One More Barrier Faced by Women in Science

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Last week I peed all over myself in the name of studying climate change in Alaska. Gender barriers in science don’t always take an obvious form, and they get especially perilous in below-zero temperatures. Some of these involve individual’s malice or misogyny, but there is another set of barriers that simply result from being a woman in a male dominated field. If we continue ignoring those additional challenges by striving for equality instead of equity, the barriers will persist.

On a Thursday morning I put on my jacket and walked outside my cabin armed with a pink rubber funnel that claims it “allows you to pee while standing up. It’s neat. It’s discrete. It’s Hygienic.” What could go wrong?

The following week I would be flying to a remote part of Alaska to characterize peak snow in our study watershed. With forecast highs of 5° Fahrenheit, my best chance of staying warm was to wear overalls (or bibs, as Alaskan’s call them). Unfortunately, most bibs are designed with a fly, which is useless when my urinary tract doesn’t end in a conveniently directable hose. The alternative is a time-consuming fumble of taking off your parka before pulling down your bibs, squatting, and reversing; all of which means losing a lot of heat. 

I have a friend who claims to be able to drop her bibs without taking off her jacket, but not all of us can be that tricksie. I have another friend who tried to eschew the problem by not drinking water during 12-hour field when she was the only woman in her field crew.

I followed the directions that came with the pink rubber funnel, willed myself to relax enough to pee while standing up, and let go. A golden trickle came out of the funnel—but it mostly ran over my hand, down my legs and into my socks.

I wish I could explain to my male colleagues the combined feelings of failure and humiliation that accompany walking bowlegged in soggy bottoms back into my house. Pee dripped off the ends my pajamas and onto the rug where people stomp their boots.

Nevertheless, my job still needs to get done, and it’s still winter. What was there to do but buy a different style of funnel and try again the next morning?  At least this time I was prepared for extreme failure, so changed into the same socks and pants I soiled the day before. I’m guessing the men I work with do not have a pair of pants they designate as “the pair of pants I wear when I am going to pee all over myself.”

While I walked, soggy-socked back to my cabin for the second time, I quietly cursed the rule that prohibits us from buying field clothes on project money. There actually are bibs that have a butt flap (or “drop seat” if you prefer) that are specifically designed for women, but only the high end companies make them. I wasn’t super excited about spending $419 for a pair of Patagonia bibs (marked down from the original $599). They aren’t even insulated. It’s nearly impossible to find cheap women’s bibs: the largest used clothing store in town had an assortment of male bibs, but not a single pair made for women.

Starting at my two bosses and going up the chain of command that ends in the President of the University, every position is held by a white male. I firmly believe in the good intentions of each of those individuals, but I am not surprised when policies and practices are inequitable or missing perspectives. Representation matters.

All of the devices that promise to help women pee while standing up say to practice in the shower, so I spent Friday chugging water and scurrying down to the basement showers at work. For the first attempt, I played it safe and went completely nude, because you know, it’s not ideal to have even a shirt on when your hands are covered in your own piss. On the second pee I graduated to keeping my sweater on. On the third, I felt so bold as to attempt it with underwear. By the sixth time I went for broke and donned both underpants and a pair of insulated men’s work pants.

Glad to be done with an atypical work week, I spent Friday evening with friends, swapping stories and techniques on arctic urination. Afterwards I had my first successful outdoor stand-up pee. I was relieved, jubilant, and excited to return my focus to arctic hydrology.

It’s not that this challenge was career ending, and after a day of over-hydration, I would not have to repeat my urination re-education. However, this charade took time that I would have otherwise put towards improving the data logger program for a precipitation monitor in the Arctic, testing our new snow depth probe, or otherwise forwarding my career. No individual’s discrimination or hostility directly led to me peeing on myself; it’s just one more challenge of being a woman entering roles that are historically held by men.

On the third morning I woke up feeling victorious as I walked outside. But before long, defeat literally dampened that feeling as my socks absorbed the warm pee running down my legs. Long live the patriarchy.

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