Site Meter Maxwell's Demoness: Gender Issues -- in which I vent in my own "personal" space.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Gender Issues -- in which I vent in my own "personal" space.

This rant was inspired by a recent Pharyngula post, in which he invited women to vent, which resulted in a lot of people saying a lot of stupid things.

I am Tired of hearing people trying to argue that there aren't barriers towards women in science. I am tired of hearing people argue that women stay out of science/math because they don't want to be there in the first place, that discrimination isn't an issue anymore.

Granted, I grew up in one of those conservative "square" states, but I have personally experienced:
  • Growing up with relatives and family friends telling me, sometimes repeatedly: "girls can't do science", "that's too hard for you," "girls don't need math", "all you need to know is how to balance your checkbook", "it's more important to learn how to bake a pie", "you can marry a scientist when you grow up", "why bother, you will have to quit when you get married/have a family", "why don't you teach science to kids instead?", "what do you want a microscope for, why don't I get you some pretty clothes instead?" etc.... my parents tried to prevent it, and my grandmother was once "grounded" from seeing me for a month for one of her comments, but it was pervasive.
  • Teachers telling me things like "oh, you're so good at English/Spanish/History, why would you want to get into science?
  • The embarrassment of being the first girl at my high school EVER to take the engineering course, and the fuss that was made about that (I had no idea when I signed up for it).
  • The embarrassment of being offered a "diversity" undergraduate scholarship to Dream Big School X that I didn't accept because I didn't feel like I had earned it.
  • College Chemistry/Math/Physics courses where I was obviously in the minority.
  • Being steered towards molecular biology as an undergrad because it's "less lonely" and actively discouraged by my counselor from taking advanced math classes beyond the requirements (and even though I took some, I have been hurting from not taking more for years)
  • Working for a lab (as an undergrad) where the PI told me one day that "Women make great techs and grad students because they are good at repetitive tasks like knitting and PCR, but they really aren't all that good at innovative thought and experimental design. You should keep that in mind as you plan your career." I didn't stay there much longer... The really sick thing is this guy actively recruits from the university's "get women into labs" internships (how I ended up there) because they are "good at repetitive tasks".
  • Finally getting into grad school, and having female faculty tell me I look "too much like a girl"
  • Still being drastically outnumbered half the time. It's about 50/50 in my "bio" classes, but in the "physics" classes I am still often the only girl, and I have yet to take a biophysics course where I am not the only American girl.
  • Sexist comments (from male students and faculty evaluators both) on my teaching evaluations.
  • Dealing with sexist behavior in male students.
  • Family members frequently encouraging me to quit grad school for various reasons, often invoking guilt about "family responsibilities".
  • The only time the lines to the ladies room are shorter is when I am at a conference....

That's just things I've dealt with, that I could think of off the top of my head, and I'm just about half-way through grad school.

It is tiring to constantly feel in the minority, to feel like you have something to prove, to feel like you have to be 10x better to get equal treatment and respect. It wears you out.

Speaking of which, I have to go check on a gel. Good night.


David Eaton said...

First, let me start off by saying that I'm white-bread male, so I know damned well I don't know what you are going through. I am so used to being the 'default setting' that asking me anything about patriarchy or white male privilege is like trying to get a fish to describe water. I'm too 'in it' to see it very clearly, I think. But I can deduce that it must exist.

I guess all I can say is that I deeply regret the milieu that you find yourself in, and I do recognize that it is incumbent on me and others like me to keep our eyes open for this kind of stuff, and to move to intercept and oppose it.

I admit that it will always be a struggle for me to be aware of injustice and discrimination. Everything good that has happened to me as a scientist has come because I shut everything else out except what I am doing. At least half of my best discoveries have been by accident, and came to fruition because I wander around in my own world, oblivious to everyone else and assuming that they are as content as I am. Clearly this is not the case.

You may have to remind people like me that it isn't all sunshine and puppies for women. Some people aren't going to listen, I'm sure, and that sucks. But some of us do care and want to push back.

Maxwell's Demoness said...


Thank you for your thoughtful response. I am fortunate that within the lab I am in now, this is not an problem. Most of the time, I can just ignore gender issues and go on with my science, merrily oblivious to pretty much the whole world. Other times, I can't; and when I can't, I get mad.

What I think is needed, is mostly time. Women haven't even been allowed the vote for a full century yet! We have gotten pretty far as a society in the last few generations, we just need to keep going that little bit further.