IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Sexist Boss Encouraged Me to Leave Science for Fashion

“I did have an idea for you,” he said thoughtfully. “You always have such an interesting look. Have you thought about going into fashion?"
Publish date:
August 25, 2015

I worked as a research tech in an academic science lab. My goal was to get my name on a few published papers, acquire some research skills, and move on to a PhD program after a year or two.

Research techs are usually paired with a postdoc or PhD student, who is in turn led by the Principle Investigator (PI) of the lab.

The PI is the head honcho. They have had a very successful career and made serious contributions to their field of research. The PI is the person who determines the scientific future of everyone in their lab. They write recommendations, determine whether you have earned your way onto a paper, and guide you in your career.

My PI was pretty absent. He had a small lab and gave us each an individual project. He showed up once a month for department meetings and drifted in at unpredictable times to meet with us individually and give feedback on results.

I remember him saying that he treats research techs like PhD students and likes to encourage independence and ownership of the work we do. He gave one of the other research techs first authorship on a paper our lab had coming out in Science the first year I was there. It was a huge honor. I hoped that I would have a similar accomplishment by the time I left.

The PI had yearly meetings with the techs in the lab to talk about their future – where they wanted to do their PhD, what topics they were interested in pursuing – and I was excited for my first one.

I had worked hard on taking charge of my project with help from our sister lab down the hall and PIs from across the world doing similar research that had answered my questions about their published papers and helped get me on track.

I had been given a project that had been sitting stagnant for over a year since the grant was first awarded for it and I had been told to do my best to make up for lost time.

I had a book full of data. I had preliminary results. My PI had recently presented my work to the grant board and said they were happy with it so far. I printed abstracts from research I was interested in, got everything together, and headed into his office.

He asked me what I was thinking about for the future. I excitedly talked about the type of research I wanted to pursue and showed him the abstracts. I had a school and a direction in mind for myself. He had a half smile on his face and didn’t say anything for a minute.

He took a breath and slowly took a sip of his coffee. “I’m not sure this is for you.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant. This topic of research? The school?

“I’m not sure being in science is for you. I’m not sure you have ‘it.’” He made a gesture to his head.

I waited for elaboration. He continued to sit quietly in his office chair. I realized that the door of his office was open and others in the lab could probably hear our conversation.

“OK? I mean, is there something you can tell me to work on? Can you tell me what I did wrong?”

He got a pained expression, like he didn’t expect me to ask questions. “It’s not like that. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I don’t think you’re right for research. It’s something innate. I know it when I see it, and I don’t see it in you.”

“I don’t understand. Can you be specific? If there’s some way I can improve I want to do that.”

He sat back and shook his head. I could tell he wanted me to leave. I could feel myself beginning to sweat. I tried to stay calm. I can work with a critique, I thought, I can address the issue and try to solve it.

I knew that without a strong recommendation from him I wasn’t getting into a PhD program anywhere. I tried to keep my voice steady and focus on slow breathing to try and keep from starting to cry.

“Can you talk to the PI in the next lab about this? I’ve worked with him a lot and I think he has a good day-to-day understanding of what I’ve been doing and who I am as a researcher.”

I knew that I was talking to a brick wall at this point but felt like I had to make an effort.

I continued. “This is the first time I’m getting any negative feedback from you. I’ve presented my work to the group several times and you’ve been nothing but supportive.”

I made an effort to speak slowly and deliberately. “I wish you had come to me with your concerns earlier so I could have had the chance to show you that I’m right for this kind of work.”

He shook his head sadly. He seemed utterly relaxed, nonchalant. It was like he could have been discussed a disappointing dinner he had eaten the previous night instead of the end of my scientific career. This was it for me. I was shocked. I sat there, dumbfounded, staring down at my papers.

“I did have an idea for you," he said thoughtfully. “You always have such an interesting look. Have you thought about going into fashion? I think you’d be great for that.” He gestured to my outfit. “I think that’d be a much better fit.”

He sounded like he was doing me a favor. He seemed like I should be grateful for the suggestion. Thanks, I thought, but I’m here because I want to be a scientist. I’ve been working hard in your lab this entire time because I want to be a scientist. This is what I’ve wanted to do my entire life.

