It’s Blog Against Sexism Day.
There are those inclined to think that sexism is no longer an issue in science. Yes, it’s horrible that in the past women were kept from pursuing science and barred from science jobs. But now, the doors are wide open and anyone who wants to can be a scientist.
Things are surely better than they used to be. But it is not yet the case that a woman’s entry to science is just as easy and unproblematic as a man’s.
There is data around (Tara provides some here) about how much more leaky the science pipeline is for women than for men. There are those who have offered various explanations for this phenomenon other than discrimination against women, ranging from innate biological factors to rational economic calculations by the women themselves. In addition to the attempts carefully to discover a (non-sexist) explanation for the gender gap in science, there are the less careful proclamations of the punditry. The most concise digest of these proclamations that I’ve seen is “the paradox of the woman scientist” at Thus Spake Zuska:
Women don’t have the math skills to do good science. No, they do, but they’d rather stay home with their babies. Women who want to do science are ugly, poorly-dressed, man-hating dykes. Women who want to do science are so cute! How can you take them seriously when women are just so adorable. They distract men from their work by their mere presence. If women were such great scientists, they’d already be working at MIT/Cal Tech/Harvard. But no, women are being hired preferentially over men, and taking over the faculty.
And then, my very favorite paradox relating to women scientists: We are really committed to diversity because science and engineering need the talents of women if we are to remain competitive in this global marketplace. We just don’t want to lower standards.
Sing it, sister!
What is most galling, in some ways, is that the gender gap in science is laid at the feet of women — it must be due to their abilities (or lack thereof), or the choices they make in their education and training, or their inability to fit into the culture of science, which has been chugging along perfectly well for some time now. So you’re in a physics department and you’re not included in problem-solving sessions (or, you know, you’re regularly groped by a “colleague”)? You just have to get it into your head that the men in your department want to be left alone to do their work — toughen up and get your own work done. (Also, stop being “oversensitive to touch”, you big baby!)
Of course, when women do “toughen up” and start outperforming men academically, instead of recognizing their achievement, we tend to worry that the evaluation standards are unfair to men.
If you think you’re tired of hearing about the problem of women in science, try living it. It can suck the life right out of you.
I probably got by with the normal ration of sexist crap. I had the junior high math teacher who was convinced (and did not hide this conviction from his students) that Girls Just Cannot Do Math. Finishing geometry in one quarter so I could get the hell out of his classroom (for the matrix algebra class at the high school) was not just liberatory, but it let me give him a metaphorical poke in the eye. It did not, however, change his conviction about girls and math. I had the guidance counselor who was concerned that I was overloading with “hard” (i.e., math and science) courses when maybe it would be better if I took some home ec., or even a study hall.
As I went to a women’s college, I actually skipped the bulk of the classroom sexism I heard about from peers at other universities. None of my chemistry or physics professors started with the assumption that it was weird to have women in the classroom or the lab, which was nice. I did find out later that at least one of the professors had made offhand comments that chemistry majors at my alma mater probably weren’t “up to” graduate programs like the one I went to. Unless this professor was thinking that the graduate school experience should be all margaritas and hot stone massages, I have no idea what this impression was based on; in my graduating class, I was a fair to middling chemistry major — not one of the stars by any stretch of the imagination — and I was sufficiently “up to” the graduate program that I earned my Ph.D. in just over four years.
Of course, I got to bask in the sexism provided by students of a nearby technical school, which my boyfriend at the time happened to attend. Said boyfriend had taken to posting photocopies of each of my grad school acceptance letters on his door, proclaiming to the world (or at least to the frat) what a glorious geek his girlfriend was. After acceptance number 5 (out of 5 applications, to top-10 schools) was posted, a frat-brother said, “Wow, she must have applied to a lot of schools.” When told that the number of acceptances equalled the number of applications, he replied, “Ohh — affirmative action.”
Because clearly, how else could a chick (from a women’s college, no less) get into top graduate programs in chemistry?
And you know, that view was shared by at least some of the men in the graduate program I attended. Because nearly a quarter of our incoming class was female, it was clear that affirmative action had been in high gear during the admissions process. (Meanwhile, I was looking at the numbers and thinking, “Where the hell are the rest of the women?”) Women who did very good research, who got publishable results (and publications), and who got their Ph.D.s in four or five years (rather than six or seven) were frequently looked upon with suspicion. They must be getting extra breaks from the system. Or maybe it was that their research focus was not very … significant. (There were never any reasoned arguments to back up the claims that a particular research focus was trivial; it just must be, because … well, she’s doing it.) Meanwhile, of course, female TAs (in classes like thermodynamics) were treated with contempt by undergraduates. In instances where problem sets and solution sets disagreed about an answer, the fact that the solution set was prepared by a female was treated as reason enough to question its correctness.
Because women don’t really understand physical chemistry as well as men do (even, apparently, men who have not yet taken physical chemistry).
The fact that all of this garbage was clearly recognizable as garbage at the time didn’t make dealing with it any less tiresome. Some days there was barely enough energy just to do my own homework, grade the stacks of problem sets, and try to get things in the lab to function as they should. Keeping myself from punching the idiots in the nose took up energy I could have used for other things.
Idiots not withstanding, I made it through. I got my Ph.D. in physical chemistry.
And then I left science.
As I’ve noted before , my reasons for leaving science had a lot to do with the bigger issues I wanted to think about for a living, and the context in which I thought it best to think about them. But the fact remains: I leaked out of the pipeline. I could have improved the gender balance in science by one, and I didn’t. Instead of helping the sisters, I selfishly pursued my own happiness.
This, my friends, is the thing I hate most about pervasive sexism. It makes your personal choices important to others in a way that they wouldn’t be if you were just an ordinary human being. I have let down people I have never even met by leaving the sparse ranks of women scientists. I have also handed myself over to the pundits: one more example of a woman who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hack it in science.
We owe our daughters (and sons) a world where they can decide what to be, or what to do, based on what they’re good at, and what makes them happy, without their having to worry about breaking down barriers for someone else. I’m not sure how we get there from here, but admitting that the problem is real might be a good first step.