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Answering the sexism in STEM question September 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science, societal commentary.
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I’m not a big fan of career panels for women in science, at least for those in college and above.  However, panels of women in STEM careers for high school students and younger, I think, are important, primarily because they show young women that there are other women who are scientists and mathematicians and engineers, even if they do nothing else.  Being able to identify with a panelist because of sex/gender is going to go a long way to breaking down stereotypes.

I was involved in one such panel over the past weekend.  I was one of three women who has a career using math outside of being a mathematician, and we were talking to high school students about our careers in math-intensive fields.

I feel awkward when the question comes up (and it always does) about whether one encounters sexism as a woman in a STEM field.  I don’t want to say anything discouraging, nor do I want to lie.  I also get nervous, worrying that I may be the only one who has had to deal with it.  I was fortunate this weekend in that all three of us seemed to have a range of experience dealing with this, but we were all able to say that it was not the majority of the time.  Yes, we told them, you’re going to run into it, but it’s primarily a handful of individuals who are that way.  Most of the time, you’ll be treated as respectfully, as a colleague.  And unlike in the past, if you find you’re dealing with more of it than you want to, there are a lot more opportunities to find a career in greener, less sexist pastures.  We all agreed the situation had improved significantly in the past twenty years.

That being said, I would really like to stand in front of a group like that and say, no, it doesn’t matter and you won’t see it.  I suspect I will be waiting a long time, but I keep hoping.

The first week September 5, 2016

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I finished my first week teaching in my new institution, and I have to say it was very strange.

I started college at a small university, but it had twice as many graduate students as undergrads, and it was in the middle of a large metropolitan area.  While the campus wasn’t huge, it was relatively busy.  I finished my undergrad at a mid-size state school, but the department I was in was tiny.  I had very small upper-level classes but most of my generals were in very large classes, one even having about 500 students. For my MS, I switched to one of the largest departments, which was a jolt.  While my classes weren’t huge (15-20 per class in the grad program), there were a lot of people around and pace and flavor of the department was far less intimate.  There were people in the building nearly 24 hours. For the PhD, I was in a very large state university in a big city but in a small department.  Even so, my classes typically had at least 20 people in them.  At all of these places, it seemed like, at least during the school year, the pace was hectic and there were a lot of people always around.  I always felt like I was busy.

Now I’m in a new department (I’m one of two faculty) in a small liberal arts college in a small town.  The feel is completely different.  The classes are smaller, and the students always seem to be off at class.  The campus quad is usually quiet, unlike the last place (the really big university in the middle of city).  At the big school, people would eat lunch while listening to the Christian hippy-looking fellow standing on a ladder in front of the library, preaching fire and brimstone or playing inspirational music and singing slightly out of tune.  Other students would be playing frisbee or football.  Now I mostly see people walking from one building to the other (usually on the sidewalks!), with the occasional line coming out of the student center because everyone decided to grab lunch at the same time.

While I’m kind of surprised by the quietness, I am also enjoying the lack of everything feeling so hectic.  My colleagues generally seem to be laid back, the students are mostly pleasant and polite.  Everyone is getting things done, but no one seems to be running around all frantic and the campus doesn’t feel like a beehive.

Of course, it’s early in the semester; I’ll have to revisit this train of thought in December.

Brand new professor  August 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, teaching, Uncategorized.
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I finished my first week as a new professor. It was exhausting. I spent most of the week drinking from the firehose of information about my new institution. A colleague says every institution does the same thing to new faculty and he doesn’t understand why, but I think I do: it certainly creates empathy for the students. Going to college is at every bit as stressful as being a new faculty. 

The hardest part for me is just being around unfamiliar people all day. While my colleagues are almost entirely warm and welcoming, my introversion was severely stressed and I really needed down time in evening with no people. As much as I don’t like the commuting arrangement, I greatly appreciated the much-needed down time it afforded me.  I also was short on time for running (also good stress relief), so I tried to tell myself that the multiple flights of stairs I was taking daily to reach my office were an adequate substitute.

I finally met some students yesterday. Many of our students are athletes, and I saw an unexpected and very interesting side benefit to this: 2/3 of my advisees were minorities.  I am very excited by the possibility that there may be enough students that they won’t feel out of place. Unfortunately, there are no women, though I think we should start a SWE chapter anyway.

My final experience this week as a professor was with one of my advisees. We shook hands and, after he sat down, saw the hand sanitizer on my desk and asked to use some. I said feel free, but then became worried that I should be using some, too.

Returning to the land of the employed June 28, 2016

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I’m so excited! I finally have something to post about!  And it’s not just cat and dog pictures!  Or discussions about comic book characters!

