I recently saw a meme posted in one of the laboratory Facebook groups where a man wearing a lab coat was standing in the middle of the lab holding his ears, as his numerous female coworkers “clucked” all around him. Picture a rooster in the barnyard with hens all around him.
Whether you’re a man or a woman in the lab, this scene is probably somewhat familiar. As a female laboratorian, I have been surrounded in my career by many other female laboratorians. As you probably know, our profession is predominantly women. A 2012 ASCP study confirms this disproportionate gender gap, stating that women comprise nearly 73% of laboratory science workers. I have been fortunate to work alongside many strong women scientists, directors, and leaders. At the same time, I have had a front-row seat to the opposite perspective, as my husband is a fellow medical laboratory professional—so you can imagine I have to be extra cautious about what I say here. ;)
Certainly, anytime there is such a gender disparity in a particular profession, there are obstacles to overcome and opportunities to embrace.
Stereotypes create barriers in the workplace that can be difficult to overcome. Here are just a few that may resonate in the workplace:
I’m sure we could go on and on…and some of these may be valid points in certain situations. But, I would contend that they are still stereotypes, nonetheless.
I think the key to overcoming obstacles like these is to consider the ways in which those stereotypes are broken. I have seen men create drama at work, women in strong leadership positions, men who are emotional, women who will readily carry the heavy stuff, men who willingly stay home with their sick kids, and women who are excellent at troubleshooting complicated instrumentation.
Another obstacle we face is that of the obvious lack of men in the lab environment. Perhaps our profession would be more visible, like that of other more male-dominated science/engineering professions if we had a more equal workforce. I’m not blaming women or accusing them of hiding in the lab all of these years, it’s just a thought as I consider other professions and their visibility.
Finding ways to overcome these obstacles is important to workplace morale and climate. We certainly cannot let barriers of any sort reduce our productivity or diminish our excellence at work. Male or female, we all want to do our best to care for our patients, and that is something that we can all agree on.
In the lab, just like at home, there are situations or issues that may be difficult to navigate. I’m not sure whether gender is the cause or whether human nature is the cause. Whatever it may be, communication is key, and I think this is an opportunity to embrace. Learning the best way to communicate with each other is crucial to overcoming obstacles. Take a class or a webinar that provides insight into communication skills and start practicing on each other. See if the next issue is more easily navigated with your new skills.
I think that the big push we are seeing right now for women in STEM careers is a wonderful thing. But think about it—our profession has really been at the forefront of that for 70 years. We are a female-dominated scientific field. Unfortunately, people just don’t know we exist. Perhaps as we are trying to promote our field as a whole, we can recruit and retain more men, in turn creating a more balanced workforce. This is an opportunity to embrace! Diversity in the workplace is a good thing. Studies have shown this to be true time and time again.
There are countless ways that we can learn from each other. The list of people I’ve learned from and am thankful for in my profession is an amazing blend of male and female laboratorians who have taught me much about lab and life. My career and my outlook have been influenced equally by men and women in the lab, and for that I am grateful.
Don’t let the “gender gap” hinder your progress or stifle your joy. Because no matter what gender you are, you are the one that ultimately determines your success.