How to Persevere in a Male-Dominated Field

How to Persevere in a Male-Dominated Field

Growing up in Atlanta, Gwen Rudie learned as a Brownie that the sky was the limit.

“There are lots of messages in society that girls can’t do all kinds of things—and Girl Scouts counters that at every turn,” she says. “I loved that we did everything under the sun.”

Rudie, now 33 and an observational astronomer at Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California, says that the encouraging messages of Girl Scouts stayed with her through her undergraduate years at Dartmouth College and many years of graduate and PhD studies at Cal Tech, continuing into her career.

Today, Rudie studies the chemical and physical properties of distant galaxies and travels to Chile several times a year, where she tests hypotheses about the formation of the universe, using gigantic telescopes installed in the mountains. Though her field continues to be male dominated, Rudie persevered throughout her education and has found success in her career. Read on to learn about the things that have made the biggest difference for her.

Imposter syndrome is real, but you can stand up to it.

“Something that’s very prevalent in academics is this idea of imposter syndrome, which means that you’re doubting your accomplishments. When that happens to me, I’ve found that it’s imperative to find ways to be confident in myself. This can be difficult if you’re in a field that’s dominated by men.”

“In undergrad, I was one of two women studying physics. I remember thinking that if I asked a dumb question, [my classmates would think] that women suck at science. I still face this at staff meetings. I have the respect of my colleagues, but it’s just like physics class all over again.”

No single mentor will check off all the boxes.

“This is especially true when you’re a minority in your field. I had truly remarkable scientific mentors, but the vast majority were men, and there were aspects of my life they won’t ever understand. Still, it’s impossible to state how important they were when it came to career advice, scientific advice, and being my champions.”

“For the handful of issues related to being a woman in science, I relied on female mentors. They weren’t easy to find, but it was worth the effort to make sure I had them to look to for advice.”

When you can, pay it forward.

“While the majority of my job involves doing scientific research, I spend a fair amount of time mentoring people in my building, and I also run an undergrad research program where we seek out underrepresented groups, including women and minorities.”

“I don’t feel like I would have been successful without my mentors, so I want to give back to the undergrads and postdocs in our building. I want them to know they can talk to me and that I will empathize and be creative. That’s what helped me along the way and that’s something I always want to pay forward to others."