Thus Spake Zuska

Experiences of International Women

This is the third of several discussion posts for Week 3 of Feminist Theory and the Joy of Science. You can find all posts for this course by going to the archives and clicking on Joy of Science in the Category section.

This post deals with the readings by Subramaniam and by Margolis, Fisher, & Miller (MFM). (Summaries are available here.)

I really wish that all of you could read “Snow Brown and the Seven Detergents”. There is actually a pdf version on the internet but I’m not linking to it because it seems to be a pirated version. First of it, it attributes authorship to Sue Rosser, not Banu Subramaniam. Second, it cites it as coming from a book that I am pretty sure it does not appear in. I can’t imagine who went to the trouble of typing this up and claiming it for Sue Rosser, who already has eighty-five gazillion publications to her name, but there you have it. It’s very disturbing to me to see this work being attributed to a white Western woman. Talk about erasures and invisibility!

Imagine how strongly you must be motivated to pursue your studies if you must: travel across an ocean, to a different country, where they speak a different language, eat different food, have different social norms, practice a different religion, and look different from you. Imagine further that your way of speaking, eating, behaving, worshipping, and looking are considered to be inferior in this new setting. Imagine all this, and add to it that you are female in place where males are more highly valued. There! Now you are a female international student in the U.S.!

Female international students suffer from hyper-visibility, as international students, due to their difference. Undergraduates will complain about them more readily as teaching assistants. At the same time, they suffer from a strange sort of invisibility as women.

Subramaniam writes:

Snow Brown…went to the House of Detergents and the sixth detergent washed her brownness away. She was now Snow White. She marched back to the Department of Scientific Truth. All the Patriarchs stared at her. They suddenly realized that what stood before them was a woman, and a beautiful woman at that.

“Well, am I white enough for the lot of you now?” she demanded.

“Oh! But you’re too pretty to be a scientist,” cried the Supreme White Patriarch. “But you can be a technician in my lab,” cried another.

I once was asked by a physics department to give a talk on the status of women in physics. During my talk I presented data on women in physics in general, and on women in the department I was speaking to. I was interrupted during my talk by one of the professors, who was seated near several international women graduate students, and who asked, “Are you talking about women students, or are you including international students in that?”

I answered, “Well, presumably, international women are women too.”

Time and again I encountered this notion that when we are counting women students, only U.S. women students count. But we cannot ignore the experiences of any group of women in science. And there is much to learn from international women.

MFM describe undergraduate international women students in computer science as having a very different motivation from the other students in their study. They come to computer science with a strong sense of their competence in math, and a desire to succeed in whatever they study. For many of them, computer science was just an accident; perhaps there was a scholarship available in their country to study computer science. Many of them have families dependent upon them and their success; failing or quitting is not an option. They persevere through will and hard work, and eventually come to develop interest in computer science as an “acquired taste”, as one student put it. MFM state that the international women do not seem to compare themselves to the hacker men as a reference group, perhaps because their ties to their families and motivation to succeed are more important factors. Of all students in the program, they enter with the least experience and lowest level of interest in computer science, but their hard work over time develops into mastery and satisfaction. This is a very different trajectory into the field than that of the hacker male.

International women could serve as very positive role models for all women in science. Rather than visiting the House of Seven Detergents to become more like the Supreme White Patriarch, perhaps they are the ones who have something to teach.


  1. #1 Lab Cat
    April 12, 2007

    Part of the problem is that Americans appear to be very conformist; at least on the outside. This makes them seem very cliquey and thus it is hard for “outsiders” to break in. They certainly don’t like having “their” system criticized or compared to other countries.

    Additionally, women who have travelled so far to pursue their careers are probably used to being assertive and respected in their own countries. Sadly, this is not part of the social norm in the US.

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