I am a postdoc in a male dominated science field. At the last department Christmas party, I was about 5 months pregnant. I was talking to a senior male professor and a new junior female professor. Without me bringing up the pregnancy, the male professor told me how his wife tore giving birth and asked if I planned to receive an episiotomy (an incision “down there” to guide tearing during childbirth). Luckily the young female professor was horrified at this extremely personal question and advised me not to answer it, although I would not have anyway. I have heard other stories of this professor making female graduate students uncomfortable by standing too close, putting a hand on their shoulders, etc earning him a sexist reputation among the department’s young women.
I just attended one of the plenary lectures at the APS mid-atlantic meeting, which was given by a female physicist. During the Q&A section, the second question was an undergrad who asked what is a graviton. Her answer was pretty concise and along the lines of “A graviton is a particle that carries gravity. It’s analogous to a photon, which carries electromagnetic force. For this project, we are studying things on such a macro scale that we don’t need to think about these particles. Instead, we just focus on gravitational waves.” She paused and then asked him, “Did I answer your question?” To which he replies, “Sure,” in a somewhat condescending way. The next person to ask a question was a much older. He began his question with, “Now, you’re going to have to listen carefully to my question in order to answer it.”
I somehow suspect that if she were a man, neither of these people would feel so comfortable being condescending. She’s well-established in her field; what kind of condescending remarks should I expect as a researcher who is just starting out?
During a faculty interview, I met with a fairly prominent faculty member who informed me that my research interests were not aligned with the rest of the departmental subgroup that I had applied for. Despite this, he was willing to advocate for me in the hiring decision meeting, as I was an “opportunity hire” as a woman. He then proceeded to say that I would have been a sure hire with the dean if I had indicated I was also of the same religious sect as the university on their voluntary disclosure form.
So you’d consider my gender above my research merits, and you’re convinced I would fail in the department anyway. Sound investment strategy.
I feel that much of the sexism underlying STEM is illustrated in how you are treated on a day to day basis, rather than isolated vignettes of individual attacks. One of the side-effects of being a woman in STEM is that your male colleagues/classmates will comment on your appearance (in a more pointed way than they do with each other). It becomes clear that many have conflicting views of what a woman should look like, and what a woman in engineering should look like, but it sounds okay and not malicious because they’re “joking” about it.
– being asked if I’m “slumming it” one day when I was dressed more casually than normal (his dress code is not exactly on par)
– comments on my hair length — “what’s with the boy hair”, “maybe one day your hair’ll get short enough and you can pass for a guy”
and on the flip side, when I (or other female classmates) wear a skirt, cosmetics, etc., we’ll be asked “who are you trying to impress” or “got a hot date”.
And yet, when called out on it, accusations of sexism are roundly denied…
There is a male professor for whom numerous rumors over many years point toward a sexual predator who allegedly preys on the undergraduates in an aggressive/violent manner. Hypothetically, let’s say Professor “Bonaparte” is a faculty member at a premier mathematics department at a top public university in northern California. A couple of years ago, he was elected to the National Academy. My first reaction was “now, they will never do anything about him, even if someone complains.”
A male visitor to the department once told me he hated this professor. They had been graduate students together in the department where Professor Bonaparte was now employed. The visitor said he hated Professor Bonaparte based on the stories he used to tell about women, about “throwing them up against the wall” and so on. One of the male graduate students in the department also hated him, saying Professor Bonaparte had attacked his girlfriend after inviting her to his office late in the evening to discuss her exam. Professor Bonaparte’s own secretary told stories about him also, including him coming into her office to to say things like “I really have to stop dating these 19 year olds.”
I will never forget being a TA in Professor Bonaparte’s course. It was a large lecture, but he clearly had a favorite female student to whom he would ask questions and banter during the lecture. She was smart and cute and excited to be there. One day she sat looking crestfallen, and her demeanor remained this way for the rest of the semester. Their banter stopped. I have always wondered if he did something to her. I believe in my heart that he did. I regret that I did not approach her and ask if everything was ok.
