Sexism shapes the way we think about supervisors in STEM

“Women supervisors are abusive and obsessed with their careers.” 

I almost choked on the piece of cheese I was eating when I heard this. Yes, we had been complaining about academia for a few hours. Yes, all of us had experienced trauma in academia, to different extents. Yes, we are all women of color in academia. Sadly, I had heard similar statements in other settings too, and I very much disagree with them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had negative experiences with other women scientists, but none of those came from my supervisors. I won’t go in-depth, but I will say they all came from white women who are established scientists in my area, who belittled my work and made me feel like an imposter. Needless to say, these were extremely upsetting, and I still think about them often, especially in regards to systemic racism in STEM careers. 

Regardless, I see women in STEM as positive and strong. What is it about my experience that shapes this perception, and how can it be so different from that of others? Short answer: supportive supervisors and role models. 

Sometimes I feel guilty that my experience seems to be the exception, not the rule. I’ve had the privilege of having only women as supervisors, and those experiences have been positive. However, I’ve had men as mentors, and those experiences have also been good. 

But I’ve noticed something: there is an expectation for female supervisors to be extra caring, sensitive, and nice. Many of us look for female supervisors because of this. But female supervisors are just like any other academic supervisor: highly stressed, doing tons of unpaid administrative work on top of research (presumably more than their male peers), writing grants, and managing labs, in addition to whatever’s going on in their personal lives. And when they don’t act according to gender norms, it catches people off guard — like Dr. Esther Choo unintentionally making people cry by delivering straightforward feedback.

But I’ve noticed something: there is an expectation for female supervisors to be extra caring, sensitive, and nice.

But when it comes to abuse and sexism, anyone can perpetuate it, irrespective of sex, ethnicity, race, and gender identity. And it’s unacceptable, whoever is doing it. The sole idea that abuse and sexism perpetuated by women is “worse” is in and of itself sexist. It’s important that we remember that an abusive female supervisor doesn’t represent all women in STEM  — after all, would we make that same generalization about men?

Most importantly, being a successful woman in STEM is not synonymous with abuse and obsession; it’s synonymous with hard and continuous work. As we shift the way we see women in STEM, perhaps this idealization of women as caretaking figures will shift as well. Perhaps we’ll see them as what they really are: amazing scientists doing great work. 

Supportive mentors and role models have made a huge difference in the way that I exist in academia. Being a supportive mentor should not only be expected of women, but of everyone. Most importantly, abusive behavior should not be tolerated at all. STEM careers must shift towards a system that rewards supportive mentors rather than abusive ones.

Adriana L. Romero-Olivares
Adriana L. Romero-Olivares

Dr. Romero-Olivares is a soil microbiologist who works at the intersection of ecosystem ecology and evolution. Her main research interest is to understand how microbes adapt and evolve to global climate change. She wants to provide knowledge that will help us plan and mitigate the effects of climate change on Earth. Dr. Romero-Olivares is passionate about equity and inclusiveness in STEM. She's an avid knitter and has two guinea pig pets.

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