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Deja Vu with a different ending October 28, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineerblogs.org, engineering, feminism, societal commentary.
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About 15 years ago, I snapped.

One of my most vivid memories of Caltech was sitting in the dining room at my house with a woman and three men.  The men were looking at the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and making commentary.  The woman asked them men to please stop and leave that stuff in their rooms.  They just ignored her and kept on.  After a few minutes, she asked them again.  Their response was that, if she didn’t like it, she should just leave.

Unfortunately, interactions of that type were a very frequent occurrence.  There were a number of men (undoubtedly a vocal minority) who would constantly make comments about the women around them.  They gave the impression that they were surrounded by hags, and several would talk about going to pick up the ‘hot’ women at other universities.

It really did make you feel like a piece of rotted meat.

At some point, I decided I was sick of it.  I wrote an editorial in the student newspaper where I discussed and condemned this behavior, something which I’m fairly sure everyone knew about.  I also said that the administration and faculty ought to do something about this behavior.  Apparently what set off my writing spree was a column by the dean which I interpreted as condoning the behavior.  (It didn’t explicitly, but I found the notion of ‘they will grow out of it’ frustrating, especially since I’d run into professors who still hadn’t grown out of it.)  Finally, I said that women shouldn’t always have to defend themselves against this behavior – the men ought to be helping, too.  In fact, I still believe that: this type of behavior doesn’t stop unless men make a point of explicitly rebuking the offenders.

After the editorial was published, I got a couple positive comments from people I knew, but most of the feedback was negative…especially the offline stuff.  In one case, I had a professor show up to my office and start telling me that all this was the women’s fault because they chose to live in co-ed dorms.  Needless to say, the whole episode didn’t end well.


A couple days ago, I came across the reddit comment that sparked my huge rant on engineerblogs.  And really, my first thought was that we can’t STILL be having this same conversation.  Why do guys have to look first, think later?  I’ve been listening to stupid-ass comments like this for almost 20 years now.  I’m very sick of it.

I wasn’t sure I should post my commentary on EngineerBlogs.  I really want it to be an enjoyable blog to read that can somehow stay above the fray.  After Fluxor’s post on women in engineering (and the ensuing reddit discussion) a while ago, I was fairly certain my post would just end in a lot of negativity.

On the other hand, EB is a pretty big soapbox.  If I wanted to make my point in a big way, that’s the place to do it.

Let’s face it, though – the situation seemed rather similar to that of 15 years ago, down to the way I decided to handle it.

I have to say that I was extremely surprised at the positive response I got.  Not only did people say it was perfectly acceptable to be upset over the comment, but the comments in support came from men.  Very direct comments basically letting the original poster know that this was unacceptable behavior.

Beyond that, the commenter owned up to his mistake.  He posted a very nice apology on the comment, and while it can be hard to tell over the intertubes…I’m pretty sure he meant it.

I’m taken aback by the situation.  From my perspective, the problem that exists is pretty much identical to the problem as it stood 15 years ago.  I also, without thinking about it, chose to deal with it in approximately the same way; instead of using a newspaper, however, I used a blog.  I do think that my response was more tempered…but not much.

Yet the response was completely different: the response I got from the readers at EB and even the original poster was what I would have liked to have seen 15 years ago.  It would have been fantastic if the powers that be took the stance that what was happening was unacceptable and started condemning the inappropriate behaviors.  I can’t imagine any of the people who were being offensive would have apologized for it.

I’m glad things have changed, although it’s hard to say whether the change is due to location, time (and possibly age), or the people with whom I associate.  Maybe it’s all three.  Regardless, this is definitely a better place to be.



1. Alexander - October 30, 2011

Ouch… I’m glad the reaction end of things was better this time, though it really sucks that the problem still exists :-/

This is kind of semi-off-topic, but the “Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue” incident led me to some thoughts I think I might as well mention. Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect those guys would just as likely ignore someone of their own gender making the same request. At least that’s how I’d imagine it going over were I to make that same request (which, for the record, I would). Basically I suspect them to be inconsiderate all-around, not just in gender matters.

In my life, I’ve noticed a strong correlation between the the people who are sexist and the people who are outright inconsiderate to everyone. It makes me wonder if perhaps the best approach to combating sexism might be combating inconsiderate mindsets in general.


mareserinitatis - October 31, 2011

You may be right. Growing up in North Dakota, I’ve grown accustomed to people being very polite in general. Even living in Minneapolis was rough because of how rude people felt. So I think I’m a bit more aware of it than some people.

That said, the people who did most of this stuff were jerks all around, in a lot of cases. It’s kind of like the advice you shouldn’t date someone if they aren’t nice to the waitress when you go out to dinner…it’s reflective of their personality in general.


2. Charles J Gervasi - October 31, 2011

This crap was a lot worse 15 years ago when I was at UF, and I get mad I didn’t speak up more at the time. Maybe society or the engineering world is really changing; I don’t know.

Outside the engineering world, I don’t see the next generation of boys following William getting their dolls. I’m not sure the cause. I blame the irrational and unscientific zeal for breastfeeding for part of it.

It’s hard for me to judge b/c I don’t know what the adult world was like 30 years ago; I saw it through the eyes of a child. I have heard people say of women (e.g. Sarah Palin) doing some demanding endeavor “why isn’t she home with her baby.” These are social liberals in Madison saying this. My understanding of why they say this is that we need to move away from products made by corporations (e.g. baby formula, “processed” foods, disposable diapers, disposable wipes, even medical assistance with the birth process) and move toward nature. In short, a woman’s place in the home. I actually agree with the skepticism of corporations and concern about baby products’ impact on the environment. But we need to think about the positive side of these products. I was able to get up with my baby, feed him, comfort him, and my wife was able to continue running her legal practice while I built my freelance engineering practice. The unintended consequence of giving up these conveniences would be me spending more time at work and my wife closing the practice to focus on the home. My perception is that 20 years ago everyone would have known that policy is sexist, but now people think it sounds like just what mother nature intended.

I’m glad we’ve moved forward in the engineering world. It feels like the woman’s-place-is-in-the-home sexism has gotten worse.


mareserinitatis - October 31, 2011

I think that, to some extent, it’s college, too. I noticed when I went back for my MS that a lot of the undergrads really had no clue how to behave around women. The guys I always ended up studying with were usually a bit older, mostly married. They had learned that women aren’t scary creatures to be drooled over from a distance. 🙂

I’d say that I run into a mix on the SAHM/working mom issue. I am told by working moms that I’m lucky to have as much time with my kids as I do (never had to miss those milestones), but I also know that SAHMs don’t like me because I have career ambitions. I really have no good answer, but it would be nice if society were a lot more willing to let people work part-time so that we could have the best of both worlds.


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