If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, why are scientists from Earth?

Solar system

I was lucky. When I was looking for an academic job in the early to mid-eighties, I looked to the success of the people who had graduated a few years before me to get some idea of my chances, naturally enough. To first order, it was pretty easy to calculate my chances. All the scientists a few years older than me had exactly the same success getting academic jobs: no success at all.

I admit to not finding this all that encouraging, but I nevertheless could not stop myself from working on science. And then, dumb luck came my way, as the job market for academics opened up at exactly the time I was looking for a position. At McGill, as a characteristic example, I and a few of my soon-to-be friends, were the first physicists hired in fifteen years. Versions of my story are shared by many scientists of my age (born in the mid to late 1950’s, a bit younger than baby-boomers). We could not stop ourselves from working on science despite the apparent long odds, and luck came our way. I don’t mean crazy world-changing, lottery-winning luck, I just mean lucky. If you want to be a scientist, you should really want it, because on top of everything else, you might just have to be a little lucky.

I have talked several times to renowned neuroscientist Brenda Milner, and I have heard her speak on many occasions. It is always a pleasure; her work on memory and cognition from the 1950’s onward is remarkable, influential, and important, and she is a wonderful generous person. Recently I attended a “Women in Science” event, where Brenda was one of four distinguished speakers. All the speakers said what I wrote above. They could not stop themselves from working on science. They did not think about the long odds or what was the smart thing to do. Science was what they had always wanted to do, and they committed themselves completely to doing it. In fact all scientists, women and men, feel like this. And Brenda said one other thing, which I had heard her say before, but I think I finally truly heard for the first time. She smiled and said modestly, I was lucky. Like everyone in the audience, a little voice inside my head went, pshah, you are so humble Brenda, you’re a world-renowned neuroscientist who changed our understanding of how the brain works, you are one of the people who make us all proud to work at McGill.

And then I finally heard what she had said, and I understood the crazy world-changing, lottery-winning luck that even a formidably-talented woman scientist might need to be a success in the 1950’s. Things clicked in my head as I remembered something. My mother was a biochemist – her second choice of profession – because she was told at her University in the 1950’s that she could not pursue an MD because she would become a Mrs. As I alluded to above, indeed that is what happened. I heard this story from my Mom many times, and it sunk in.

Are men from Mars and women from Venus? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I am suspicious of pop psychology where three and a half billion people are supposed to be one way, and another three and a half billion are another. I’ve met a lot of women and men scientists, and I find them to be pretty much the same. They are smart, dedicated, intensely curious – and lucky to be working on what they love. Part of my job, and for all academic administrators like me, is to ensure that those people who have to do science need only a little luck, and not crazy world-changing, lottery–winning luck to achieve their goals.

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