I will be starting a new job in the fall as an engineering professor at a small liberal arts college.

I’ll be honest: no one is more surprised about this than me.  Until recently, I hadn’t ever thought about liberal arts colleges as a possible career choice.  Over the past couple of years, however, I’ve gotten the sense that I don’t fit well into a lot of research universities.  Despite a lot of places saying they wan’t people who do interdisciplinary research, it’s become pretty plain that they still want you to have all your degrees in one field.  Grant reviewers don’t like grants that are too far outside their expertise, either, which makes it hard to get funding.

All of that pushed me to start thinking about liberal arts colleges, particularly since I have a strong interest in education and pedagogy.  That ended up being a good decision.

The program is brand new, so I’ll be setting up some classes and labs from scratch.  While that’s daunting, it’s also exciting, especially because of the educational aspect.  Designing classes around a student-centered, hands-on approach is going to be easier (I hope) than trying to remake everything.  I hope my students will be okay being guinea pigs.  I’m certainly okay with getting to play with lab equipment.  The classes will initially be pretty small, but I don’t think they’ll ever get huge.  (I’ve been informed the largest classes at the school are around 50-60 students, and those aren’t common.)

The down side is that the school isn’t in town, so I’m in the process of finding a buying a new place to live.  It IS close enough that I’ll be able to come home frequently, but a little too far for a daily commute.  I am therefore also in the process of trying to teach the younger offspring how to cook…well, something other than mac and cheese or toast.

Anyway, the pace of life has definitely picked up, but that’s a good thing.

Post-doc season June 17, 2016

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It appears to be that time of year again.  My mailbox has been filling with CVs from people who want me to give them a post-doc.  Some of them are actually in electromagnetics, so it makes sense why they would contact me.  (Some…but not most.)

This year, however, I was contemplating handling it a bit differently than previous years.  Given I’m not currently employed, I can’t really offer them a post-doc.  (I also couldn’t when I was employed, either, but humor me.)  This year, therefore, I have contemplated writing them back to say I’m in the same boat they are and that they should let me know if they come across anything open.

I don’t imagine I’d hear back from them.

I also can’t imagine myself sending that particular email, either.  But it is funny to contemplate their possible reaction.

Octopi make better teachers June 9, 2016

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I was doing a presentation yesterday that involves drawing a diagram on the board.  It also involves holding equipment up at the board, so, since I’m not an octopus, it’s something that I need a couple people to help me with.  (Note to self: grow tentacles.)

I’ve done this particular activity before, but the space I had to work with was larger.  Yesterday, there was a permanent projector screen in the front of the room and a smaller whiteboard on the side rather than a very long white board with a pull-down screen like I was more used to dealing with.

In order to do the activity, I had to crowd in next to the white board along with two other people.  The small space was difficult to work in and some of the equipment wasn’t working as well as it should’ve because of how close everything was.  As we were constructing the diagram, we got to the point of the big reveal and one of the people helping me said, “No way!”

I laughed because her reaction was so awesome.  Then I realized that no one else could see what was going on because we were all blocking the board.

Doh!

Everyone was able to see it when we were finished, but I didn’t see the same reaction that the person helping me with the diagram gave, and that was a bit of a bummer.  I am hoping the attendees were still surprised by what they saw, but it felt a bit like that moment when you tell a joke and nobody gets it.

I guess this is one case where technology got in the way of teaching.  Or maybe it was my lack of tentacles.

Annoying parenting advice May 16, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in personal, societal commentary, younger son.
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A couple days ago, for some odd reason, I came across a LOT of parenting advice online.  The funny thing was, so much of it was contradictory.  Half of it was, “pay attention to your kids and have rules and structure,” and the other half was, “Let your kids make mistakes and learn from them.”

I have to laugh because I think the approach you use as a parent is probably somewhere between these two extremes…or maybe sometimes one extreme is appropriate and, at other times, you want to swing to the other extreme.  There is no ‘one size fits all’ style of parenting: our parenting has to be as unique as our kids and, as the adult, we need to be the ones who adapt to the situation.

Let’s take an example: my younger son was a climber.  Within about a week of learning to walk, he was climbing.  At 13 months, the kid could kick my ass at climbing anything, due in part to the fact that he hadn’t developed a healthy fear of heights, and I have an overdeveloped one.  I’m seriously in awe of his climbing skills, especially now that he’s gotten into a bit of rock climbing.  How much climbing I let him do when he was younger depended on where he was doing it.  If he was climbing on my exercise bike to sit down, I didn’t worry about it.  However, sometimes he liked to stand up and try climbing the handle bars.  In that situation, I would hover so that I could catch him if he fell, and if he got too high and/or unstable, I’d take him off and say he’d gone past his limit.  If he was climbing a very low rock wall at the local shopping mall with big pads underneath to cushion any falls, I’d sit back and do some reading.  If he was climbing the 8-foot wall and the playground surrounded by pea gravel, you better believe I was standing there so that I could catch him if he did lose his grip (which never happened, though there was once a bad incident with a trampoline).

