Experiment #6.3: OK, I am going to talk about this

Since I published Experiment #6.1, there has been a continued dull roar for months about how this is outrageous, etc. About once a week, I get an email from someone I know (or sometimes a total stranger) elucidating their thoughts and feelings about the post. There is a consistent theme that keeps showing up in these emails, phone calls, and in-person conversations though - people want me to either provide specific examples from my own experiences of where things went south for me or they want directions as to how they can make it better.

For the former (specific examples) - you're unlikely to get them from me. Why in the world should I outline every unfair thing that has happened to me in the past 8 years? Sure, it might feel good to vent, but in reality, I don't want to be challenged and I don't want to be told "well, I am sure there is a reason they did that". Sorry for the language, but who the fuck cares? It already happened - you can't change that these things happened to me and other women and if you question it, you're not helping me move on much.

For the latter, I've been hesitant. I want to move on, I want to start my new life in Seattle, and I want to just accept the fact that academia and space science is not the right career path for me. By providing directives, I'm suddenly responsible and have to invest time in clearly outlining a plan and ensuring it works. I've avoided all opportunities to do this because it's hard work and, once again being frank, I wanted to ride my bike and enjoy my post-PhD life for a bit. This is part of the reason it's hard for women in science - they are not only expected to deal with the ramifications of the above paragraph, but then they have a 'social obligation' to make things better for other women. It ends up meaning a lot of time spent working on tasks that they aren't paid to do.

But here I am... I'm cracking, and in a way, I hate that I am cracking because I am upset with an email sent out at the University of Michigan by men and women devoting time to make things better for women/transgender/etc. I am going to say something because I actually think I have something useful to say that might be enlightening for those of you actively thinking about Experiment #6.1 still. Here's the email sent out to parts of the university as a general audience email:

Let's dissect a bit: what are some responses to this email? If your response was:

OMG I can't believe this happened/is still happening

then: read no further in this blog post. You were the intended recipient of this email - it was meant to shock you and force you to realize that this is still happening (it is, really). Instead, you should go talk to some women in careers that are not typically female stereotyped careers. Listen to them, be supportive, and realize that these types of biases are inescapable for women in engineering. Inescapable.

If your response was:

I feel really sad. 

then: this post is for you. Here was my response:

I feel really sad. 

I feel hopeless. 

I feel like if this is happening to others too, and it's happened to me, then it must be happening to lots of people. 

That means that this is what most men or a lot of them think of me. 

I wonder if this will ever stop. 

Wait, I already have a PhD. I already made it. Why do I feel sad? I was able to do it. Why is this happening again? I feel like I should show everyone I know this post, but I also feel terrible right now. 

And this is why I am speaking up - this email was meant to make men and women wake up and realize that this is still happening, in their classrooms, in their study sessions, and in their research groups. However, for the set of those who this email was supposed to benefit and try to make things better for, it just made me feel worse and more hopeless. I'm someone's girlfriend... and I think I'm pretty smart sometimes but I wonder if everyone thinks my boyfriend is forever more intelligent than I am?

So how could have this been written differently

Imagine instead this email ended with "the female student who was told she could never pass the class ended up getting a A and the male professor was fired for sexual discrimination and mental abuse of a student" or "the female student who was told that it was so easy their girlfriend could do it ended up working at Lockheed Martin and managing a division that had several of her classmates in it".

The email still has the original content, but suddenly women who read this email have an underlying message of "Look - if you've had this happen to you too, you can make it". How beautiful is that? It can also be frustrating (I admit) like you're being held to some impossible 'tough woman' bar. You shouldn't have to be a tougher woman to get a degree in science versus humanities.

At the same time though, when I inserted those statements into the above email and reread it, I felt really strong. I felt angry ("why is this still happening?!") but I also felt this beautiful, pure sense of rightness, like I want others to succeed too. I want those two women to thrive and to go on to realize their potential. That they've been hurt is unchangeable and maybe we can work towards preventing unnecessary damage in the future, but we also need to celebrate our successful women and find ways to connect them with those starting out. This is why in my thank you video I had so many female mentors to thank - they made sure I realized I was like them.

