During my first meeting with the Empower lab, I recall looking around the room at the all-female team as each research assistant spoke about their impressive background, their passions, and what drove them to work for Empower and smiling to myself. Just one year ago, I was having a polar opposite experience. 

At a young age, I was told women in the sciences have the odds stacked against them. I never fully understood what people meant by this. I excelled at math and the sciences and when I decided I wanted to be a doctor in high school, I was never deterred against doing so. I only truly understood why women in the sciences needed to be empowered when I began working in clinical research. 

The image of my boss’ belittling smirk is still engrained in my mind. I would see this smirk every time I had an idea he did not like or a question he thought was stupid (recall this was my first research experience). I would see this smirk when he was shocked that I had basic knowledge I had learned from my classes and previous experience. The boys never received this treatment. I recall one instance in which my boss asked all the male interns to help him move some boxes in his other office and insisted that none of the girls do it. I remember becoming so enraged at this blatant sexism that I challenged him during one of our team meetings. I insisted that I could move the boxes, despite his and the other male intern's doubts, and that I should come with him. Again, he smirked at me and shut me down. Turns out the boxes that were too heavy for women to move were empty cardboard boxes. I hated that smirk because I felt like I was amusing to him, like a pet rather than a human. 

Not only did I have to face sexism from my boss, but also from the patients at the hospital I worked at. Everyday walking into work I was catcalled. Everyday in the hallway I was catcalled. During screenings, patients would use belittling language that showed they did not respect me or my position. I hated it. 

In my then 18 years of living, I was used to being treated differently because of my gender. In my public middle school, there was a dress code regarding only female attire. In my all-girls Catholic high school, I had to attend etiquette classes and was taught how a lady should act. I recall one instance in which our etiquette teacher judged my classmates and I for not having boyfriends. While I was previously exposed to sexism, I was unaccustomed to facing it alone. I was always surrounded by other women facing the same issues. We empowered each other to speak up and they taught me that it was ok to be angry at our mistreatment. When I faced sexism at the work place for the first time, I felt like I was alone. 

It took some time for me to remember I wasn’t alone. Women scientists who broke glass ceilings in the past and those breaking them now, feminists, and the strong women in my life were right there behind me, supporting me and inspiring me. These women fired me up to go to work every day and demand respect from my superiors and from my patients. These women empowered me to quit my previous job and start working with a group of intelligent, passionate women researchers who support each other's endeavors and who strive to make the lives of vulnerable women around the world better.

Nicole AceroComment