My professor told me that if I wore a dress to our class’s research symposium I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a researcher. I wore the most feminine dress I own to spite him, and I received first place. No one cared what I wore. They cared about the caliber of my research.
When I was an undergraduate working on a senior thesis, my male advisor once asked me to retrieve his keys from his front pants pocket and open his office door. I objected. He matter-of-factly replied, “You have too. My hands are full, I can’t do it.” I was still hesitant, he maintained that there was no other way. I think he had some reason why he couldn’t transfer his burden to me. The samples were too fragile, maybe. He was acting like it was no big deal and I was being unreasonable. I began to doubt myself. Maybe I’m making a big fuss over nothing. I reached in his pocket, so so carefully, oh my god so carefully, and got the keys.
That was 15 years ago and I am only now realizing how inappropriate his request was.
I left that field largely because male bad behavior was celebrated, i.e., cheating on wives, having multiple girlfriends, what happens in the field stays in the field, etc. This same advisor told me, “This is the real world and you need to get used to it.” Nope. No I do not. I left. He couldn’t believe it when I went to graduate school in a different subfield (incidentally, a more STEM-y one).
The Mathematics Department lounge was a meeting place for graduate students and faculty. It was normal to find people working on projects or eating lunch together. One day while working with a group of fellow graduate students, a group of professors came in and started eating lunch. This was very normal, at times their conversations were enlightening or amusing, but this day they proceeded to discuss their belief that females are not as naturally gifted in mathematics and talked about their students as examples. Listening to this conversation was both horrifying and demeaning. It made me realize no matter how well I did in class, my professors would never see me as being as good a mathematician as my male counter-parts. This was not a recent occurrence; it happened in 2006, but it had a large impact on my decision to leave graduate school with just my masters.
I was at a social event when a guy I just meet asked me what I did for a living. I said physics professor and he said that I was too pretty for that and must be lying. He spent the entire night asking me over and over again what I actually did.
At a women in physics event we were having cookies and coffee when a senior professor walked in the room and asked us when we were going to make him some cookies.
As an undergraduate physics student whenever I had the highest test score in the class the running joke was that I slept with the professor the night before. They would sometimes even draw pictures of me performing oral sex on the professor on the white board in the physics lounge. I was in the top 20% of my undergraduate class, I now have a PhD in physics and I never even considered sleeping with one of my professors.
While in a physics PhD program (less than 5 years ago) I was selected to be in a group of graduate students who took the prospective graduate students out on the town for a night. While walking to the bar, I heard the other 2 current graduate students betting on how many of the female prospective students would sleep with them.
From Postdoctoral Fellow:
During my first two years as an undergrad at a top tier research university, I worked in a prestigious lab where the PI treated me very well. The problem was that one of the techs, who was in his late 30’s or so at the time, sexually harassed me. I had worked in restaurants before (where sexual harassment is very prevalent and sadly, often it’s openly accepted) and had gotten through my time in those restaurants by putting my head down and pretending it wasn’t happening. So I attempted to do the same thing in the lab. Looking back on it, I’m horrified I didn’t realize that I had the power to report this to my PI as I’m sure he would have at least attempted to correct the situation. It’s easy to feel powerless and think that reporting something like that would cause more trouble than it’s worth, especially for a young person. After that lab moved to another institution, I joined another lab and have been through many labs since then. I have never experienced anything that blatant since then (partly I think it’s because I am very selective in the labs I join) and I went on to get my PhD, but I can imagine if I’d had to endure that experience a lot longer, it may have made me doubt my desire to stay in science, and sometimes I wonder if it affected my confidence, which I struggle with (and that causes problems in my scientific career). I also think I didn’t realize exactly how bad the situation was at the time. Years later, someone else who had been in that lab with me told me how he talked about me when I wasn’t around – it was much worse than I’d ever realized. I was completely horrified that behavior was tolerated in an otherwise wonderful lab environment.
From PhD level physics professor:
I was at a conference on increasing the number of women and minorities in physics and engineering. A number of high level people had to give talks about what their school was doing along these lines. One guy showed a graph of the percent women in various engineering programs (with some having less than 5%) and suggested the way to get women into other engineering was to put bio in front of the name…as in bioaero engineering, because really it is just the name of the major that is the problem.
The Deference Differential
I’m an associate professor and went to a dissertation committee meeting today for a male doctoral student. As I walked in with another of his committee members (a male) he greeted us both, me by my first name, the male faculty by “Dr. X.” It’s not because he knows me better or feels more comfortable with me—he works with the male faculty much more closely than me. I actually don’t know him that well at all.
I’m becoming increasingly annoyed at the deference differential I repeatedly observe between how male and female faculty are treated by students.
And note to grad students: don’t insult your committee members moments before you need their stamp of approval on your work. Just not a good move.