So that is my two cents and a total opinion piece here - but I think if we want to make things better for women in science, we have to start listening and we have to start trying to show the women that they can be successful (hint: there are happy, successful women in science who have also had terrible things happen to them) rather than punishing the culprits (hint: it's not going to happen). I would love to hear some comments about this... let's keep the discussion going.



Unknown said...

Really good comments, Lois. Thank you; it's helpful for me to look at it this way in order to frame it. I feel like conversations around minority gender/race/etc representation in STEM fields are often so steeped in negativity that it actually places a greater burden on the under-represented person at times. I've never put that idea fully into words though until you wrote this out. Perhaps we can change our methods of discussing these things in a way that doesn't hide the ugly truth, but also empowers the people oppressed by it.

Some thoughts of mine in no particular order. As a transgender person, the weight of low expectations hangs pretty heavy on me. Not only is the general media image of us very negative (we're all in poverty or dying of suicide it seems) but there is almost no visibility for trans people in STEM fields. My experience has been a disorienting one. I started by getting my bachelors and masters degrees as a woman (with the narrative "most women don't make it in this field" hanging over me and enforced by my peers and one professor). I transitioned to male when I went to my PhD program where I traded dealing with less sexual harassment for dealing with more tokenism and less privacy and less visible support. Now the narrative was "do people like you EVER succeed in this field?" I imagine this is felt even more keenly by trans women.

Now I'm not interested in trying to argue which is better or worse, but simply to point out that our white-cis-male-centric system causes problems across the board because there seems to be so little awareness of the very real barriers facing women, people of color, people with disabilities, transgender people, etc. At GEM I started a public discussion during a forum about whether or not anyone knew if their university or workplace had resources or support for transgender people. No one knew of any. A well-meaning woman did speak up, suggesting that transgender people advocate for themselves during job interviews by asking their potential employer up-front if there were support or professional networks for transgender people at the workplace and, if not, suggest support they would like. I sat biting my tongue, remembering the time that I'd been told in only slightly more polite words "people like you need not apply" when job hunting for adjunct positions. I was remembering the persistent fears that I had that no adviser would want to take on a transgender student because of the biases against us that I was so familiar with (we have too many medical problems, we aren't emotionally stable, we will be too much work, we won't be successful.) I was remembering how the extreme tokenism that I experience as the only out transgender person in my department places an unreasonably high pressure on me to succeed for fear of reflecting bad on all transgender people.

I don't think most people are aware of these struggles (and fair enough, I'm not blaming people for not knowing things that are almost never talked about). But I guess I just wanted to put that out there since the conversation is open. Let's talk about it. Acknowledge the problems but let's also be empowering. Let's stop feeding only the narrative that everything is terrible and start raising the visibility of underrepresented people who can be mentors, role models, and proof to the rest of us that we can and do succeed.

David Mackler said...

In my lifetime I have seen far too much of this. During my undergraduate years at Embry Riddle we had an incredibly sexist thermodynamics professor who said almost the exact same things to the female students in his class. Repetitively. Thankfully he was eventually stripped of his tenure and fired but it took about four years. Four years of discriminating and discouraging women from their dreams. This was probably my first encounter of outright sexist abuse and it made me sick. I spent eight years in the military in the hopes of preserving our country's ability to provide freedom, freedom for ALL. I have never understood why some men (and yes Lo it is just some, not all or most) feel empowered by belittling others. Besides in my opinion we should be entrusting the intellectual tasks to women in general. Men can be distracted by ego and testosterone. My boss is a woman and is a damned fine scientist. Kristie is probably one of the smartest women I have ever met and I was continuously amazed be her. Don't be discouraged, it is just a matter of time (although probably too much) for society to catch up.