Another thing I learned was to try to mute my own reactions to situations and watch the kids reactions when they got hurt.  I basically would ask if they were okay and then let them tell me how they felt about it.  Sometimes they would get up and dust themselves off while other times they would grab on to me and start sobbing.  If they were crying, I let them cry.  Maybe they weren’t physically hurt, but they will cry if they get very scared as a reaction to something bad happening, just like most adults do.  It’s perfectly okay for a kid to cry and ask a parent for reassurance in that situation: emotional hurts are just as real as physical ones.  Of course, you also need to get them to learn to talk, even if they are upset, and explain what’s wrong.  (If the event was particularly stressful, after things were done, I would need to take break and have a good cry myself just to get it out of my system.  Sometimes parents do it, too.)

I don’t believe in letting kids do things completely independently so that they can “learn from their mistakes.”  Sometimes kids DON’T learn from their mistakes, or the path they choose ends up resulting in just as bad an outcome.  I do think it’s reasonable to let them fail, though, and then let them know that if they’d like some ideas on how to handle it better, you’re always there for advice.  People in general are good at realizing they’ve made a mistake but they’re not always so good at figuring how to do better next time, and I think it’s unrealistic to expect kids to figure it out without a little guidance from people with a bit more life experience.  (Of course, they have to be open to hearing about that experience.)

The gist of this is that you have to do what works for you and your kid and there’s no “right way” to parent.  One tactic that works one time may not work another, and you’ve got to learn how much space to give your kids.  It’s a balancing act that takes practice, and you’re going to make mistakes yourself.  Any article that tells you that they’ve discovered the best way to deal with their kids is taking all the nuance out of parenting.

Older son, dream interpreter… April 28, 2016

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The older kid has strange dreams which he tells me about often.  I, on the other hand, usually don’t get enough sleep to remember my dreams, but I did this morning and decided to tell him about it.  Mostly, I was curious if it would weird him out.

In my dream, Jon Snow (from Game of Thrones) was walking around my yard with a metal detector.  I thought it was strange but he wasn’t hurting anyone, so I went to bed without calling the police.  However, I woke up the next morning and discovered he’d tried to break into the house.  I could tell this because the door knob, which was some sort of strange Buddha statue thing, had been chipped at with a chisel.

I told the older son that I was sure there was some deep inner meaning, but I wasn’t sure what it was.  Maybe my recent spate of bird watching had gone from watching grackles hunting for food in the yard to a ‘crow’ looking for treasure?

“I know,” he replied. “Watching too much Game of Thrones will chip away at your inner peace.”

I’m going to go with that.  Maybe it’s a good thing I have to wait a week between episodes.

Diversity statement woes April 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, feminism, science, teaching, work.
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One of the newer things I’ve seen in academic job postings is a request for a diversity statement.  If you haven’t seen them, it’s a statement addressing how you would address issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. I came across a request for one recently, and I have to admit that they make me cringe for a couple reasons.  On the surface, they make a lot of sense: obviously if you have a diverse student body, you want to make sure that you’re hiring someone who is aware of that and has communicated all they ways they are prepared to deal with it.

So why do they make me cringe?

First, I see a potential for abuse.  Academics tend to, on the whole, be a rather liberal lot, and one could easily see this as a screening mechanism to ensure that someone with a wildly different perspective doesn’t make it through the door.  While I personally find it frustrating that people have issues with marginalized groups (and FSM knows how much of this I’ve dealt with first hand), I still think this means that people with differing viewpoints will be weeded out.  I don’t see an easy answer to this, though.  As I said above, you don’t want to hire someone who refuses to work with these groups or who creates an asymmetric educational experience for them lest, as an institution, you end up on the receiving end of a discrimination lawsuit.  I’m just going to throw that out as a concern and leave it there.

My other concern, though, is more grounded in my background.  These requests are severely biased towards those in the humanities and soft sciences where many of them can use part of their course topics and research as evidence. If you’re in the hard sciences, that’s obviously not an option.  If you have access to resources to address this at all, it may be dependent on institutional support which may or may not be present. In the sciences, training for education/teaching at all is severely limited to begin with and what we do get has to be sought out through other departments in the university, if it’s even available.  Depending on the size of the institution, there may not be a women’s center or diversity office to provide information and training.

