level. The most compelling example I heard about is this research conducted by a group from Harvard: based on the premises that in the US, Asians are considered to be good at maths whereas women are considered to be bad, they took two groups of Asian women with similar level in maths. Both groups received a questionnaire to fill in before taking a math test, but for one group the questions were about the origins of the participants (for example: Where are your parents from? Which language do you speak at home? etc…) and for the other group, questions were about being a woman. The result of the experiment was without appeal: those who reflected on their Asian origin did significantly better than in the evaluation test, whereas those who thought about their womanhood did significantly worst.

It seems to me that one of the strongest obstacle that women have to overcome to progress is female judgement and themselves. So on this special day of Women’s day, I wish that everyone could reflect for a second on how we judge women and be just a little bit less harsh on them next time.

About being a Ph.D. student

One of the reasons why I started this blog was not only to share my experience about living in Israel but also to try to describe from within what it was to be a baby researcher. I didn’t succeed so much in that task so far because it was way funnier to talk about the craziness around me than the academic world (and also because I am a lazy writer…).

First thing that annoys me a lot is comments like “Oh you must really love school to study for so long.” or “How are the courses going?”. As I explained a million times, a Ph.D. is not studying per se but the conduct of researches about a problematic with the aim to write a thesis describing your findings. Of course it implies that you have to read a lot but most of the time you don’t have to pass exams.

Another thing that tends to desperate me is to talk about my research during social events. Don’t take me wrong: I love what I am doing, I am really interested in the topic, but after explaining three times per glass of wine that I’m training spitting fish to count in the middle of the desert, I tend to feel more like a door-to-door salesman than an exciting TED speaker.

Archer fish. They are super cool prankster fish that we use in our lab because we can train them to spit at targets on a monitor and thus we can conduct a lot of behavioral experiments. But then people ask “Why fishes?” (Yes, most of the non-native speakers don’t know that fish has no plural and might add “… and why not mouses?”). So why not mice? Because they are legally blind, and using them as a model to understand vision would be as rewarding as studying the impact of the Israeli shoes industry on the next Paris Spring-Summer fashion week.

Image“Shoresh Sandals” – although recommended mostly for hiking in flooded areas, worn by Israelis in every situation, occasionally with socks. White socks. I’ve been told that I won’t be a true Israeli as long as I don’t own a pair of those… I guess I’ll never be a real Israeli then.

Now an other problem arises when I attempt to describe my projects: I am not working on cancer or stem cells or any “hard science”. As mentioned earlier, I am interested in the decision making process and other ideas like Theory of Mind (I’ll try to develop it in another post I promise, but not today. Still lazy). It’s highly related to some socio-economico-philosophical questions and it seems to be accessible enough for a lot of people to bluntly tell me after five minutes “I think you are wrong.” I actually find those debates interesting and enriching but the side effect is that they tend to make me seriously question the validity of my problematic and/or entire field of research and wonder why I am trying to teach fish how to play head-or-tail in the middle of the desert…