I wanted to get angry with him but knew that if there was any chance I could fix this situation it wasn’t going to come from losing my shit at this guy. I looked him in the eye and tried to thank him. I didn’t know what else to do. I wanted to stay on good terms. I wanted to try and salvage a working relationship. Maybe he would give me another chance. I thought I could still turn his opinion around.

I felt utterly devalued. He thought I’d have more success at an industry I had no interest or experience in than one I had working toward being a part of for over a decade. My clothes said more to him about me than my research.

He told me that he wasn’t going to reapply for the grant that funded my research and my position. It would be a no-fault termination.

I remember thinking angrily that yeah, that was basically the only way to get rid of me. There were no grounds for disciplinary action and even if he had tried to go that route, he’d have to go through a mediated process of termination with a union representative to get me out of there.

I realized that he hadn’t looked at my data in months. He had never asked me a question about my work or acknowledged my email updates. I had relied so long on either catching him in his office or getting feedback from others. He had no idea what I was doing, but knew somehow that it wasn’t worth continuing, and I wasn’t worth having around.

I left the lab and locked myself in a small microscope room where I had spent the majority of the year. I had resurrected the specialty instrument in it into useable condition after several more experienced people had given up. I had performed all the maintenance on it. I had trained grad students on how to use it. I had performed tricky experiments with it, the data from which was now going to sit collecting dust on a shelf.

Now I was sitting in front of the microscope, sobbing, hoping that no one in the hallway could hear me. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. After a few hours, I found my way home.

I got a call from the other woman in the lab, a PhD student who was in her fourth year asking what had happened. I explained through sobs and she told me a story. She had been struggling with a technique our PI insisted she use for her project. They had developed it together and it was crucial for her project.

She repeated it for months and the protocol failed every time. She proposed changes which were rejected. After months of this, a male PhD student from a different lab suggested the same change she had proposed in an annual department meeting and our PI was suddenly receptive to the idea, told her what a good idea it was, and told her she was lucky that she had gotten that feedback.

She confronted him in private and he denied hearing it from her previously. She didn’t know what else to do. He wanted her to credit this guy in her eventual paper.

She told me not to let what he said to me dictate my future. She said that he could fuck himself and she thought he had never given me a chance. I believed her.

She volunteered to be a reference for the lab. With that, I got a shitty temp job at a small science company. Then I got a contractor position at a big science company. I got hired full-time by that big company very quickly. I’ve been here now almost two years.

I think about that meeting with my PI every time I go in for a performance review or present to my research team. I worry whether my boss is about to tell me that I don’t have ‘it.’

What is "it"? Did my old PI think that because I wore heels sometimes I didn’t have "it"? What about another tech who wore his pajamas every day? That’s what it looks like when you have "it"? Was I honestly just being judged by the outfits I wore, or was there some innate THING I was missing?

I feel protected in a corporate environment in a way I never did in academia. We have clubs and diversity celebration days. The only comments I’ve gotten about my appearance have come from the annual email we all get reminding everyone of the specifics of a business casual dress code. Nothing I wore in my old lab would have broken it.

My department is more diverse than any academic lab I’ve ever visited. The feedback I receive is very straight-forward and specific to my work. I’m doing research again.

I made an effort to meet with my new boss every few weeks to ask for feedback and critiques until he assured me that if there was an issue, he would say something right away, and told me to be more confident in myself.

They had hired me quickly for a reason. I need to trust my judgment. No one has made comments about how I don’t have “it,” how I look different than the stereotype of a scientist, whatever. I’ll never do the PhD I wanted to do but I’m still a scientist. This path isn’t what I wanted for myself but there’s no going back to academia now.

The female PhD student from my lab got in touch with me much later to tell me that after she told our PI she was pregnant, he had tried to give her research project to a new (male) postdoc, saying that she wouldn’t have enough time to dedicate to it now. This could have left her having to start over after years of work or leaving the program without a PhD project at all.

They argued and he wouldn’t budge. Our PI told the postdoc to just take her materials and start working on it by himself. Her committee members had to meet with the department chair to officially intervene so she could keep her project.

She finally graduated with a first author paper of her own. She said she was happy to be out of there. She hoped her new PI would be more understanding of her family obligations and more open to hearing her ideas.

She was happy to hear that I had found something new.