How Male Biology Students See Their Female Peers, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, Ed tackled a new study showing how a group of bio undergrads at the University of Washington overrated the abilities of male students above equally talented and outspoken women. Sharing an anecdotal perspective, a reader talks about “my own (female) experiences in undergraduate biology and computer science and now in graduate research”—and it was a mixed bag:

1. I got a lot more “aggressive” when I switched into CS. By this I mean I was forced to openly debate and critique ideas with my peers. The transition was not about having to think critically but to be able to vocalize these thoughts. Nothing was expected of me that other students didn’t also have to do.

On this side of things, I’m glad I developed that ability, because people who don't speak up in grad school really are sidelined by their peers and mentors. This is as it should be. There is nothing more annoying than trying to debate an idea with people who won’t put forth their own arguments or defend them (i.e. you end up talking to yourself).

2. This new “aggressive” manner has spilled over into my social interactions as well, with not so great results.

To me, I feel like I am being more genuine in conversation, more willing to assert what I think and not just quietly agree with what other people are saying. Perhaps this comes off in a very disagreeable fashion. Is this direct manner more poorly received because I am a woman? I really couldn’t tell you. But one thing’s for sure; I am not treated the same way as my female peers by my male peers.

3. Riffing on my previous line, do I like being treated as one of the guys? Actually, no. I’m not sure where the discomfort comes from and whether it is justified. Is it possible to be treated “like a woman” but also be seen as equal to a man in every way? I’m not sure that’s even possible. Is this discomfort enough to make me want to go quiet again? Hell no.

Email us if you have any similar experiences—or radically different ones. Another reader sounds off:

I regret it now, but at school, I (and seemingly most of my male and female peers) saw the entire subject of biology as primarily a feminine science, as opposed to gender-neutral chemistry and masculine physics. As children we must have learned that bias from our society. I often wind-up any female who introduces themselves as a scientist by guessing what type of biologist they are. If they are outdoorsy and extrovert, then they must be a marine biologist. If they are bookish and serious, they must be a micro-biologist. And if they punch me, they’re a physicist.

I can relate; my younger cousin is getting her Ph.D. in physics and works at the Joint Institute for Lab Astrophysics in Boulder, focusing on the development of an interferometer based on ultracold atoms trapped in an optical lattice, and she could totally kick my ass.

Meanwhile, Adrienne just got a charming email from a reader on her gender-bias-in-science-reporting piece (which another reader criticized here), responding to her callout for women working in robotics:

Direct your own chat-bots to