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.

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