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To bake, or to not bake

Laboratory/science communities are not immune to the biases surrounding the role of women. In this post, the Femina Sci team discusses the ‘cookie dilemma’, how this issue relates to certain roles assumed for women, and how modern women scientists embrace or reject roles that are traditionally feminine or masculine.

Do you bring cookies to/bake cookies for lab meeting? Why or why not?

(We want to hear your answer too! Respond to our Twitter poll by clicking on the image above or tweet at us using #cookiedilemma to share your response!)

Mal: I like to bake. I’ve happily whipped up birthday cakes for myself piled high with pink frosting and extra sprinkles. I look forward to blowing through pounds of butter during the holidays, and I’m currently watching The Great British Bake Off. That being said, my enthusiasm to bring my baking hobby into my professional science sphere is more subdued. Julie: There are a lot of really good bakers at my current place of employment, both male and female, so I just make cookies (or scones or pie) when I want to, and so does everyone else. Ashley: Depends on if I have to bake them or not, haha. All joking aside, several scientists I know (both men and women) have baking tendencies and bring their baked goods to meetings. I believe these people tend to find great pleasure (and stress relief!) in the process of baking and in sharing with their friends and colleagues - and I love eating them! That said, I think social stigmatisms associated with “who will bring snacks?” to lab meeting remain. In my personal experience, I do not tend towards bringing snacks naturally nor have I ever had explicit external pressures to do so. Thea: I think it depends heavily on the reason for doing it. If you’re baking because you feel like you ought to, or it’s your duty, then you almost definitely shouldn’t, but if you actually love baking, then it’d be a shame to hold back for fear of playing into stereotypes. For example, when you love to bake, but live alone, it’s especially nice to have a group of people to share a batch of cookies or a pie with. Sheila: If asked, I’d bake cookies for lab meeting. However, I appreciate being able to reflect on my response here. Before becoming a Femina Sci contributor, I honestly wouldn’t have spent much time thinking about whether my decision to bake/not bake cookies for lab meeting played into or had any influence on other people’s perception of my role in the lab. I’d bake cookies because bringing them would be helpful. Specifically, I’d be more certain that my labmates weren’t hungry and had high enough blood sugar levels to process content and provide constructive feedback during the meeting. And not to mention, I find creative value in baking and cooking.

Do any personal cookie dilemma experiences come to your mind? Julie: I encountered this dilemma almost immediately when I started grad school. One of the two female professors in our department led our first-year seminar course in which each student took turns giving presentations throughout the semester. The presenter for the day was expected to bring some sort of snack for everyone, but there was one rule: women were not allowed to bake. Initially I found this absurd, but after six years of grad school, I could see her point. From my own experiences, and observations of the dynamics between the largely male faculty, its (few) female members as well as (unsuccessful) female job candidates that came through while I was there, I could see that women were up against many gender stereotypes just by doing science while female. What she was telling us was: why make things harder for yourself by getting labelled as the baker, the provider, the Mom? There’s nothing inherently wrong with being any of those things, but if you’re looking to advance in your field of science, perhaps you wouldn’t want your delicious cookies, or how good you are at feeding people, to be the first thing that someone thinks of when they hear your name. While in grad school, I ultimately heeded her advice, but fast forward a couple years, I was late to contribute to this particular FeminaSci discussion because I was busy baking a pie for Pi Day at the lab. I baked it because I love pie, couldn’t wait to eat everyone else’s pies, and I was excited to experiment with a new crust-making technique I’d found on the internet.The crust turned out great--the technique is discussed here, if anyone’s curious. Thea: During my postdoc, I was in an amazing lab that was full of really excellent women scientists and people who loved to bake and it wasn’t unusual for even just a regular lab meeting to end up with 2-3 full-on cakes, pies, etc. I never questioned whether bringing in baked goods would undermine my authority - if anything, producing a really stellar loaf would earn respect - the running joke was that you had to be a good baker to be admitted as a lab member. However, in grad school, I found the widespread tradition of bringing food or baking treats for your qualifying exam and defence really weird, for a bunch of (not necessarily gendered) reasons. First, it felt a bit like bribery - your science should stand on its own - you shouldn’t need to sweeten people up! Second, students are so stressed right before these exams - the last thing they should have to worry about is baking a stellar spread of baked goods. Third, unless you’re holding your exams at some weird time (like over supper time), you can safely assume your committee members can fend for themselves, in terms of feeding themselves. Being on your committee is part of their job - you don’t need to reward them somehow. Now that I’m running a lab, we don’t often have baked goods at our lab meetings, but I usually have a kettle of water, mugs, and tea for everyone, which is a healthy way to create a welcoming environment. Like Julie’s lab, we just celebrated Pi(e) Day, where everyone made pies, which were all delicious! Ashley: For me, I enjoy bringing treats to lab meeting very spontaneously and usually something I’ve picked up on a trip. In the moments before the official meeting I get to share a unique treat with my colleagues and share snippets of stories from my trip. It’s one way I connect with my colleagues and share a piece of myself, not just work details. My bonds with people strengthen, and I feel my colleagues are not only part of my network, but that they are my community. As far back as we know, humans have connected over food. So I bring treats only when the mood strikes me and enjoy connecting with my community when I do, but I refuse to let prolonged silences pressure me into bringing treats because it’s “my duty as a woman”. Here is a treat that I once shared after a trip to Europe - enjoy with coffee!

