Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How's that whole "woman-in-a-male-dominated-field" working out for you?

Update: now with a shiny new tag:

I'm sure many women in science/engineering get asked this, quite often, by near-strangers, and here is why I think it should stop:

#1: "How many girls are there in your program?"

People I don't even know that well have no problem polling me on my gender experience and, in particular, asking me how many males and females there are in my program/department/classes. You realize that, normally, whenever I am in a social situation I keep a careful running tabulation of the male and female population in the room as I sit there basking in my utter Woman Specialness, but often in these conversations, the figures somehow slip my mind.

In the first place, what exactly do they plan to do with this information? Congratulate me on continuing to go to class despite still having girl parts? (see #2) Ask me how I can possibly cope with the plethora of penises in the department? (see #3) It's especially potent when I bother to count up and come out with "Oh there's six girls and three guys in my class right now." or "Actually, most of my adviser's have been female." The turnaround in gender blows people's mind.

In the second place, such a question implies that it is an instrinsic part of my job to perpetually monitor the status of Teh Wimmin. I forget where I remember reading this, but it has been pointed out that women much more than men are expected to serve on committee's, contribute to studies, etc. etc.. Perhaps this is because of the stereotype that we have a natural bent towards community service, but I also sometimes get the sense that I owe it to Womanhood to go to the "women's lunch" in my department or serve on committees* that carefully monitor how many males and females we accept each year - i.e., "you are here because of these committees, so don't go do your research or study, come sit and pontificate with us" (there's shades of "you got in because you're a girl" in there as well, which is a post for another day!)

In short, it is my job to monitor these things because I am a woman. The Boyfriend (TB) has never been asked about the gender ratio in his engineering class. Ever. He is a white male, and thus the standard normal engineer. Not only is gender ratio not his personal problem, there is an assumption that he should never even need to CARE.

*these committees are fantastic and have been extremely useful throughout the years, and I am quite grateful to anyone who has served on them. However, I am not prodded to serve on professional committees or admissions committees with nearly the same frequency.

#2: "Good for you for being a woman in science!"

Why thank you. That's why I went into this field, after all. Of course, this comment is usually quite friendly and well-intentioned, so whenever I hear it there's this combined wriggle of pride and squirm of discomfort ("go me!"). But I don't WANT to be a "woman" in science, or a "woman" scientist, I want to be a scientist. Nice as this comment usually is, it nevertheless reduces the recipient to being first a foremost a gender, to being an exception or a special case. And again, it's promoting the idea that gender really matters - that all of my troubles and struggles in academia doubtlessly spring from being a woman (see #4).

#3: "Isn't it hard being surrounded by so many men?"

There's a lot of issues to get into here (a la "Women will vote for Hillary because they're women!"), but at its heart I mostly find this discouraging to men. My most valuable mentor and role model in my field is an older male from the hardcore "Old Boys' Club" era. I admire his scientific accomplishments, his integrity, his personal accomplishments, his family life (he and his wife are both in the same field at the same institution and are raising a family), everything about him. Yet this question implies that his presence as a male makes my work more difficult - or, worse, implies that he'd be more of an asset to the field if he were only female.

I've gotten a definite, if relatively small, dose of sexism in my field, but I have also met many scientists, many of them male, who are wonderfully encouraging, who have been my advocates and teachers and mentors. This question implies that they are detrimental to my success just by BEING there; or that being around men is Scary. Of course, this isn't entirely wrong - being the only twenty-two-year-old female in a room of backslapping guys in their fifties is never exactly comfortable, and a lot has been written on how social dynamics can shift when there is one male, one female, or a fifty-fifty split present...but to be blunt, I think a lot of the solutions in these cases can be boiled down to "get over it". The hoarde of fifty-year-old men may be scary (and some of them may indeed be assholes), but buck up and pipe up - they might even hear you! Plenty of younger guys are intimidated by the older men in their field as well (and, thinking of particular examples in my department, by the older women!); intidimation is a key aspect of academic interaction, and it shouldn't be seen as merely a gendered problem.

#4: Finally, the implication that, to me, is really at the heart of the issue - the idea that my troubles in academia probably come from nothing more than an excess of males. At the moment, I am becoming disillusioned with academia (well, less enamored with it, anyway) on many levels, none of which have anything to do with my gender. I do not like the lack of choice I am being faced with in my future - I want to have some control over where I eventually live, who I eventually live with (issues of the two-body problem are, again, a totally seperate post), what I choose to do with my time away from my job, etc. Bitch, Ph.D. often puts it well by pointing out that "we are not brains on sticks". Academia does not treat PEOPLE, male or female, particularly well in some areas, and this often drives us away.

What bugs me is that, if I decide in five or eight or ten years that I am through with academia and decide to quit in pursuit of happiness in another career, I will not only be "a failure", I will be "a woman failure", yet another statistic of how women either aren't cut out for academia or how academia is particularly hostile towards women, when in reality the issues I have the most difficulty with are not gender-specific at all. And as long as the problems of academia are narrowed and cast as "women's problems", they will not ever be earnestly addressed and remedied by the scientific community as a whole.

(I've just now discovered Am I a woman scientist? so from the title alone I suspect I might just be repeating what others have said but hey - hopefully there's something fresh in here!)

(this post just sprang out of news of the upcoming Nameless Carnival; in retrospect, maybe I should have saved it, but I need to not have this be another two-post-and-then-it-died blog!)


Amelie said...

yes, this "woman failure" thing is really annoying. Because of course if I leave it is because I am female, not because there could be any other issues with academia. Thanks for writing all this up!

Amy said...

I have to confess, I often ask women how many women are on their course. I try to use it to guess at how women friendly their department/colleges/universities are. Consistently smaller than average groups hit warnings off in my head. (For example, I would never apply to my college if I got to do it over again. In a year group that is roughly 60-40 year after year my college takes, on average, 1 girl 10 boys. Just by coincidence. Every year...

I don't ask the boys. Because I haven't yet met one who accurately knew the answer. ie. they look at a class that is 10% female, and say it's half and half.

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