As I’ve been contemplating writing such a statement, it leaves me in an odd spot.  I could personally use some of my blogging about women in the sciences.  However, depending on who is reviewing the statement, I may also get dinged because this may be viewed critically rather than as an asset.  The same goes for membership in female-oriented professional societies such as IEEE Women in Engineering, Society of Women Engineers, or Association of Women Geoscientists.  Realistically, some people who review these statements will have a negative view of such participation and advocacy even while the statements are a required part of the application package.  Let’s be honest: not everyone sees the need to increase or address diversity in their departments, and being too much of an advocate could have negative repercussions during the selection process.

My personal feeling is that, in STEM, a lot of these issues are going to be limited to classroom accessibility and student mentoring.  I would prefer that universities could ask STEM faculty how inclusivity of these groups would be addressed as part of the teaching statement and omit requests for a diversity statement.

 

Sanders’ “sexist” behavior March 7, 2016

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I almost made a tweetstorm about this topic, but when you have to confine your thoughts to 140-character morsels, it kind of ruins the flow of ideas.

Apparently Bernie Sanders is sexist for asking Clinton to stop interrupting him during last night’s debate.  You won’t believe how hard I laughed at that notion.

Let’s start by looking at the other debates that have been going on.  Part of the reason that the GOP debates have been such a horrible mess is because the candidates constantly interrupt and talk over each other and then someone gets mad and starts shouting.  As many people have noted, these debates haven’t exactly been the high point of civility, and the behavior of interrupting and talking over other candidates is exactly some of the problem.  I am taking the tack, therefore, that interrupting is rude.

Let me restate that.  Interrupting is RUDE.

This is something that, as a woman, has made me absolutely insane.  I have had a couple male colleagues in the past who would not let me finish my sentences.  I don’t think they’re doing it because they’re sexist (although one of them certainly is).  It’s something they often do to men, as well.  I think that interrupting is just a jerk thing to do because you’re telling the other person that you don’t care what they have to say and that whatever is going on in your head is more important than whatever idea the other person is trying to get across.

When dealing with one colleague, I’ve seriously had to bite my tongue.  I had fantasies of offering to bring in the younger son to demonstrate to him how to have a respectful conversation.  Failing that, though, I’ve also fantasized about telling him simply, “Wait your turn! I’m talking!”  I spent a lot of time wondering how to say it so that it wasn’t perceived that I was being rude…despite the fact he was being rude to begin with.

I see a lot of this dynamic when teaching, as well.  I had one individual student who would sit and talk with his friends in the back of the class, often to the point of being loud enough that nearby students couldn’t hear.  As the teacher, though, there was a bit a power dynamic I could use, so the student and his buddies were told to move to the front row of desks in the classroom where they would sit for the rest of the semester.  I told the students that I liked them which is why I moved them to the front of the class instead of just kicking them out altogether.  Was that rude?  Perhaps, but so is disrupting the class and, as the teacher, I need to maintain at least a minimal level of authority and dominance in the classroom.

If you look at interrupting in the big picture, there’s a dynamic in the workplace where men are more likely to interrupt than women are.  This is because men’s communication style tends toward using conversation to express dominance and women tend to use other styles more geared towards making connections.

On stage, Clinton was adopting, very appropriately for politics, a male style of communication where she was attempting to use discussion as a way to maintain dominance.  It’s a way to mow down Sanders’ ideas and make her own dominant.  In politics, like in many professional areas, women have to learn to adopt this communication style in order for their male colleagues to take them seriously.  Sanders did the thing that so many women have a hard time with but need to learn to do.  He essentially said, “Stop talking. Stop interrupting.  I was speaking. Wait your turn.”  It wasn’t sexist: it was a way to prevent himself from being mowed over.

The problem is that, like Sanders, women who assert that they won’t have their ideas mowed over are often seen as rude and pushy.  The consequences for drawing  your conversational line in the sand can be pretty severe, especially if you’re a woman.  If the roles were reversed, Sanders would have been seen as sexist for interrupting and not letting Clinton speak.  Clinton would have been doing the right thing to tell him to stop interrupting.  If it had been two men, it would’ve been shrugged off.

My take away from this is that the conversation dynamic between Clinton and Sanders shows Clinton and Sanders see each other as equals.  Clinton attempted to dominate the conversation (the way many men do) and Sanders wasn’t going to play the subordinate.  If you really want to make something sexist out of this, maybe more women need to learn to follow both of their examples, and more men need to not freak out when it happens.

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