Ok, we admit it. This post isn’t actually about cookies. What does the cookie dilemma say about the larger issue of how assumed gender roles influence workplace communities? Ashley: I recognize that when the question comes up about who will bring snacks to the next meeting, almost always it’s women who volunteer first. Does this arise from some sense of womanly duty (a lingering vestige from our previous status and expected gender roles in society) or because they genuinely what to bring food to share? Do the men that remain silent in the room expect that some woman will assume this task and that the question does not pertain to them? What happens in people’s minds during that moment of silence before someone chimes in? It’s hard to say. Mallory: I am increasingly sensitive to the cultural expectations surrounding roles traditionally reserved for women (i.e., domesticity, including baking). More often the numerous overlapping identities of science technology engineering and math (STEM) women are ranked by society as a ‘woman who is also a scientist’ as opposed to a ‘scientist who is also a woman,’ and fulfilling these gender stereotypes can calcify this thinking. However, my feminism also allows space to reclaim these same roles with empowerment, so my feelings are nuanced and ultimately dictated by the work environment, interpersonal interactions, and power hierarchies (i.e., clear distinction about whose ideas are more valuable to the lab based on seniority). For instance, in a lab culture with a prevalent hierarchy and/or male dominance, I have felt more vulnerable in my identity as a scientist and consequently shied away from sharing homemade treats. I’m lucky that in my current position, lab members of all genders and all positions (i.e., undergrads to lab techs to faculty) routinely bring in home baked goodies and lab snack. Everybody loves lab snacks, so it’s great when it feels equitable. Sheila: In reflecting on agreeing to bake cookies, I’ve realized it’s important to consider my own needs/wants as well as my scientific productivity. Saying ‘No’ to bringing/baking cookies gives me the option to, say, spend more time doing science. This resonates with me because several recent podcasts (see Code Switch’s discussion with director Ava DuVernay and Ana Marie Cox's conversation with MTV news culture writer Ira Madison III on With Friends Like These) have talked about how placing additional burdens on underrepresented populations makes it more difficult for them to achieve equality. In terms of the cookie dilemma example, by saying ‘Yes’ to baking (or by others’ asking me to bake), I’m expected to be a successful baker as well as a successful scientist. With that said, maybe one aspect of building scientific communities is promoting an environment like Mallory, Julie, and Thea describe, where people don’t feel pressured one way or the other to, for example, bake cookies for lab meeting. I also like the idea of making expectations clear from the start like in Julie’s first-year seminar course.

If anyone wants to send us cookies, these are our personal favorites:

Thea has to recommend the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission’s farmland cookies. Sheila loves peanut butter blossoms. Mallory is fond of these orange chocolate shortbread cookies. Ashley is looking for volunteers to bake her these delicious brownie pillow cookies. Julie’s go-to cookies are ginger snaps.

We welcome new contributor Thea as well as Sheila, Mallory, Ashley, and Julie for participating in this week's panel discussion.

Photography by Armanda Roco