16 May 2006

When does sexism start?

Sclerotic rings got me to thinking about when girls drop out of science, or when they're pushed out. This got me to recounting my own experiences (or mostly lack thereof) with sexism in my studies...

My parents raised me to think anything was possible, so when I struggled with math in elementary school it was an individual personal failling, not because I was a girl. When I got to math that wasn't just about memorizing anymore but instead was about logic and connections (i.e., geometry, algebra, and higher), I actually did well in it, so I had no phobia at all. However, I never saw the point of it. As for science, well I did well in it, probably because of my electrical engineer father, but I wasn't really interested in it either. Until I took physics and made the connection between the formulae which I was good at manipulating, and the things going on around me in nature that I was good at understanding. Put the two together and a love was born.

With my best friend (J***) I went from high school physics to AP physics, enjoying every last proof (except when a sliding bowling ball starts rolling, I think I get that one now). And then, near the end of my senior year in high school, the other girl in the class came up to us and told us how sexist she thought the teacher was. My best friend and I blinked, looked at each other, blinked some more, and turned back to the girl entirely confused. I think she just wasn't doing well in the class and interpretted it as sexism, because she never presented any evidence whatsoever.

J*** went on to study chemical engineering; I went on to study physics. I never considered an all women's school - it's not realistic, so I saw no reason to handicap myself but not continuing to work with guys. My entering class was 4 men, 2 women. All of us graduated on time, but only 3 men and myself in physics. All of us dual majored in something - myself and two others in Math, the last man in Ceramic Engineering. Three of us and the other girl who entered in physics (and left in math) also minored in astro. Two of my male compatriots told me they thought our physics professors were actually reverse discriminatory. I had never observed this, and they again did not have tangible evidence, but in a moment of candor I actually confronted my mentor with the men's opinion. He said he didn't think he was doing so, and sounded surprised at the accusation. He felt that he was giving both men and women students equal opportunities, based upon their abilities. But, he confided, if he really was encouraging us two women more than the men, it simply made up for the many years where women weren't allowed to do science at all.

Throughout most of my college career I was in the minority in classes - usually around a third of us were women in physics, rising to maybe a half in math. It was small number statistics though, as physics classes were often less than ten students. In physics and astronomy classes I paired up with my friends in the same major - Observational Astro first semester there were four of us majors/minors on the same telescope; E&M had me and the other girl with one of the guys. I was good at the theory, she was good at performing the experiment, he was good at doing the calculations. We made a great team - until I TA'd the course and realized I didn't know how any of the equipment worked. I had to admit it to the prof, too.

In one engineering class I took, I paired up with a non-traditional student, as he was the only other hard worker. After finals, he and the other engineers went to check their grades, which were posted outside the prof's door. He told me later what they said to each other. He said "that A's me," and they replied "and that one must be the girl." It wasn't until he told me this story that I became aware that there was only one other girl in the class.

I wasn't actually sure of a confirmed case of sexism, unfortunately with myself as victim, until graduate school, from the graduate program director (GPD). Some of the comments he made to me:
  • "If you only want to teach, you should reconsider whether you want a PhD." This is discouraging, but not explicitly sexist.
  • "You're not as smart as your classmates." This is HORRIBLE, but again not overtly discriminatory rather than judging me individually.
  • "Its a good thing you broke up with your boyfriend because if you were still dating him you'd have to take care of him, like cooking for him, and that would take time from your studies." Bingo.

He had many similar comments for other female grads in the department, such as explicitly telling one woman in the department that she wasn't as smart as her own fiancee, also in our department. These things happened overwhelmingly to the women graduate students, not the men. We communicated instances of his discouragement to the department chair - but through grad student representatives, without individual names, and therefore without genders - and we were always brushed off. Perhaps we would've had better luck if the women grads had gone to him personally as a group, but we didn't want to make ourselves vulnerable that way. It wasn't until after I left that a concerted effort was made by the grads (male and female) to air specific grievances against the GPD. Upon hearing these, he resigned from the position, though he is still a member of the department, and no official complaint was lodged anywhere. Shockingly to me, a group of grads then protested his resignation - despite the fact that they had the opportunity to dissent at any time prior to the main grads presenting their statement - but less shockingly these were all mainland Chinese males, as was the GPD.

*Sigh* That whole event still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, and a weight in my heart. If many girls have to put up with that sort of crap from day one, it's no wonder they're leaving science in droves. But to any girls or women out there reading this blog: It's not gonna be easy, but there are going to be MANY people along the way who will support you and help you. I still keep in touch with a number of my mentors throughout the years. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.


flint cordoroy said...

whether the man expects it or not, women in relationships typically try to control what he eats, wears, and how he decorates his apartment. Since the Man usually doesn't care about this as much as the liberated woman, the woman busies herself preoccupied with these things. It isn't a certainty, but it happens quite a bit.

Craig said...

Very nice and thoughtful post.

As a current (male) astro grad student I am only too familiar with the massive gender imbalances in the field.

We often end up discussing how exactly this situation arose and despite throwing a few ideas around (culture; lack of current female rolemodels; institutionalised sexism) still find it very hard to understand how such a huge gender divide still exists today.

I'd be interested to know if you have any insight on this.

zandperl said...

I'm curious whether there are actual unbiased studies that support the commonly held belief which you assert (that women try to control various things in the house), as well as studying the cause of it. I suspect it is probably true, but that it is not so much because individual women would prefer to do those aspects of a relationship, but because tradition dictates that men don't.

From my personal experience however, I am not the domestic one in relationships. And again, scientist that I am, I wonder whether this is typical in relationships where the woman is in traditionally male-dominated fields. :-P

Well, astronomy is still better than the rest of the physical sciences - see this post for more info and links to statistics from the American Institite of Physics (AIP). They found that the gender gap is closing just as fast as it should with more women entering the fields of physics and astronomy; that is, there is no leaky pipeline.

There are two aspects to the gender gap: the percentage of women entering science/technology, and the percentage that leave the field (the "leaky pipeline"). (I'm afraid I don't have references for my assertions below, but I will look them up some day.) For the former, the key age is middle school when girls' science and math grades start dropping below boys'. This may be caused directly through gender bias in middle school teachers, or indirectly through cultural norms that say girls/women can't do science. The latter is caused once the women are actually in college, and can again either be direct gender bias, or the indirect lack of supportive teaching styles and social networks. Studies have shown that women students who have support in the form of clubs and study groups are more likely to succeed in science.

I'm hoping that as more women get PhD's in science and move up to tenured faculty that they'll help change the culture in academia for women. It'll take time though - my department had ONE woman faculty member, compared to something like 20 men. She was also a nutcase (believed in - and TAUGHT - astrology, can you believe it?!), so it was no wonder that none of us women felt like we had support in the department.