I hope someone finally reports Professor Bonaparte. He is a sick bastard if even a fraction of the rumors about him are true.
A few years ago when I was applying to graduate school, I had a few interviews at one school with a few faculty members in the department, including the dean. The dean asked which faculty members I would be interesting in working with, and I mentioned one of the female professors in the department. He immediately began trashing her work and her character. He kept disparagingly referring to her “silly little [devices she invented and won a bunch of prestigious awards for]”.
If they treat the female faculty that way in the department, how am I ever going to get support as a female graduate student? No thanks.
I know you’re the boss but….
During a summer internship I worked at a national lab where I was under the direction of a female mentor who was the project director, overseeing ~ 30 people.
During one lunch meeting with some representatives from an outside contractor, I observed that she and I were the only women at the table (we had brought one male colleague with us and all of the other representatives were male).
I didn’t recognize this until I realized that no one was making eye contact with me or speaking directly to me. I wrote it off to me being the intern… until I realized they were doing it to my mentor too, clearly the most senior person in the conversation. She would speak and ask them a question, and they would acknowledge the question and then turn to her male (subordinate) colleague in order to answer it. If they had questions, they posed them to my male colleague even if my mentor was the most prepared to answer them.
I brought it up with her and the male colleague after the meeting and he brushed it off, but she took me aside and said that its something she sees regularly, even though she’s a project director and her female boss oversees the *entire* department.
Before beginning my story, it is important to know that I am a rape survivor. I was raped as an undergraduate and spent the rest of my undergraduate career trying to get justice for other victims at my school, with unfortunately little success.
I regularly work with programs designed for youths in STEM fields. This past summer I was again working with them and was one of only two female staff members in the whole program (and the only one who was a teacher). Because of the small number of female students and staff in general, I had to take a large amount of responsibility in the day-to-day life of the male students, often doing much more work than any of my male co-staff. The male co-staff would frequently try to mansplain delegating tasks to me (but whenever I did delegate one of my assumed tasks, they would do a half-job, and blame me for not doing my work, so I ended up having to correct whatever they did wrong in my job and make formal apologies for their mistakes).
There was one male student in particular who made many extremely uncomfortable advances to me. He would come near my room at night and wait outside of the room to be “surprised” when I came out to tell him to sleep. He would make gender-based jokes around me and would frequently make sexual comments towards me. I reported him no less than 5 times to the director of the program, since that could have been a very precarious situation for me, a young adult woman working with teenagers. To my knowledge, the director never once approached him about his inappropriate comments to me and they never stopped. The student began to make rape jokes which left me in a constant state of unsafeness for the duration of the summer — and no one except the one other female staff member ever said anything to this student, even when he behaved in an inappropriate way to me in public, in front of other students or staff members.
And of course, I was still blamed for not doing my job properly and ensuring he was getting enough sleep, getting to classes on time, and paying proper attention to his studies.
Grad School Interview
When I was trying to decide which grad school to attend, I was invited to visit a department in an Ivy League university. During the visit, I interviewed with a male faculty member whose research was related to what I was hoping to study. He spent about 5 minutes talking with me about the work in his lab, then called me over to sit next to him at his desk. He had a browser window open and was looking at a series of photo composites of young women who were supposed to represent the “average” faces of women from various countries. To be clear, this sort of thing wasn’t remotely related to his own work or anything I was planning to study. I had to sit there while he paged through and commented on the attractiveness of the women’s faces and their respective countries, until he finally decided that Ethiopian women were the most attractive to him. I wasn’t sure what to say or even how to bring the conversation back to research and why I was there. Eventually he handed me a lab t-shirt and sent me to interview with an emeritus male faculty member who argued with me and said that I was wrong about everything.
Well, even though I was accepted to that department, I ended up going to grad school at a better-ranked department elsewhere.
I have four children. My department chair regularly makes jokes that he hopes I’m not pregnant again. I wonder if working women will ever be allowed to make their family planning decisions as private as their male colleagues’ decisions.