Behind the Scenes: Language, Expertise, and the Cultural Mismatch for Women Scientists

"I Don't Know Everything, But Ethan Would Know" : Language, Expertise, and the Cultural Mismatch for Women Scientists

By Laura E. Hirshfield, PhD.

I have always found the concept of impression management fascinating, so I knew that I wanted to engage with Goffman’s work in my dissertation research. As a result, while investigating how gender influenced the experiences of graduate students in science, I focused on my participants’ dress, their use of artifacts/objects, and their emotional expression. However, I quickly learned that the most noticeable gendered differences among the chemists I observed involved different styles of interacting with others, which, in turn, seemed to impact how they were viewed as scientists.

My study reinforces that women in science tend to use interactional styles (such as hedging, self-deprecating comments, and disclaiming knowledge) that are less associated with scientific expertise and mastery, and as a result, these women may be less likely to be viewed as effective scholars. Unfortunately, as a woman academic in (social) science, I use many of these interactional styles, and was excruciatingly aware of them when I presented this work. Not only was I using styles of presentation less associated with mastery – I was highlighting the ineffectiveness of these styles in the very presentations I made using them! Over time, I have worked to claim expertise and avoid self-deprecation, while at the same time, worked to teach others that masculine styles of interaction should not necessarily be the gold-standard in science.


Using participant observation and interview data, I explore interactional styles that men and women chemists-in-training (graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) use to navigate expertise within their research groups. I find that men are more likely than women to employ styles that feature their expertise when in group situations, while women are more likely to minimize theirs. Specifically, I discuss peer-to-peer challenges and gender differences in self-deprecating comments, as well as the consequences of these tactics for success in the natural sciences.

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