We could all use some voices of reason lately-especially scientific reason. This week, I’d like to introduce my dear friend Rachel Leeson, an accomplished scientist and proud feminist. Rachel shared some of her professional experiences with us, speaking about her personal growth as well as what she learned firsthand about sexism in STEM. She’ll also be with us again soon to comment about an exciting scientific discovery!
Let’s chat with her for a while.
Hi! My name is Rachel Leeson and I’m the Public Affairs Coordinator for the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard, a research institute that focuses on immunology and infectious diseases, particularly HIV, tuberculosis, the flu, and now COVID-19. My job involves a lot of science communication and internal communications, with a little bit of events work. I’m not fond of every part of my job, but I love the science communication and I’m learning so much about both what I’m doing and what I want to do as I move forward in my career. It really feels like the right place for me to be right now.
What were your career goals when you started as a Research Assistant at the MD Anderson Cancer Center and how have they changed?
I didn’t know what my career goals were when I started out! I knew I loved science; I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit to 5+ years in a PhD program, and I had a vague idea that I wanted to do science communication. But that was it! So I kept working in various research labs, eventually moving up to Boston, and one day, my manager turned to me and said, “What I really like about you is that you get the science.” And something just…clicked. I’d been volunteering and working part-time in science communications all my professional life, but at that moment, I realized I was ready to move into it full time. So I applied for my master’s program in New Zealand, got in, and now here I am, a gainfully employed science communicator!
Tell us about your experiences in New Zealand-what were some important characteristics of your program and specialization?
I did a 2-year Master of Science Communication program at the University of Otago in New Zealand. I chose it because it has a year of classes, both theory and practical, and a thesis year. It was an incredibly good match for how I like to learn — and it was in a beautiful foreign county. I specialized in communicating biomedical research; I was the only one in my program who did, which was sometimes a challenge. However, my master’s was a great choice for me; I’m so much more prepared for my current career.
Rachel’s appreciation for her unique opportunity in New Zealand offers us an interesting perspective:
New Zealand itself was absolutely stunning and living abroad was an incredible, eye-opening experience. One of the things I loved most about New Zealand is how environmentalism is baked into their culture, and how much they talk about how their history has damaged their environment and the general responsibility to fix damage/protect their beautiful country. I really wish we could import that into American culture, instead of making it a partisan issue.
What kinds of sexism do you face in academia and what do you feel is most prevalent in the field?
One of the most silent and yet pervasive forms of sexism is the expectation that women do more organization, more admin, and more management of projects — often thankless, invisible work that is both time-consuming and necessary for anything to get done, yet strongly devalued compared to the ‘real’ work of doing science. Women are also subtly punished for doing it — doing this work makes us lesser scientists, takes away from our time to do science, and makes it seem like we’re less dedicated to doing science. If we’re bad at it, we’re penalized and seen as less competent overall; if we’re good at it, we get more and more added to our plate until we have no room left for science at all. It’s incredibly frustrating and unfair.
In one lab I worked in, a male scientist — let’s call him Harry — was responsible for ordering all the lab supplies, including common-use supplies like gloves.
Harry trained me on ordering, and when he left, I took over. Soon after, I was told that, since I was ordering, it was my job to track all the common supplies so we never ran low again. This was contrary to both what Harry had explicitly told and to how it had been during his 2+ years in the lab — it was the responsibility of the person who took the second to last box to put it on the order list. I was told I needed to order every day; Harry had set times twice a week when he ordered. I was also told it was my responsibility to follow up with vendors if there was a problem with the order; Harry had merely passed vendor information on to the person who asked for the item. During the 2015 Boston Snowpocalypse, I was called into a meeting with my manager because shipments were delayed. When I pointed out it was because of the massive amounts of snow — our lab had had to shut down multiple days and several people were not able to make it into work for weeks at a time — I was told that I should have sent out a lab-wide email explaining several people in the lab were experiencing shipping delays; again something that had never been Harry’s responsibility. Failure to comply got bench work responsibilities taken from me — the actual science I was hired to do. Retrospectively, it’s a clear pattern. In the moment, it was really hard to understand what was happening.
There were 24 people in the lab and 20 of them, mostly men, were incredibly lovely people who actively tried to lighten the administrative burden on me. If we ran low on common items, the majority of people would send me an email saying, “I should have said something earlier, but we’re almost out of gloves. Do you mind ordering?” If they needed something ordered urgently, they would apologize for the rush and if I couldn’t order it the same day, would respond, “I should have asked earlier! Thanks for trying!” A few even offered to do a small admin task of mine so I could place a rush order for them — a trade-off I gladly accepted.
But there was one incredibly sexist male grad student — and there was also lab leadership, both male and female. The scientists I worked with who managed my day-to-day work were happy with my science, which is what I had been hired for. But what I got judged on by leadership — and what my male counterpart in the exact same job was never judged on — was how I handled the “invisible” duties that were heaped upon me and yet were never supposed to count towards my weekly workload. I know, because my postdoc, who was my day-to-day supervisor, whose science projects I was working on, fought hard to keep me at the bench, doing science. And he failed.
My next job — also as a scientist — was completely different. All the “invisible” labor in the lab was clearly defined and equitably distributed. People who didn’t complete their jobs were gently, but consistently, reminded to and offered help if needed. If you were caught doing someone else’s job, a senior lab member would step in to return the job to its owner. New jobs were defined and added to the master list, so people didn’t end up taking on endless labor. When one lab member took on lab management duties, it was after a clear discussion with our boss, and with a pay raise. When the lab management duties took up too much time of her time, senior lab members stepped in to help. Then the lab had a discussion on how to redistribute some of her lab management work. Changes were made.
When I told my manager that a sample organization system was taking up too much of my time, he moved it to an admin who was interested in helping with lab project management. When I told him our collaborators were taking up huge amounts of my time because of their disorganization, he asked the same admin if she would be interesting helping to organize things, and passed that on to her as well. I apologized for asking, and he told me he needed me doing science, not doing admin work. It was there that I blossomed in my scientific skills and abilities. It was there that my manager said, “What really I like about you is that you get the science.”
The pressure to help out more, to smooth things over, to make things easier, is such an intrinsic part of the female experience. And sexism takes advantage of that, uses it to warp women’s professional value, to take away their time, and force them to develop skillsets they don’t want to use. I spend a lot of time fighting that urge now. I still get negatively judgment for not being great at admin/organization work and for not consistently volunteering for it, which honestly sucks. But I’d rather take the judgment and keep my time and skill development reserved for my actual job. I push back a lot on what my job is and what I do — I have skills and knowledge nobody else on my team does, and that’s the most valuable thing I bring to the table. The world may struggle to see that because of my gender, but I no longer do.
Thank you friend, for your candid and astute observations. You have always inspired me to be the best feminist I can be.
 Albeit with higher pay.